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Not many cyclocross teams can boast that all of its professional riders are racing at this weekend’s world championships — but the Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com program can.
Run by former masters racer Stu Thorne, the team has been around the U.S. racing scene for a decade now. Thorne, team manager and owner, has been involved with supporting racers through his online business and team program for nearly 20 years. Year after year, the Massachusetts-based squad is one of the dominant teams on the North American circuit, boasting multiple victories and national champions.
Heading into the upcoming world championships in Luxembourg, all of the team’s professional riders were selected for their respective national teams, with Stephen Hyde and Kaitlin Antonneau in the elite races for the United States. Development team riders racing for the U.S. at worlds include the brother-sister duo of Curtis and Emma White in the U23 races, and Sam Noel in the junior race. Canadian Ruby West is in the women’s U23 race.
“We always have a goal of having all the pro riders making the worlds team,” said Thorne. “It’s not our primary focus each year, but surely something we are thinking about. There are so many intermediate goals during the year that we are trying to achieve as well, so we tend not to let the worlds selection dominate that.
“Since the inception of the team, we’ve met that goal each year. Certainly it’s an honor to represent at worlds, and having all our pro riders there is a huge part of that. As for the development riders — it’s great that we have these younger riders being selected, but we never really know who’s going to make it. There are always a bunch of really good junior and U23 riders out there, so you never know. Of course we try to give our riders all they need to do well. The rest is up to them.”
Thorne said that Hyde winning the Pan-American and U.S. national championships was icing on the cake this year.
Running a racing team is supremely difficult. Running a cyclocross team, in a large country where any form of bike racing is far from mainstream, even more so. The fact that this program has lasted as long as it has, and grown to where it is today, is as much a tribute to its results as it is to the people involved. And of course, like so many others in this sport, the primary motivation comes from the passion for it.
“I started racing cyclocross in 1990,” said Thorne. “I had a blast doing it and wanted to be involved for as long as I had the drive and enthusiasm. I met Tim [Johnson] in about 1995 and we went to ‘cross practices and races together. I got married in 1996 and my wife was into racing as well. A few years later, I started Cyclocrossworld.com. It took off and consumed me. It was difficult to balance all the racing, bike prep, travel and the business, so I phased out my racing.
“I was looking at promoting the business, so I was one of the early sponsors of the team. It was a bit more casual than it is now, but we had some great riders — Walker Ferguson rode a few races with us. We helped out Marc Gullickson. Of course Tim was on board for a long time and his wife, Lyne Bessette. It was heaps of fun.”
The team that many know today, with the signature bright Cannondale green kits, did not happen over night. Like many other programs, both here and in Europe, it began small with a single rider and slowly added a little more each year. The first years were actually raced a red kit, reflecting the branding of Thorne’s Cyclocrossworld business, before Cannondale became a title sponsor. Along the way the program even dipped into a common mistake for many businesses, growing too big, too quick. But Thorne and Johnson recognized that and reined things in, finding the right size.
“Over the years the team grew with the addition of bigger sponsors. And we went from two riders to three and then to four on the pro team. At one point we had five; that was just too much for where we were at. About five years ago we started the development program with a few riders. It’s now at seven, not including Chandler Delinks as manager/rider, and Matt Timmerman as all-around badass rider/coach/masters national champ.”
Johnson, the three-time U.S. national champion, began with the team on the ground floor, quite literally.
“I remember crashing on Stu’s floor at every race I did from 1995 until 2001, and even beyond that — actually on his floor,” Johnson said. “Stu and [his wife] Emily were racing while he was working with the SuperCup. I was there as their poor freeloader friend. It was a great setup — Stu would race early in the masters, then pit for Emily and then pit for me — all the while doing setup and teardown.”
The racing slowly progressed and expanded to include Europe, which laid the groundwork for the eventual expansion of the program.
“Stu came to worlds in Denmark [in 1998] where I got 10th [in U23 category]” said Johnson. “Then Bruce Fina came on as the U.S. team director, Stu was the mechanic, and I was ‘The Kid.’
“I stepped away to focus on road and Stu stayed focused on ‘cross. He started the company and that gave it more of a platform. Walker Ferguson came on and got a silver at worlds and Lyne [Bessette] raced for us after she was done with road. It didn’t become more of a clear entity until 2005, and in 2006 we combined forces — I brought my Cannondale sponsorship to Stu and it was a team of one.
