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.

 

 

Old Man Winter – Version 2

Wake up. Coffee first. Always. It’s normally tea, but it’s coffee today. Race day. It’s been a while. The routine is still there, but a little fuzzy. A season off from cross racing means that my race morning routine is askew. My kit bag isn’t a kit bag any more. It’s been cleaned. Thankfully. The empty packets of carborocket, safety pins and single dirty socks have been removed. I go through the process. Walking around the house in no particular order until I seem to have all the things I might need. What do I even need for today?

It’s not a normal race, Old Man Winter. It’s different. When else will I be racing for three hours in sub zero weather? I put in all the clothes I’d ride in, then some extras. I won’t wear them all but something forbids me from leaving the house under-prepared. I still forget my heart rate strap.

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The start line is a cold place. Josh Kravetz, Race Director, tells us how pumped he is that we’re racing. We chatter our teeth in approval. Thickly gloved hands produce a muffled applause for last year’s winner Bryan Alders. I went with the decision to wear most of the clothes. Thick skullcap, neck gaiter, and thick gloves. I ditched the shoe covers, perhaps a foolhardy decision considering the temperature. With a two-mile run in the middle of the race, I couldn’t stand the thought of all that snow building up on the bottoms of my shoes.

We speed down the highway behind a blacked out Police dodge charger. The discussion in the pack centres around whether the driver has ever motorpaced a cyclist before. We continue to stick our tyres as close to the rear spoiler as we can. The sharp right turn onto dirt happens just like last year; tapping of brakes, short bursts of acceleration, and then the real race is underway. No horses this year, thankfully.

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Just like last year, a couple people went to the front to burn some energy and get out the pack. I stayed put, enjoying brief 10-15 second conversations with an array of people I only see at races. There were all kinds of people up there: Mountain Bikers, Roadies, people with beards. The race got going for real when we meandered our way off the flat dirt roads that eastern Boulder County is known for, and up Lefthand Canyon. There were some interesting differences from last year. Gone was the pack racing mentality on smooth tarmac. In its place a narrow and rough dirt road that had been ripped up by road construction, and a mandatory single file rule. I wasn’t impressed when I read that rule, thinking it would be impossible to enforce. I was wrong. The pack spread out and the pace quickened. Gaps opened and splits formed; we were definitely single file.

Rowena is the undoubted crux of Old Man Winter. The two-mile trail is completely shaded, sitting on the north facing side of the canyon. Last year, the snow had been packed hard into a mainly rideable tread. This year was different. A big storm dumped over a foot on the trail the week before the race, and the surface was soft. Too soft to ride, no matter the bike. Muscle memory kicked in and I shouldered my bike smoothly and took some strides into the snow. In a cross race, the absurdity of running with a bike on your shoulder is so short lived that it’s bearable. Not so here. After 5 minutes my shoulder hurt. After 10 minutes the continuous plunging of my feet into the icy snow felt like shards of glass cutting into my legs. After 15 minutes it was all numb. A glimmer of red dirt breaking through the snow had us all leaping onto the bikes. Michael Burleigh, just ahead of me, leapt through my bottle cage, rendering it useless. On the plus side, it made shouldering the bike far easier for the rest of the run.

Never have I been happier to get back on my cross bike that at the top of the trail. We formed a lead group of six. The pace down Sunshine Canyon was intense. I was on Brandon Dwight’s borrowed Focus Mares, with the brakes American style, so I didn’t have too much confidence coming into the turns at 40 mph. I let others do the danger work and I held on for dear life.

The 2015 playbook repeated itself on Linden. Sepp Kuss danced his way up Linden, but this time he towed Burleigh with him. Bryan Alders, Yannick Eckmann and I formed a heavy legged “chase” group. Chase wasn’t really the word though, as none of us made an effort to bridge the gap on the climb. Descending Bow Mountain was a hilariously good time; the road was packed and icy, making the perfect luge run for cross bikes. Foot out, rear brake on and grinning from ear to ear. Sepp crashed somewhere on the downhill, so we ended up getting onto Olde Stage pretty close together. My tactical error of the day happened here: I should have dug deep early on the climb to close the gap to Sepp and Burleigh, but I paced myself, thinking it best not to go too deep, and knowing that any gaps formed here wouldn’t last to Lyons. I was wrong.

