Colorado is past Peak Cyclocross, and why it doesn’t matter

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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…
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

 

 

The GoPro Games 2015

Photo by Linda Guerrette
Photo by Linda Guerrette

The rain washed quickly up the valley. From the east, clouds lowered until the Gore Range was no longer visible above Vail. The Aspens lining the course began to shake as the rain fell, and everyone retreated to the safety of the lodge. The GoPro games wasn’t looking promising. The rain had come in about half an hour before the start of our race. Sad faces abounded. The pine clad mountain dirt would soak in the moisture well though, leaving the perfect course for the race

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To my disappointment, the rain eased.  I wanted a mud race. Racers emerged onto the start line. Crowds appeared too. The GoPro games attracts 50,000 people to Vail over the weekend, with many people watching a bike race for the first time. Perhaps it was a good thing the rain let up. I lined up second row. I tried to squeeze onto the front row, but got shut down by Steve Tilford – a ex-pro who REALLY wanted to stand next to Todd Wells. With such a steep sustained climb on each lap, I wasn’t too worried, and when he missed his pedal on the start line I managed to get around him and start racing. The lap was seven miles long; a very steep dirt road climb from the base area gained us just over 1000 feet, followed by a sustained swoopy descent in the Aspens with lots of man-made turns and jumps, and then a series of four smaller climbs – each gaining about 100 feet in elevation to finish you off entirely. Three laps.

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I started cautiously. Knowing the pace would be set by Howard Grotts – all 120 pounds of him – I didn’t think it sensible to follow. I settled into about 16-18th place, trying to settle to nerves from riding far back. It paid off though, and I quickly started passing people without getting out of the saddle. Legs were burning, and I started to regret running the 36t chainring… a couple of extra gears would have been really nice on the opening climb. By the top of the first climb I’d settled into a group with Ben Sonntag and Mitch Hoke. We cruised into the descent to find muddy roots and slick turns. I was in heaven. Everything was unpredictable. I had my foot out in most of the berms, remembering what it’s like when neither of your tyres are doing what you tell them too.

Unfortunately by lap two the sun had come out enough that the mud was gone, but in its place was tacky dirt. Ripping fast mistake-proof dirt. With no more advantage to be gained going down, the race returned to its pure climbing focus. By lap three I was hurting, but with no one around I rode on at my own pace, trying to make myself hurt with the vain hope that someone might make a mistake up ahead. I didn’t gain on anyone, but I didn’t crack either. I finished in 7th place. two places better than last year in a similar field.
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It’s been a while since I’ve started and finished a race without hope of winning. It sounds a little defeatist, but as I step up a little in competition I’m going to have to play races smarter, rather than just suffering from the gun. Howard Grotts and Keagan Swenson are both true World class talents, and they also have the hard-earned benefit of being full time. With only Alex Grant in front of me having a job (he’s got a baby too – I really have no excuses), I have to work a little bit harder to get the results I’m looking for. As I approach Missoula, I know I’m climbing well, descending well and have my head in a good place. Lining up at the back of the field (Yay UCI points) is going to be a big mental battle for me, but I think I have the strength to move up well and not let it get the better of me.

 


Planning is now turning to the later season races. July 4th in Breckenridge for the Firecracker 50, July 11th in Boston for the Boston Rebellion ProXCT, and then July 25th in Wisconsin for the WORS cup ProXCT. Excited to travel to some new places!

The Iron Horse Classic

The memorial day weekend pilgrimage to Durango has become part of my summer. A reason to get to Durango is always needed; the town is just too far from everything else to make the trip on a whim. Coming to race mountain bikes provides the perfect excuses to travel this far, and having a friendly family to stay at makes in all the better – Katie O’Blocks parent’s put us up once again, making it way nicer than staying in a motel.

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Not the Firebird

The Firebird 40 was scheduled to happen on Sunday, but typical early season Colorado weather moved in over the weekend and made the course unrideable. British people regularly chuckle at American MTB races getting cancelled due to rain, but the weather and trail systems work a little different over here. A lot of the trails are actually on public property, so the idea of riding them in less than ideal conditions is not actually possible. Secondly, the mud over here is often very clay like – making it impossible to make progress due to your bike getting clogged up. Hence – no race in Eagle on Sunday. I was a little disappointed, as the pre-rides had shown the course was fantastic, and with 8000 feet of climbing, it would have been a challenge.

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Devil’s Backbone trail: Remembering how to Mountain Bike

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I got my new bike from Boulder Cyclesport in the middle of February. The earliest I’ve ever got a new bike. It was great. But there was also a problem. There weren’t any trails (within a six-hour drive) dry, and I wasn’t about to destroy a brand new bike in Colorado’s special blend of snowy-sand-slush. So I had to wait. Social Meedja has been filled with friends either training in Tuscon, or preparing to race the US Cups in California. Sun-filled, tan-lined photos have flashed up before me as I’ve been riding on the road or skiing. But patience is a virtue, especially when our MTB season extends from the beginning of March until the end of September. I have time.

