Cross/road: Which way forward for young American riders?

by Mark Zalewski


Last weekend, under-23 cyclocross racing made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

It’s important to remember that Femke van den Driessche’s hidden motor at the world cyclocross championships in Zolder, Belgium, was an exception. For the overwhelming majority of junior and under-23 racers, cyclocross is both a passion, and, possibly, a springboard into a career in bicycle racing.

That’s certainly true for the United States, which has a stable of young men and women poised to make an impact. Among them are Ellen Noble, sixth in the under-23 women’s championship; Gage Hecht, who finished 12th in the junior race; and Logan Owen, who finished 13th in the under-23 men’s race.

At the elite level, Kaitie Antonneau was the highest-placed rider in Zolder, with a career-best eighth place at worlds. Twelve-time national champion Katie Compton finished outside of the top 10, while no elite man finished in the top 20.

Antonneau, Compton, and Powers all finished in the top 10 at World Cup events this season, and as a nation, the U.S. is ranked fourth among elite men, and second among elite women.

Cyclocross is one of the fastest growing cycling disciplines in the States, and the recent cyclocross season was not the first time American youth has showed potential for racing at the highest level in Europe. Yet very few have made early success translate into consistent success.

So why, outside of a couple of medals, has the youth potential of American cyclocross not translated into the senior ranks? And will that finally change with the current class of talented young Americans?

Curtis White (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) struggled with crashes while Tobin Ortenblad (California Giant) rode a smooth race to take the national U23 men's title.
Curtis White (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) struggled with crashes while Tobin Ortenblad (California Giant) rode a smooth race to take the national U23 men’s title. Photo by Wil Matthews.

Cyclocross is hard

Looking over past results of U.S. national junior and U23 cyclocross championships, there are many familiar of today — Powers, Trebon, Johnson — but there are some other familiar names among them, such as Brent Bookwalter, Alex Howes, Peter Stetina, and Tejay van Garderen.

There are many good reasons why they any of them chose road over ‘cross. At the time, the discipline was just beginning to get traction in North America, and the options for earning a living as a pro racer were exponentially greater and more lucrative in road racing.

Also, attempting to compete at both disciplines with success is nearly impossible. None of the current top cyclocross racers in the world also race at a high level on the road.

Zdenek Stybar and Marianne Vos have done both with great success, but they are exceptional — and Stybar was eventually forced to choose the road.

Four-time U.S. national champion Jeremy Powers raced a road program for many years along with ‘cross, but eventually conceded that he needed to focus in order to be competitive.

Beyond the extreme anaerobic strain, the logistics and infrastructure needed to race at the top level is costly for any team or individual racer. Add in the fact that “the show” is in Europe, and costs for American racers are ten-fold compared to their European counterparts.

What has changed over the past decade is that there are more professional cyclocross team opportunities in North America, a change that has the potential to help young racers bridge the gap to the elite level.

Stu Thorne, owner and manager of the successful Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com team, has seen it firsthand, running a team that supports both elite and development racers.

“Cyclocross is a great entry point into racing of any kind for younger riders,” said Thorne. “It’s fun, the camaraderie is really good, and there is a decent support structure. But then the kids who do really well, every road team manager takes notice and says ‘that’s going to be the next star.’ It’s an alluring thing for any kid who has hopes to be on a WorldTour team.”

“It’s a hard point in time in your life. Maybe you’ve been doing it a few years as a junior and then you want to get on a bigger team, but those teams focus on the elite riders. It’s a gamble for a team, and some might [sign a younger rider] in hopes they can have them be at the top by the time they graduate out of U23. It’s a tough age in general — there’s school, you are becoming a man or woman — then you throw in a whole season of racing.”

Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com rider Curtis White, 21, finished second at the U23 national championship in January. He sees the difficulty ahead as he ages out of the espoir ranks.

“Trying to make the bridge to the pro ranks is going to be tough,” he said. “I was fortunate to be picked up out of juniors and into the U23s by Cannondale-Cylocrossworld.com. It was a big shock coming from starting front row as a junior, and then you go to Gloucester and you’re called up 98th.”

White said that there is an increase in opportunities to race cyclocross professionally in North America, but the pull to race on the road is still there; he will race an abbreviated road season with the Rally Cycling pro team.