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I gapped Yannick and Bryan, but didn’t catch on to the leaders. The no-mans land was short lived when Yannick caught me on the descent, and we worked together to start pulling the leaders back. We could see them ahead of us, no more than 30 seconds up and probably less. The idea of drafting was hilarious: is it better to sit behind someone and get a continuous shower of just-thawed mud gravy, or ride in front and burn some energy? Either way, we worked well together, and soon had Sepp in our sights. Burleigh, on the other hand had attacked and gone solo off the front. It’s unfortunate that he lost his Garmin before the finish, as I’d love to know where and how he turned our 30-second deficit into over two minutes at the finish. Despite Yannick pushing me down Nelson road (I was spun out in the 42t chainring), and having Sepp join our rotation, we were powerless to pull the gap back in. We came into Lyons as a trio. I went to the back of the group, and then pre-emptively crossed the road, trying to get a jump through the awkward zigzag turn that Bryan bested me on last year. I managed to pull perhaps 5 metres ahead, but it wasn’t enough, and Yannick just came around me on the line, turning 2nd into 3rd in an instant.

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Burleigh had time to compose himself before we even finished, doubling the sting of being beaten so handedly. The combined fatigue of the run and the ride in such cold weather hollowed me from the inside, and I was soon too cold to contemplate being outside any more. I stepped gently to the car. The kind of walk where you can’t feel your legs. I stripped fully naked in the car park, before putting on every assortment of clothes left in the car. Including Christa’s down jacket and scarf.
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What a day to be a bike racer. The unpredictability of the race is indescribable. Every race has unknowns, but the Old Man Winter takes it to a new level. You could do the same course with the same people every February for 10 years and come away with a different race each time. I knew it last year, but it’s confirmed now: Boulder has a new classic that will be on the calendar for a long time to come.

The first weekend of Cyclocross season

Boulder hosts a weekend of National standard cyclocross racing every year. The two events are the only time we have a full compliment of pro riders in town to race against, so it’s a great opportunity for me to test myself against the best. This year the races were scheduled early in the season. I was tempted to skip them; it would have fit with my plans after MTB season, and give me time to prepare for the rest of the season. But the opportunity was too good to miss, so I registered anyway and prepared to suffer race.

Continue reading The first weekend of Cyclocross season

December on the Front Range

The icy cold had been burning into my nostrils on each breathe, sucking out the moisture and replacing it with the desire to stop breathing all together. The outside was telling me to go home and stop. Shut up, stop pedalling, stop exploring the mountains around Boulder. I listened. The winter snap that pushed arctic air across the Front Range of Colorado also signalled the freezing of my racing season. By the middle of December I was done with riding bikes. I had other cables plugged into my attention – drawing current away from riding and towards work, England, and rest. I’ve been on the ‘gas’ since the middle of July, when I stepped up my training from ‘seriously disorganised’ to ‘seriously serious’. I had followed every letter in the small print emails; to my surprise, training hadn’t sucked the love out of my lifeblood. I always ride hard and suffer on the bike. Instead of being restrictive, knowing how and when to train opened up a freedom for me to enjoy riding a little more. Every pedal stroke had a purpose greater than could be expressed wihtin that one ride. My exploring and freedoms to ride didn’t change. They were simply enhanced. It paid off, and I got faster. At least, I felt faster; in a game as mentally dominated as cyclocross that is equally important. For me, knowing how long the batteries had been charging for was enough to line up and race confidently all autumn.
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Continue reading December on the Front Range

Remotivating

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I had a bit of bad luck racing cyclocross in November, and it was the wake up call I needed to get back into cross after collegiate nationals. I raced down in Broomfield at Interlocken, and got a little over zealous in a corner, ending up sliding along the grass with my foot still clipped in to my bike. I twisted my ankle enough for some immediate swelling and some hobbling around. It didn’t put me off aiming for redemption in Longmont the day after though. I was going great (again), managing to set the pace and ride a lot of people out of the lead group. That all ended when I shredded my tyre on a metal edging on the course, and came to an abrupt stop. It was the end to a frustrating weekend of racing, but it put a couple things in perspective.

Continue reading Remotivating