Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Gateway Drug

There has been a lot of talk lately about "growth" in cyclocross. And a few dust ups over what that growth should look like. We had one fairly "epic" twitter fight that somehow awakened the Kraken of a parody account with Adam Myerson right in its cross hairs. Still not sure what that was all about but that is the double edged sword of the Internet. Yeah for open forums! As the dust settled I began to have some thoughts on the state of  the sport of cyclocross in the US. Smartly, and out of self preservation, I kept these to myself and let those with a dog in the fight to scrap it out over the next couple of days. The "Nationals in January" fight escalated quickly and seemed to be one that just would not die. But if I learned anything from that last twitter fight sometimes raising a ruckus in the water can attract sharks. And I just can't take another twitter fight. So I have just sort of kept my thoughts to myself. Then a friend posed the question if I thought CX was helping Mtn biking grow. My answer to whether I thought mtn biking and mtn bike racing specifically was growing because of CX was a resounding "YES"

In my opinion CX is having a positive influence on the increase in people racing mtn bikes and buying mtn bikes. But why is this happening. Should I start from the beginning for those who weren't around mtn biking in the mid-90s when mtn bikers were rock stars? Or do you want me to start with the present? For this fireside chat on the cusp of the Thanksgiving let's start with the present. Suffice it to say for our purposes those reading this are dedicated cross racers. Is that fairly accurate? Ok so let's take a team like my team. HUP United in New England. We are by definition a CX racing team. That is our purpose. And our obsession. But what drew us to CX in the first place has made our eyes wander a bit. We all love riding in the woods and playing in the dirt. With the advent of 29ers a "mtn bike" ends up being very similar to our cross bike. Only with bigger tires and disc brakes. Oh wait CX bikes have disc brakes don't they? See the more we try to differentiate between the two the sillier it sounds. When Mike Zanconato built me my first 29er he basically told me it would ride like my CX bike. But with big tires, flat bars and suspension. I love that bike. It is fast and can blast over just about anything. It is fun. And a lot like my cross bike. Only as, Colin, once said riding a 29er in the woods is like having an eraser, while a cx bike is a pencil. I have learned that lesson the hard way. Many times.

Ok this isn't really explaining the why or what of my argument is it? Let's look at some of the facts. Mtn bikers started CX in the US. Bold statement. But if you want to point to the first influx of europeans and european cross racers coming to the US it is true. Tom Ritchey brought the euros to the US and was the first one to start this cross pollination. Thomas Frischknecht is one of the greatest bike racers of our time. He was a world class CX racer who Ritchey converted to a world class mtn bike racer. He pretty much was the poster boy of the european invasion of mtn biking in the '90s. He and a whole legion of euros took the sport over. And what started as an American sport is now owned by the euros in large part to Frishi. So initially you have a heavy mtn bike influence on US CX. At that time mtn biking was the dominant sport. CX was tiny, unorganized, and really just an offseason affair that was done for fun. But this european influence brought over by mtn bikers began to take hold. When I moved west I didn't ride a bike.

I started mtn biking to rehab a broken leg. I got hooked. Mtn biking in the Bay Area is incredible. Long story short I spent some time with the Ritchey crew. I was lucky to be able to call a bunch of them my friends. I travelled to Seattle with the team the year Shari Kain won Cx Nationals. And on those sand dunes I fell in love with CX. Mtn biking brought me to CX and I loved it. CX was still a fun offseason deal. I met probably the first dedicated crosser I had met up to this point. His name was Pineapple Bob. He is a legend. He was so passionate about CX and worked for what I deemed the coolest bike company at that time, Bridgestone. So many of the things he said to me then still influences how I think about cycling. He lived and breathed cycling. One of my favorite P-BOB lines was love it and leave it alone. At the time mtn biking was heavily influencing cross racing. Bob wanted the races to be more euro. Traditional style courses. Love Cross, and Leave it Alone.

So early on mtn biking brought me to cx. But mtn biking was so much fun. Its hard to compare 45 minutes of hell with 3 hours on a mountain in the Sierras. I am sorry you just can't. Even here in New England mtn biking beats CX hands down. You just can't compare the two. Now this is going to get some people's skinsuits in a bunch. But hold on just a minute. I am not done. So you have mtn biking influencing CX at an early stage. Then mtn biking as we know it goes the way of the dinosaurs. I still blame USAC for its early demise. The Mammoth Mountain World Cup was like nothing you have ever seen. 10 times bigger than any CX race you have ever attended. Sea Otter Classic was the same way. And then BOOM. Done. Its how things go. Its one of my fears with CX. If you try to always build something up and put on a big show it can put a HUGE burden on all involved. Industry, race teams, promoters. So that was then and this is now. If you are fairly new to CX you probably either came over from the road side which has had a huge influence on CX over the last decade or started racing CX as your primary discipline. Coming from the road or being new to CX the appeal is easy to understand. 

• Cross is only 30-45 minutes long. 

• The bike is pretty simple and affordable. The bike can also serve as your winter bike, commuter and race bike. A do everything bike if you will

• The environment around a cross race is fun. Cross racing done correctly is never fun. Ok the competition may be but to do well you have to suffer. A lot. 

