In the thick air of an unseasonably warm autumn day, the country’s top cyclocross teams stream into Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park for the Charm City Cross race weekend. Among the colorful team vans and pop-up tents arranged near the edge of the park’s central meadow, one area of the paddock catches the eye. The lime green paint of Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com is hard to miss.
Inside the team’s trailer stands owner and general manager, Stu Thorne. Thorne has worked for years on the presentation and execution of his team’s race-day service course. A buttoned-up appearance attracts fans, makes sponsors happy, and allows room to comfortably house the greatest cyclocross team in the U.S. Thorne firmly believes it also leads to the greatest performances.
No American cyclocross team has garnered top results quite like Thorne’s squad. In its 10-plus-year history, Thorne’s riders have claimed 19 national championships, four U.S. Grand Prix of Cyclocross championships, and two Pan-Am championships.
And Thorne’s longevity has come amid a tempestuous marketplace for cyclocross team sponsorship. While other outfits sponsored by manufacturers — Kona, Rapha-Focus, Raleigh, to name just a few — have come and gone, Thorne’s team has outlasted them all. And it continues to prosper. Thorne has survived, and created a dynasty.
His team is, in fact, Cannondale’s longest-running external-sponsored program. Internal to the brand, its factory mountain bike team is only six months older.
“I’m still into it,” Thorne told VeloNews when asked how he has been able to keep his team thriving for so long. “The benefit of this program is that it’s always had me to be at the head for 10 years.”
While his response may sound arrogant, the 56-year-old is as humble and hardworking as they come. He crafts the budget, negotiates rider contracts, oversees the team’s logistics, and even works the pits. He is synonymous with the team. The example he sets is transferred to every rider that has ever raced for him, from Tim Johnson to Stephen Hyde, Lyne Bessette to Kaitie Keough.
“Everyone who has ever ridden on the team has seen the kind of drive he has to put the best foot forward, either for the team or to help an athlete do so,” Johnson says. “It really is unique. I don’t see that from a lot of people. There’s no one that thinks about what comes next in ’cross more than him.”
This is the story of how one man helped build an empire of ’cross.
The Formula 1 team of cyclocross
Thorne grew up racing motorcycles and became a mechanic after his competitive ambitions waned. He wrenched for the professional team of Dale Quarterly in the 1980s and observed the nuances of running a team. He learned to appreciate a methodical environment, where everything from tools to racing schedules were meticulously organized.
During his motorcycle days, Thorne also dabbled in mountain biking, and eventually bought into a bike shop. He attended the 1995 world mountain bike championships in Germany as a fan of the sport. One racer caught his eye: An 18-year-old named Tim Johnson was there to compete in the junior race. Soon after each returned from Europe, the two met at Thorne’s shop. That’s when Thorne introduced Johnson to cyclocross.
Johnson quickly grew to love the new off-road discipline, and by 1999, he had become the top U23 rider in the country. He finished third at U23 worlds in Czechoslovakia, the same year American Matt Kelly won gold in the junior race. Thorne served as USA Cycling’s head mechanic, and had a front-row seat for the American growth in the sport.
“All of a sudden, the future of our sport in the U.S. is changing,” Johnson says. “We were firmly situated at the beginning of this new renaissance of American cyclocross at that point.”
Thorne saw a business opportunity and started his own online cyclocross retail shop, called Cyclocrossworld.com, out of his house in 1999. That same year he also launched a small ’cross team, riding Ridley bikes. For the next few years, Thorne operated the squad, traveling to Super Cups with his wife and elite racer, Emily, and Johnson, among others. At the same time, he continued to work with Johnson as the rising star made a push further into road racing.
By 2006, Johnson raced on the road for the Cannondale-sponsored HealthNet squad. That summer the bike brand approached Johnson to race cyclocross aboard their new bike. He did so in the now infamous nine-ball skinsuit, paying homage to the CAAD9 model he rode.
In 2008, Thorne and Johnson merged their racing teams: The Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com team was born, with Johnson, Bessette, and Jeremy Powers on its roster.
Thorne brought his eye for detail and motorsports-inspired professionalism to the program. He was influenced not by the top European cyclocross programs, but instead by motorsports teams he followed.
“I always wanted to be the Formula 1 team of cyclocross,” Thorne says. “I wanted it to be professional, successful, and I strove to do the best we could and represent our sponsors well. That’s still the goal every day.”
The Cannondale dynasty
At the 2001 national cyclocross championships in Baltimore, Maryland, Johnson flatted while leading the race. Todd Wells passed him and won his first title, while Johnson, the defending champion, came in second.
It was a blow to both Johnson and Thorne, who were always laser-focused on their equipment. Due to sponsorship obligations, however, Johnson had to run clincher tires that day, unlike the previous year when he won his first national title in the snow aboard Dugast tubulars.
After the race, Thorne hatched a plan to eliminate the issue in the future: He melded the supple Dugast casing with the iconic tread of the Michelin Mud tire. It was his first of many innovations.
