Cyclo-cross is booming in the United States. Over a seven year period, from 2005 to 2011, the number of cross racers more than tripled while the number of sanctioned events more doubled according to USA Cycling; the number of cyclo-cross racers (number of racers actually reported to have participated or taken a start in cyclo-cross events) grew from 31,828 to 97,954 strong while during the same period, the number of sanctioned events increased from 237 to 507.
Micah Rice, Vice President of National Events at USA Cycling, sees multiple factors that led the growth all over the country. One reason is road racers and mountain bikers looking to do something different in their off-season. “Instead of the old school method of just 'hey go ride 100 miles every day at slow pace', people are getting beyond that, they interested in doing some stuff that really raises heart rate and cyclo-cross was the immediate fix for that and people started getting into it.”
Also cyclo-cross is a great gateway into cycling. The 20- to 30-minute race time is not daunting for either beginners or for parents searching for an activity for their children. “I think a lot of people (think) well I can anything for 30 minutes, I might not want to jump into a two hour road race, we can do tins 30 minutes, it sounds like fun.”
“I think you've got a lot of race directors who are getting into it and being very successful at it, bringing in the party aspect to the sport. It's pretty inexpensive for the most part to put on a cyclo-cross race, you usually can get the use of a country park or even a city park, and it's all right there, you usually don't have any police costs, you don't have to ask the DOT for use of the road so in terms of the costs to the race director, I think it's pretty reasonable.” Micah added, “It has brought a lot of really quality race directors into that side of the sport. And so, because of that I think the number of races have increased extremely well on that side of it.”
The fun, the easy access, the training benefits, the simplicity of it are all factors that led to the growth of cyclo-cross. “We are bringing in new people through the sport of cyclo-cross, you're looking at a lot of people who raced bikes for a long time that are now deciding to pick a cyclo-cross bike.”
Unsurprisingly, the biggest number of cross racers are from a road background given that road is the biggest part of the USA Cycling membership.
Rice doesn't see the growth plateauing any time soon. “I do think that it will continue to grow, I think it will continue to bring in new cyclists, I think we'll continue to see mountain bikers and road cyclists continue to cross over.” he said. “We're doing everything that we can to get our tools to the race directors and to push the discipline forwards.”
Pushing the discipline forwards came into play when awarding the next three Cyclo-cross National Championships, USA Cycling selected Boulder, Colorado, Austin, Texas and Asheville, North Carolina to host its 2014, 2015 and 2016 Cyclo-cross National Championships respectively.
"It was interesting because we chose different places for different reasons.” Rice commented. “Boulder has a very strong cyclo-cross community. They have a very strong cycling community, the entire town will get excited about it, they've got a dedicated cyclo-cross course at Valmont Park and it was easy decision to make to give a cyclo-cross national championship to that city because they have a lot going for them, we have a lot of local interest to really fuel that event.”
Though Texas doesn't have that many cross racers, they do have a very strong mountain biking community. “They have a really good mountain bike series, a lot of road riders and they've got a really strong local organization that deals with a lot of the road cycling but they don't have that many cyclo-cross racers. But, Austin is a cycling friendly town and we put it in downtown Austin, I think that we're going to create some interest, we're going to have a lot of spectators, I think that we're going to be able to grow cyclo-cross in the state of Texas.”
Rice reported that the number of racers at Texas events “exploded” after the announcement that Austin would be a cyclo-cross championship venue.
But does the growth of racers and events translate into American racers being more competitive at the highest level?
“Absolutely, That comes from a number of things.” Rice replied. “The interest in UCI races and being able to gain a lot of UCI points stateside instead of having to travel, just the fact that there is more media that surrounds the sport of cycling allows more sponsors to be interested in entering that arena, and you're finding people that can just specialized in that discipline specifically.”
There is a lot of talk of American-style racing, with its own culture and course features. That begs the question, should events in the United States try to replicate the European model? The success of cross is linked to the inclusiveness nature of the events, all categories racing on the same course, fans cheering all riders, heckling – all done with its own flair in different regions all over the country. On the other hand, successful racers are product of their environment, and if the top American racers want to be at the highest level in World Cup which are all held in Europe, they have to be skilled and experienced on the Euro-type courses and conditions.
Rice agreed that the question is a tough one. “As we all know, what works in Europe does not work in the United States often and vice versa. We've seen that in road biking and mountain biking as well of course.”
Which is why the 2013 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships - held for the first time outside of Europe - will be quite interesting. “I know that it's a focus of a lot of riders, whether it be Katie (Compton) or Jeremy, (Powers) or whoever, they're very focused on Louisville and that is for a very good reason because Louisville is going to be a real American course. It's built similar to other large American events.” added Rice who compared it to last year's Worlds course at Koksijde, with all the sand that demands completely different skills that only riders who had raced and trained for years on the same course. That was evident in 2012 when the Belgian claimed the top seven spots in the Elite Men's race.
“The fact that we'll have the world championships will benefit America because our riders are used to these types of race courses and not necessarily used to the types of courses that are in Europe.”
“Should we try to do what Europe is doing?” Rice continued. “On some side of the things, I think we are trying to do some of our courses similar to what an international race will be just so our elite racers are better at international competition and I think that is important from an international competition side of things. But a lot of the sponsors, a lot of the things going on in the United States are not just about the elite racers.”
That brings us back to the participatory nature of cross events in the United States. The sport is both growing from the top with the elite riders and grassroots.
“It's good to look up to the elite racers and kind of have them the role model type thing.” Rice continued. He went on by illustrating an example using a masters racer. “But there's no way around the fact that 40-year old woman is excited about cyclo-cross and it's not necessarily because she wants to see if Jeremy Powers is going to podium at the World Championships. She's excited about it because it's fun, it gives her good exercise, it's something that she can look forwards to and have a good time with her friends and family, and that's the grassroots side of things. I guess arguments can be made for both, I think the elite riders need to see the European-style courses but I don't necessarily think American racing needs to mimic European racing at all times.”
All signs point to cyclo-cross continuing to flourish in the United States. We'll know in one week if the Americans can also flourish at the 2013 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships, with homecourt advantage at Louisville 2013.