“There have been a lot of riders who went over to Europe as a junior with ‘cross, and then switched over to road,” White said. “There is that pull, but I don’t see that for myself. I do like racing the road, but I don’t see myself ever not racing cyclocross. I’m fortunate to have a program that understands my commitment to ‘cross, and I’m not raced too heavily there. Even with a financial pull, I don’t think I would give it up. Cyclocross is my first love, and I can’t see that changing much in the future.”

Logan Owen chased for second place as snow began to fall on the final lap at 2016 U.S. national cyclocross championships. He finished third. Photo by Wil Matthews.
Logan Owen chased for second place as snow began to fall on the final lap at 2016 U.S. national cyclocross championships. He finished third. Photo by Wil Matthews.

Cyclocross is fun

On the other end of the spectrum is Logan Owen, one of the brightest stars of American cyclocross. Just 21, the two-time U23 national champion opted to race at the elite level in Asheville and put in an impressive performance against Powers and Stephen Hyde, taking the third podium step.

However, Owen says he has his eyes focused on the road for his pro future, chasing more lucrative opportunities. He won a stage of the 2015 Larry H. Miller, and he’s back with the Axeon-Hagens Berman team in 2016.

“As I get older, road is more a possibility as far as a career,” he said. “There are just more opportunities to make a living out of racing. I focus on both, but I do ’cross for fun. I’ve already gotten a pro win [on the road] so I like my chances of going to a top team. I need to get stronger still, once I’m done with my U23 racing.”

Owen said he wouldn’t let cyclocross interfere with his road career. “If I had the option to race ’cross, I would, but mainly for fun. I wouldn’t overcook myself where it would affect my road season.”

White’s younger sister, Emma, is firmly in the middle when deciding between the two disciplines. She races cyclocross with the Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com development program, and on the road with Rally Cycling.

“Right now I would say they are 50/50,” she said. “I couldn’t choose because I am on two great teams. Both are so much fun.”

Women’s racing is seeing an upsurge, particularly in cyclocross, with a first-ever under-23 women’s word championship category. And while the number of women’s road events are significantly fewer compared to men’s events, this could favor a rider like Emma White, who wants to race equally across both disciplines.

“Women’s cycling is so fast right now, even from a couple years ago, it’s come so far,” she said. “I’ve got so many more options now, and in five years I hope there are even more. I don’t have any limits on where I want to go with it.”

Gage Hecht, who races for Alpha Bicycle-Vista Subaru, is one of the most exciting U.S. cyclocross prospects of the past decade. Hecht won a junior race at a non-World Cup event in Koksijde, Belgium, in November 2014, and six weeks later finished on the podium in Loenhout and Diegem. He finished fourth at the 2015 world championship in Tabor, Czech Republic. This season, his best result was fourth, at the Hoogerheide World Cup, one week before worlds.

Hecht is wrapping up his final season in the junior ranks, and will soon be at a similar crossroad to Owen and White.

“If I had to pick one it would probably be cyclocross, but it wouldn’t be an easy choice to make,” Hecht said. “It is hard to say whether or not it is my sole focus because I do both fairly equally, but I suppose I will have to narrow it down in the future. If the U.S. cyclocross fan base grew, that would certainly draw me in. The more people cyclocross brings in, the [more] practical it is to be a pro.”

Emma White (left) took home two silver medals at the 2015 Road World Championships in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Cor Vos.
Emma White (left) took home two silver medals at the 2015 Junior World Road Championships in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Cor Vos.

Cyclocross is all about development

The passion for cyclocross first is evident in 22-year-old Tobin Ortenblad (California Giant Berry Farms-Specialized), who won the U23 race in Asheville and placed eighth at Azencross in Belgium.

“Cyclocross is my absolute focus,” Ortenblad said. “I switched two years ago when I realized that if I kept trying to give 100 percent focus to road and ’cross, both would suffer. My road season is shaped around ’cross. I do what I need to do during the road to be at my best for the ’cross season.”

While Ortenblad is also to race with a well-established development team, he still sees a lack of team support for younger riders as a significant obstacle.