Thorne says he is constantly thinking about cyclocross, whether it’s bike tech, an innovation inside the trailer that will make the work environment better or job easier, or streamlining travel logistics to help his riders stay relaxed. He is detail driven, he says because he strongly believes that’s the root of his success.
“It’s those little things that lend immensely to their results and to their mindset every weekend,” Thorne says. “It’s not, ‘Oh, cool, I like the look of that tent, I’ll buy one of those.’ It’s about getting the best tent to provide our mechanics with the most comfortable space, which keeps them happy, and thus, provides them with a work environment that produces good quality work.”
Team mechanic Gary Wolff says Thorne’s eye for talent also drives his success. Thorne attracts the sport’s top riders, which, in turn, makes other great riders strive to race for his team.
“It’s the same with the sponsors,” Wolfe says. “You run a tight ship and a good-looking program, and everyone wants to be there.”
The team budget has grown to roughly a half-million dollars a year, according to Thorne. That budget supports the elite team, mechanics, and a development team, under the umbrella of Thorne’s WP Sports management business.
Throughout its history, the team has benefitted from fruitful partnerships, with companies like SRAM, Zipp, and, of course, Cannondale, which enters its 11th year as the title sponsor. While other strong programs have risen up during this time, none has lasted as long. In many cases, they have fallen by the wayside, while Thorne and his team power ahead.
“It’s easy to remain with a program that’s been so successful for so long — winning cures all ills, if you will,” says Jonathan Geran, Cannondale’s global director of sports marketing. “Stu’s always done that. Any time we have a conversation with Stu, it’s a true collaboration, a true partnership. Those are hard to find in sponsorship relationships. But Stu’s just the consummate professional. He makes it easy.”
For Geran and Cannondale, that means being able to have a voice in what the program looks like, which riders it selects, and which other brand partners it works with. That, in turn, has created great trust between team and sponsor.
The Connecticut-headquartered bicycle company works closely with Thorne to continuously improve upon its fleet of cyclocross bikes. It is a critical aspect of the partnership, according to David Devine, Cannondale’s road brand manager.
During the first four years of the relationship, Thorne was a Cannondale dealer as well as the team owner. The objectives weren’t just to make faster race bikes, but to improve upon consumer experiences by making bikes that were easier to service and more reliable.
Now, Thorne has three layers of assistance for product development. First, there’s Johnson, who provides valuable feedback to the development team. Elite riders also provide input. Finally, there is the development squad, which Devine says is talented but closer in ability to the average end user. Everyone’s feedback plays a vital role in what Cannondale creates next.
What has Cannondale received in return for its continued investment in the team? It’s a difficult question to answer, but one that Geran says comes down to a passion for growing the sport more so than selling bikes.
“If you remember the  cyclocross nationals event in Hartford, the atmosphere was electric,” Gerans says. “It was true ’cross racing, and you’re building legions of true ’cross fans at that type of event. Being associated with a program like Stu’s helps build our fanbase not only for the SuperX, but for all categories of Cannondale bikes across the line. It builds fans for the brand.”
Cannondale’s investment has grown over the years as the program expanded and the riders became more successful. And that partnership will not abate any time soon. The brand already has a three- to five-year plan to collaborate with Thorne and the team on the next generation SuperX, aligning with the rolling development timeline of the model. And now, because riders like Keough are dabbling in gravel racing — she won Dirty Kanza 200 — and Hyde in mountain bike racing, the formula for how much the company is willing to invest has changed again, Geran says.
From one generation of riders to the next, Cannondale’s support is not tied to a particular star, but rather to the program as a whole. It comes down to the respect and faith Geran and Devine have in Thorne.
“By investing in the team we’re investing in Stu and his recruitment abilities,” Devine says. “He’s got a really unique perspective on how and where to find new riders. You’re investing in Stu and he’s building the program around himself.”
Which means the dynasty, and the fruitful relationship between team and brand, will continue into the foreseeable future.
Attracting talent, and developing it as well
Just as difficult as taking a team to the top of the heap — if not more so — is staying there.
Several years ago, Thorne made the decision to begin recruiting younger riders. As he puts it, there weren’t that many icons left. So he brought in Stephen Hyde and Curtis White who were, at the time, both up and coming riders. Now, Hyde is a two-time national champion.
Today, Thorne is happy where the team is at. White is only 23; Keough is 26; and Hyde is 30. The team recently signed Spencer Petrov, 21, another rising talent that moves over from the now-defunct Aspire Racing team of Jeremy Powers. Still, the search never ends.
“We’re always looking out for up and coming riders,” Thorne says. “There aren’t a lot of teams that are our size, so we’re a bit of a magnet for people to see what their options are. We have that luxury. Not only am I watching that kid, but that kid is also maybe going to come to me. It’s an honor to have someone think of us like that.”
One such rider was Emma White, Curtis White’s younger sister. She spent five years racing at the regional level on the development team, after beginning to race in elementary school. She then graduated to the elite team in 2016. For her, joining the team was a dream come true.