• Cross is fun. I said this before but its worth repeating. Before USAC got all up in our grill about handing up cupcakes you would go to a race and people would be freaking out and cheering for all the riders and some nutjob in a gorilla suit would hand you a mini-cupcake. How can you not laugh at that? Look at the photos that popularize magazines and blogs. It depicts cross as fun. Spectators and fans going nuts. You don't get that in mtn bike or road racing. After the race is over most races have food trucks or team tents. You can hang out and have a beer and watch the rest of the days racing. Or just hang out with your friends and talk story. Again try that with road racing. I actually dare you

• Women and men are pretty much equal in CX. Ok not totally but promoters, racers and participants almost all agree in parity. All the races I am involved with pay out equal money to men and women. My team's primary goal was and is to welcome women and foster growth. Cross racers are a funny crew. You don't get that type A testosterone crazed lunatic that you see (fairly or unfairly) depicted in road racing. Most women I know feel comfortable at a cross race. And around cross as a sport on the whole. 

• Cross is a sport of the people. Its all of our sport not just some elite 1%. Cross always has had a sort of offbeat flavor and I think it has been cultivated over the years. Even at the biggest races of the year you still bump into all your weird (cool) friends

• So many options. Cross has a ton of options. You can race your age, category or now more and more singlespeed. It is a very welcoming sport. You can do a highly competitive race with 140 racers in your field one day and a small grassroots race with 30 racers in your field that same weekend

Ok so that maybe outlines in broad strokes of why cross has become so popular. But what does this have to do with mtn biking? A fair amount of cross racers are mtn bike racers and riders. They are promoters as well. In New England the most popular promoter in this area is a rabid mtn biker. His influence has filtered over to a lot of people. It didn't hurt mtn biking's growth that one of the most popular CX race promoters then put on a mtn bike race. Sure that race may have been a kick in the teeth to lots of racers but you know what? When a cross racer races a mountain bike race they actually do it in a safe and fun manner. Cross racers are used to getting off their bikes. When they see something they "can't" ride up they get off and run. They aren't afraid to get off and run down something either. This is a pretty good survival skill racing mtn bikes in New England. Sure you might get heckled a bit but as Tom Ritchey once told me the ONLY thing that matters racing mtn bikes (or cross bikes) is who is fastest from point A to B. And that is the truth.

Blue Hills Cycling Club put on one of the most fun mtn bike races of the summer. And they are putting on a summer training series this summer. A road team (basically) getting more into mtn biking. How does that happen? Cross. Road racers try cross, cross is fun. Road racing is not. They try and make road racing like cross but you can't. Road racers are not going to hang around after a race and drink beer. Do they even drink beer? How can you stay that skinny drinking beer? You can't actually. 

Which brings up another great point. Mtn bikers don't care if you are skinny. Or fit. Or shaved. Or hairy. They are just happy to see you. Seriously. When you go to a mtn bike race the first thing you notice is how nice everyone is. NOONEISFREAKINGOUT. That is sort of refreshing. 

So once a cross racers tries mtn biking they get hooked. Basically you are doing a 1.5-2 hour cross race, in the woods with really cool people. Its wayyy less dangerous than a road race. Or even road riding for that matter. I would say in the last year or two half of my team has taken up mtn bike racing. For the women its almost 100%. There are a few hold outs but most all of them have bought new bikes and have been racing. What is funny is that while mtn bike racing can be frustrating and painful its rewards can be off the charts. 

Back to the beginning and I will wrap up this ramble. What is interesting to me and what triggered this whole "growth" argument/discussion is that some mtn bikers were complaining about racing deep into Winter. They need a break. No doubt. And mtn bikers by nature just aren't that serious. US CX has a million problems. Racing on an international level isn't one of them. Perhaps its the "mission statement of USAC" Great. How did that work with Lance and road racing? The drive to compete on an international playing field resulted in one of the darkest periods in US Cycling's history. Just about killed the sport. Whether CX Nationals in January is irrelevant to me. That cycling is healthy, that people ride and race bikes is important to me. It will be interesting to see how both mtn biking and CX grow in the next decade. I think they are much natural partners than road and CX ever were but that is just my opinion. And you know what I am all about. I am basically just a dirty singlespeeder...


  1. Hi,
    I think I disagree with you for the road racing. I like MTB, cx and road but I have no interest to pay to race a MTB at this point. I think there is some camaraderie, mutual respect and friendship that you can gain by racing on the road. They don't hangout because it is hard to see the race but if you have the minimum social skills, then you can get the same interactions. I love road and I wish you will not discourage the women to try it. Yes cx was better with these handups and when nobody were bringing their trainers, heated tents and stress due to the position start-result, tire pressure but maybe it is part of growth. I think you don't like the pro aspect of road but cx is getting there (with all UCI races and big team) and the more pro MTB scene is probably comparable (I went to a MTB world cup). Grassroots is always better than pro is my opinion.

  2. Hey Nancy, thank you for commenting! I would never discourage anyone from road racing or doing anything they love and enjoy. This was just my experience and view of how CX and mtn bike racing have seemed to build and grow over the last 20 years. Road racing will always be a big part of CX. That really is why CX was created to give road racers a winter activity to stay fit and have some fun

  3. Hi,
    thanks for replying to my comment. From my brief experience from racing on the road with the men's master field at Hilltown and at the hillclimb race, I did not notice any bad behaviors and the men were friendly. And racers were getting free beers coupon at the beer tent at the Mayor cup (pleasant surprise). Maybe road learned something from cx.