“One major hurdle I’m starting to see as I move towards the elite category is a lack of high-level teams offering the support an individual truly needs to race cyclocross professionally,” he said. “There are a few elite teams, and they do an incredible job of supporting the athletes they have, but as a junior moving into the U23’s, and a U23 moving into the elites, there aren’t many options.”

When it comes to racing World Cup events, young Americans often race in the “USA” team kit, but this is not the same as riding for the U.S. National Team.

“I’ve raced U23 on the U.S. National Team for the road, and as a U23 for the USA for cyclocross,” said Ortenblad. “Why do I say ‘USA’ when referring to cross? Because USA Cycling does not have a ‘national team’ for cyclocross. Unlike the road, when you travel to Europe for cyclocross you’re most likely paying your own transportation fees and, until recently you would be paying for [all] expenses while you were in Europe.

“USA Cycling has started to support cyclocross more than in the past and that is evident, but the support for ‘cross is still miles behind where the road program is,” Ortenblad said. “Once there is a program in place similar to the road, I think you’ll see more individuals coming through the junior ranks and going all the way to the top step of podiums in elite races years later. It’s all about development.”

Part of this comes down to funding. National federations, such as USA Cycling, receive funding from national Olympic committees, such as the USOC, based around Olympic medals. Cyclocross is not an Olympic sport.

Derek Bouchard-Hall, USA Cycling’s new CEO, admits that the governing body has not given cyclocross the financial support it deserves, relative to other disciplines, but says that is changing.

“I’ve taken a look at how much we spend, relative to our membership, and we are underspending in cyclocross,” Bouchard-Hall said. “It’s by less than people perceive, but we are underspending, and we do want to allocate more resources to [cyclocross]. Where that goes, and how we do it, I don’t know yet. It’s because we have had a focus on Olympic medals, which ‘cross doesn’t have. I would like to move us away from that; that is not the standard by which we should support a sport. The goal is to foster the entire sport.

“Is that at the junior level? Maybe, but we are seeing [the potential] on the road side, too, with incredible junior success, yet not always being able to carry that through. We have put a lot more effort supporting juniors than other countries, and then they catch up to us in the elites.”

USA Cycling cyclocross program director Marc Gullickson said programs like the annual Euro Cross Camp, held in December and run by Geoff Proctor, have helped.

“Geoff Proctor has done a lot of work with us on nurturing those riders,” he said. “I would like to see more domestic talent ID camps for our best juniors, to get more information on what they need to do to make it to the top echelon of junior and U23 racing. Geoff already does one, but it would be nice to have multiple of those.

“You see the kids over there for the European Christmas racing block, those are the ones you see succeeding at nationals, and it’s really easy to connect the dots, to see that translating into success at nationals and then the world championships.”

Emma White agrees with the need for more clinics focused on the very young riders just entering the sport.

“Clinics always helped me as a younger junior, especially when I was really young,” she said. “I went with my brothers to clinics by Adam Myerson and Tim Johnson, and I still use things I learned at those camps.”

Perhaps the biggest difference between today’s young U.S. ‘cross racers, compared to those of the past, is their dedication to the discipline. An indication of this is the increase in riders putting together their own programs, rather than seeking out a spot on a team.

“I am so committed to it that if I am not picked up by one of the larger teams that support elite riders, I will just start my own program to support myself,” said Ortenblad. “You see riders like Cody Kaiser and Courtenay McFadden, high-level athletes in U.S. cyclocross, riding for their own teams, which they’ve built to support themselves.”

Curtis White has that similar singular focus on making it in cyclocross after he graduates from the U23 ranks, as well as graduating from college — a deal he made with his parents.

“I’ll be out of school then, so I can put my eggs all in that basket,” he said. “School can be distracting when trying to train. I’ll have a degree then, and I’ll have the insurance I need to give it a shot.”

The ultimate outcome for an American cyclocross racer would be signing with a European ‘cross team — something that has happened for U.S. racers in the past, such as Amy Dombroski, with Telenet-Fidea, though it’s been few and far between.

But Emma White sees the potential for this to increase, and uses road racing as an example.

“Look at the road, and how many Europeans teams have American riders now compared to the past,” she said. “I think that could happen with European cyclocross teams in the future.”

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