“It’s always been ‘I want to be on Cannondale.’ Tim Johnson was always the guy I wanted autographs from when I was younger … and Ryan [Trebon], and Kaitie [Keough]. And Lyne Bessette was always huge for me,” White says. “It’s always been that tent that I would creep around when I was a young kid wanting them to see me.”
Emma White ended her stint with the team after winning the U23 national title in Reno in January. She will now focus on the track discipline in hopes of making the 2020 Olympic team.
The lower, but no less important, tier of this dynasty is its development team, which has graduated several marquee names to the elite ranks, including White, Crystal Anthony, and Maghalie Rochette. The current seven-member team is run by Chandler Delinks, who scouts talented youngsters from around the country.
The support they receive includes kits, bikes (built up just like the elite members, just not as many), wheels — all top-shelf stuff. At races, they can utilize space, staff, and equipment to prepare for the race. They arrive at the team’s paddock in the morning, get their tire pressure checked, and roll to the line, just like their heroes. They can also pick the brain of someone like Hyde. That’s one way to continue ’cross dominance.
“I think our development program is on par with some of the pro teams that are out there, short of maybe paying some travel expenses,” Thorne says. “But it’s not about that. I want to see these kids get the help they need to prove themselves and get some results.”
Methodical, incessant focus on details
With the level of support Thorne is able to provide his riders, it’s hard to believe anyone would ever want to leave the program. However, over the years, several prominent names have done just that, including Jamey Driscoll (Pivot-Stan’s No-Tubes) — who left because he got a better offer elsewhere, according to Thorne — and most notably Powers (Fuji-Pactimo), who spent several seasons with Thorne before striking out on his own.
“He was an up-and-coming rider at the time and was looking to create a name for himself,” Thorne says. “The situation we had on the team at the time probably wasn’t going to allow him to branch out and be that guy. It was an amicable split, and he went on and got a great deal. It really helped him establish his brand. At Rapha-Focus he was the star.”
The situation Thorne hints at was, of course, the fact that Johnson was the team’s other marquee rider. Would Powers ever be able to surpass his teammate and become the star? Powers chose not to stick around to find out. He branched out with Rapha-Focus before launching his own team, Aspire Racing. That team ended last season, yet the influence that Thorne had over Powers’s career path is not lost on the Connecticut-born racer.
“He’s got a lot of my respect,” Powers says. “In those first years it wasn’t easy, but I learned some things with him. I absolutely think that Stu is an icon of owning a professional team. I based a lot of what I did to build my [Aspire Racing] program over the years by learning from Tim and Stu.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Kaitie Keough, entering her eighth season with Cannondale, exemplifies the team’s evolution and incremental progression toward excellence.
In 2009, the 17-year-old was driving around the U.S. in a minivan racing cyclocross for the Planet Bike team. She was young and having fun. While she gathered some impressive results for her age, admittedly she wasn’t concerned with what would come next. It was just jump on the bike and go.
It’s no longer that way. In the past seven seasons with the Cannondale team, and especially over the past year, Keough has become meticulous about the details, especially her bike setup. It’s a result of working closely with several influential people, including husband and coach Luke Keough. Of course, Thorne’s influence is also palpable.
“As I’ve gotten a little older and started to compete at a higher level — everyone is fast; everyone trains really hard — you need to start paying attention to those little extra details,” Keough says. “Those are the one or two extra percent over someone else.”
From what Thorne calls her “deer-in-headlights days” until today — Keough finished second overall in the UCI World Cup last season — the Wisconsin native’s progression and accomplishments make Thorne the proudest. The philosophies of team manager and racer have become one: Success lies in the methodical, incessant focus on details.
“It’s relatively easy to get to a certain level,” Thorne says. “To get that last little bit, though, to become a national championship winning team, now you’re talking about tiny, tiny increments. That’s where we’re at, getting those last few tenths of percentage points.”
Ask Thorne if he sees the full picture of what he’s built, and he remains humble. No, he’ll tell you, he just looks at it from year to year. Sure, there are times when he’ll reflect on how long he’s been doing it, but it never sits on the top of his mind. He simply focuses on the product and the process: dialing in the details, making sponsors happy, getting results. Repeat.
“Stu is the power that helps harness all of these qualities about the team,” Devine says. “But none of it is about Stu. That’s the most honest and humble part of it all: Stu is a ‘rising tides floats all boats’ type person. He’s not there to build his personal dynasty, he’s there to help grow American cyclocross.”
He’s also there to have some fun. Thorne does that best by leading his crew: From working the pits, washing bikes, to chatting with racers from other teams about their programs or next races, taking lap times, and packing up the trailer at the end of a long weekend. Thorne remains at the sharp end of cyclocross because he still can’t get enough of it.
“It’s still fun, and I’ve always said if it stops being fun or I can’t make any money at it then I’m probably going to walk away,” Thorne says. “But right now, that day hasn’t come — and I don’t see it coming.”