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With that mindset, I headed north to Loveland, Colorado with Bryan. Not exactly known as a mountain bike mecca, Loveland has exactly one trail, but it’s a beauty. The Devil’s Backbone trail is about 5 miles long, and ridden as an out and back. The trailhead was packed, and we could see an ant-like procession wandering up the strip of dirt away from the car park. I was worried we had picked the wrong spring Saturday for our trail time. We hit the dirt and friend-passed as many people as possible. A friend-pass is where you are disgustingly polite and smiley to every person you meet, no matter how oblivious they are to your presence. It’s annoying, but it’s about the only way mountain bikes are tolerated on multi-use trails on the Front Range.

Soon, we’d reached the half-mile threshold, and the hikers disappeared. It’s a known fact that traveling more than half a mile from a trailhead is the easiest way to avoid crowds. From here on, Bryan and I had the trail almost entirely to ourselves. Enough so that we could stop and session multiple sections of trail without anyone passing us. The trail climbs quickly onto a ridge-line, the main reason most of the hikers don’t make it that far. From there, jagged sandstone ridges cross the trail, creating a series of step ups and step down that are super tricky. It’s a great way to test some new equipment, re-learn things that should be second memory, and generally have a good time. We did all of those things. The middle, empty section of trail allowed us to pick up some speed and find the proverbial flow. It was needed. From rusty half-movements leading to dabs and rock scraps, I ended the day confident that I would be back at it soon enough.

An escape to the desert

Colorado: the Rocky Mountains slice the state in half. The east is a never ending expanse of grassland rolling for hundreds of miles towards Kansas: an unknown land not explored by most who live on the Front Range. To the west of the Rockies, the high desert sprawls in sharp red sandstone mesas towards Utah. The Colorado river cuts a clean line through the arid countryside and forms a playground in the sand. That was our destination. We were in Edwards for the week – in the middle of the mountains. It cut the drive to Fruita in half. It would have been rude to not take advantage of a quick trip to the trails. Two hours from dumping snow at Vail to ripping dry trails in the desert.

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The Last Ride

The weather in Colorado is anything but ambiguous. More so than most places 40 degrees from the equator, Colorado swings wildly from summer to autumn to winter, marked by huge weather ‘events’ (as the Americans like to call storms). Summer ended a long time ago – the weather bringing about the Golden transformation of the hills that I wrtie about so often. Then we entered November – a normally cold, dry month in Boulder. But the temperature didn’t dip. The weather held. We held our breaths. Riding trails that are normally buried under the white stuff already. Finally word came that the storms were building. The internet buzzed with record breaking temperature changes. We braced for the end of the mountain bike season. After racing on Saturday, we headed into the hills one last time. The unambiguous forecast for the next day told us snow was coming; the cold was coming. This would be it. No exceptions.
DSC02493We were in short sleeves from the get go. The wind was still, the sun exercising it’s legs for the last time.

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The top is always a subjective place: you can go as high as you like in Colorado. Today’s ‘top’ was just over 9000 feet (about 2700 metres). From it’s sandstone ledge, we could look southeast towards the great expanse of Denver and it’s sinuous suburbs. Boulder (perhaps itself a suburb) was just hidden in the lee of the foothills. We could see the prescribed burn happening at Heil ranch; the foresters making the most of the impending cold to burn off some old growth with a safety net of weather to enclose the flames.
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What rides down must find it’s way up. Not all the trails on the front range are amazing. Often, the well built and flowing trails are interspersed with flood damaged scree slopes. the fragile top soil scoured off to leave just a scree slope of rocks to climb up. Making a good loop involves finding the most fun way down, and sometimes that means taking the direct route to the top. It’s always worth it.

 

 

 

Mount Powell – 13,580 ft / 4,139 m

Mt Powell is the highest peak in the Gore Range at 4139 metres above sea level. We chose Powell for a reason. It’s central. The Gore Range is tucked quietly into the middle of Colorado’s adventure playground. On the east is Summit County, and to the southwest is Vail. Busy places. Yet the Gore are hidden. They lack the magical 14er, and thus their difficult access keeps them quiet.

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The Grand Junction Offroad

The last big race of Mountain Bike season! The Epic Rides team did a great job of attracting talent to the race; there were ‘only’ thirty guys signed up. But it was thirty guys who thought they could win. It meant that a compact group of riders rolled out of downtown Grand Junction on Sunday morning, each one with an idea of getting into the lead group and challenging for some cash on the line.

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