It’s official: we’re past peak cyclocross in Colorado. The hype has faded. The crowds have diminished. But it doesn’t matter one little bit.
As I drove into Valmont Bike Park on Sunday for the US Open of Cyclocross, I was prepared for the normal scrum. Cars parked everywhere, the parking attendant’s voice drowned under the sounds of cow bells from the 5280 stairs. But that didn’t happen. I cruised into the car park and stopped in one of a dozen empty spots. The crowds were thin, the course tape fluttering in the wind without even a hardened supporter to hold it back. What happened? The truth is that Colorado is over the hyperbole that accompanied the arrival of the National Championships in January 2014. The amatuer and elite fields have diminished in size. Even the junior fields have suffered.
Last week, the best race promoter in the state hung up his hat. Tim Lynch had run the Cross of the North for six years, bringing together challenging (and novel) courses, prize payouts, DJ’s, and a prime middle-of-the-season date. But even this wasn’t enough to stave off the inevitable. Racer numbers declined from 1250 to 1000 this year. That might not seem like a huge change, but in a business where margins are slim and prize purses have to be declared ahead of time to get the pro’s to turn out, it makes a big difference.
Why is this trend happening? I’ll list a few reasons that should piss off most people in some regard or another.
- High School MTB racing: It’s taking off. Over a 1000 racers on a regular basis. These young racers don’t drive to events by themselves, though; they have willing parents in tow for the weekend. This is alongside coaches and vendors who are all tapping into the huge success of the format. In a state where volunteer power and sponsoring companies are finite, it’s obvious that these events will be pulling people from master’s fields, juniors fields, and the expo arena. This is no bad thing. I’m a huge advocate of high school racing. If it’s bringing kids from outside of the sport into racing, it will be a benefit for everyone. Unlike traditional club racing, where even juniors have to know someone who’s into cycling if they’re going to start competing, High School racing has the ability to spread into a wider population of teens. This can only be a great thing.
- Reliance on a finite number of racers. There’s a vocal group of people that blame Boulder for races failing. The argument is this: “Boulder won’t drive more than 15 minutes to race. It’s their fault that races fail”. I’d like to reverse this argument and suggest that relying on people driving to a race when there is a local alternative is not a sound business model. Bike races are a little bit like coffee shops: if there’s one closer and the coffee is halfway decent, you’re not going to drive past it. There are great examples of races doing really well outside of the bubble. Take a look at what raceco.org are doing with the summer Race the MAC series in Castle Rock. Big turnout, friendly vibes, and few Boulderites to ruin the party. What about the Back to Basics series in Golden? Sustainable and friendly, and a business model that doesn’t rely on Boulder to fuel the fun. Perhaps a small start and a focus on attracting more cyclists from their home community will lead to a great event. Then people from Boulder might pay attention in years to come…
- Staleness of the courses. I’m not talking venues here, but the courses themselves. After a few years of racing, is it too much to ask that the promoter head back out and dream up another way to string the course tape? We have some great parks on the front range, but a little imagination would go a long way. Once a venue like Interlocken or Flatirons is established as a great place to race bikes, a fresh course can only be a good thing. If for no other reason than marketing: if “BRAND NEW COURSE” isn’t a way to attract racers, I don’t know what is. side note: CX of the north has had a new course multiple times, and it’s still seeing dwindling numbers, hence why this point only got to number three on the list.
- Specialization. People are pretty serious about cross these days. It’s no longer about beer swilling and staying fit for the “real” race season in the summer. Rather than racing twice in a weekend for two months straight, people are focusing on peaking and doing well at select events. This drives down participation. This may also be the reason why the strength of fields hasn’t fallen even as the field size has: it’s harder than ever to get in the top 10 of any category, even if it’s easier than ever to make 20th.
But this doesn’t matter. Although the number of racers has diminished, it’s still huge. Bigger than 5 years ago. The hardcore will keep racing, events will adapt to cater for that number of people, and the huge number of people who have tried cyclocross in the last couple years are unlikely to disappear totally. They’ve been immersed in the culture, and whether it’s an MTB race or just a bikepacking trip they try next, they’re still on bikes. Or simply ensure their children will race high school events and stay in the community. And that’s a good thing.
So go race your bike. Give it your all. Throw in a mountain bike ride on the occasional Sunday, and worry not about the health of the sport. It will be just fine.