“We brought Jeremy [Powers] on in 2008. He had spent the year before getting his head kicked-in in Europe and realized he wanted to spend more time in the U.S. Stu and I developed the team and Emily did the back office work. The big jump came in 2009 by getting a much bigger backing from Cannondale. We had been racing well here in the U.S. and in Europe; we were able to stop driving my pickup around with a crappy trailer.”
Since then the team has continued to grow, with numerous top domestic riders coming through the bright green trailer doors, including Powers, Ryan Trebon, and Jamey Driscoll. The one factor Thorne and Johnson believe has made the difference over the years is their team’s professional attitude, something they both picked up from motorsports.
“I came from a motorsports background and I still follow that scene when I can,” said Thorne. “I’ve learned by example. Those guys are super dialed. If I can emulate a fraction of that, then I think that’s good. Those guys are incredibly professional. They try new things and keep what works and do away with what doesn’t.
“We’ve been with Cannondale for 10 years, same for SRAM, Giro has been with us for six,” said Thorne. “I believe in building these relationships. I am honored to part of the family so to speak. It’s a two-way street and I enjoy helping them develop products and helping them achieve marketing goals or what have you. But overall it’s great to have consistent support.”
The people behind the scenes are also key in executing the professionalism maxim, as well as growing the base of the program, which Thorne and Johnson both believe is the foundation for the future.
“The people we have make this whole show actually work,” said Thorne. “Starting with Tim — we’ve worked together in cyclocross for something like 20-plus years. His input and knowledge has been indispensable. Not only as a rider and coach, but also with the sponsorship-end of things.
“On the development side of things we have Chandler Delinks. He had a vision years ago to support the juniors and U23s. He has a keen sense of just about every junior kid in ‘cross. He follows the scene closely and has helped select all the kids coming through the program. And of course having talented staff — mechanics, soigneurs — without all of these people, the team wouldn’t be what it is today.”
As Thorne said, the current program size seems to be ideal for its goals — a few top professionals with by a stable of up-and-coming U23 riders, and a strong grassroots program at the bottom, emulating how the entire program began. It is this bottom-up pyramid that will keep the program running into the future as well as North American cyclocross racing in general.
Additionally, an important aspect of the development team is a focus on balance between the racing and other aspects of life. Johnson reflected on how he first noticed Kaitlin Antonneau when she was racing as a junior.
“I remember seeing her at this UCI C1 race in Canada and during the women’s race I saw this girl in red from Wisconsin just killing it, racing so aggressive like an animal. The next spring I called her and she was totally speechless — super funny and awkward and cute on the phone, but so excited.”
He remembers that wonderment when dealing with the development riders today — that as young people they are going through a lot, and he wants cycling to be the fun thing they remember when looking back at that time, whether or not they advance up the ranks.
“The grassroots team, it’s a continuation of the same setup we had back in the day,“ said Johnson. “I was surrounded by older riders like [current USA Cycling CX director]Marc Gullickson, the McCormacks, or others winning the elite races when I was coming up, giving me insight. We want to give those kids a chance to develop into more; or even not. We don’t want to turn cycling into an island where you are stuck on it if it doesn’t work out.”
Giving something back
There is a common theme that is infused in all of Thorne’s views — a grander sense of purpose within the sport. Sure, it is nice to win races and have success, but one can really sense his goal of making North American cyclocross greater than when he first encountered it.
“There are a few ideas I have about programs like ours and racing in the U.S. It’s important to support the young riders. They are the next generation of cyclocross riders. We’ve had strong riders like Tim, Ryan, and others — and currently have strong riders like Stephen and Jeremy, but these riders aren’t going to be around forever.
“We need to foster the growth of the sport by having a good group of young riders to step up and fill their shoes. Right now the young cyclocross talent we have in the U.S. is fantastic — Kaitie, Emma, Ellen Noble, Curtis, Gage Hecht, and a ton of others. It’s impressive. But we need to keep that going.”
Another aspect of this program developing the sport in the U.S. is recognizing that a rising tide lifts all boats. An example of that is Johnson giving advice to racers not in his team program. After the 2015-16 season ended, young American Tobin Ortenblad faced a challenge as he moved from the U23 ranks to the elites, and his former team dissolved after many years in the sport, leaving him to either hang it up or try to go out on his own.
Fortunately for Ortenblad, and for American cyclocross, he was able to assemble his own program this season, riding to fifth place at nationals and a spot on the U.S. world championship team.
“Tobin reached out and we talked about how you can do it, how you can create something. I was happy to give him advice,” Johnson said. “In general, it’s about being successful as an athlete while giving something back to the sponsors that back you.”