An interesting bit of conversation came up on Facebook from Greg Keller (Mud & Cowbells) about the state of US cyclocross competitiveness on an international scale.
Notice: this will be a rant.
OK, super proud of all our US athletes competing in Hoogerheide today. This said, as a team (yes we have some great exceptions here like Gage and Katie on most days), it feels we just can’t compete. We race in absolutely nothing like you see here in Hoogerheide. There isn’t a park and rec committee in the US that would let you destroy a park to create the beautifully gnarly conditions they allow for at Hoog, Zolder….anywhere in Europe. So it seems that the only practical way to get better is to pull a page from the Page playbook and be there full time. Learn how to race with power and finesse and lap by lap management of the chaos. OK , rant over. Just want to see our jerseys factor in amongst the other nations.
So why do the US racers struggle with racing in Europe? I feel I’m particularly qualified to talk about this subject simply for the fact that I’ve started coming to Europe since 2002, lived here permanently since 2007 and my primary job is hosting said “aspiring US (North American) racers” at my house The ChainStay. To say it’s a subject I’m close to is an understatement.
This subject is brought up often, but is a part of the puzzle as to why. It’s true that it is difficult to travel across the Atlantic to race a bike. Just reference the moans and groans of many of the European races at the prospect of going to CrossVegas this season. Belgians, Dutchmen and all the Euros away from their comfort, RV’s, massive sets of wheels and racing on a distinctly non-European course in very non-European weather. You couldn’t ask for a more un-hospitable race to be presented; but what became of the reality?
Simply, the Belgians came and they swept the podium, taking half the spots in the top 20. Holland came in with three riders, USA with three (Jeremy Powers in 6th place), Czech Republic with two and Switzerland and France with one rider each. It seems the Euro’s competed just fine in the USA. BTW, the USA also was allowed to field 16 riders to compete in the race, a double allotment of riders than the standard amount.
The USA women did better fielding 10 in the top 20 of the race, but failed to podium even with 16 riders in the race. The podium was solidly european. It should also be noted that Vegas in a way is a big Travel day for almost everyone, including the US riders, so it does even out the argument some.
This one can be a bit of a shock to some. While Belgium, for all it’s first-world status, can at times be a world apart from the US. I’ve lived here long enough to know what things set a rider up for struggle and what can help mitigate their being in Europe, but often it comes down to how pliable a rider is to their environment and how they choose to embrace things. If a rider comes over and fully tries to do things “the normal American way” it can often cause undue stress and problems. Understanding the quirks of the game and the way stuff operates here can do wonders for adapting. I’d rank half the battle of Europe is understanding and learning to adapt. Once you do this, it makes life much easier. Not everyone can do this and for some it can cause issues.
Often overlooked, but very much a major part of the equation. The cost to bring just one athlete, not to mention any level of support staff over to Europe to race adds up quickly. Most of the US women needed to come over to Europe at least three times this year (Valkenberg WC, Kerst Period, Post Nationals WC’s) just to stay competitive for a top 50 spot. Some even made the extra trek over for Koksijde. For some that is a minimum of 4 international flights, car rental, housing and support that was required to be budgeted for. Add on a trip to Nationals, Pan American Championships and you have a travel budget into the 5 figures.
Compare that to European racers who will only travel once on a plane to the US for Cross Vegas, then race at the most 2 hours away for 95% of the races they will compete in. Sleep in their own beds, have family and friend support. Those advantages add up. A competitive US racer will travel more domestically in the US than any European rider can. Even Euro racers who make regular trips to Switzerland are basically doing the equivalent of Boston to DC. A US racer would call that a local race weekend.
I will say I was not a fan of USAC support levels within cyclo-cross the past few years (as in to say there was none), but in the last two they have stepped up the game and started to do funded trips for Juniors, U23’s and younger Women. I would say this is a needed step considering that of the 5.6 million in membership funds, almost 10% of that comes directly from cyclocross racers (with an untold number who compete in both CX and road). But how much of that is helping mitigate the unproportionate cost American racers (and Canada, NZ, Australia, Japan) racers face to compete in Europe? I’d like to think that USAC might set up something similar to the USAC program full time in Europe, but I don’t see it happening (we aren’t quite there with the numbers, but are getting there).
The biggest for me is the cost of Worlds. If you represent the US at worlds, it should not come at a great cost which requires doing fund raisers for the racers to be able to make the trip. Or to have qualified athletes choose not to race due to the cost.
Depth of Talent
I’d say this is the biggest factor in my opinion. During Michael Jordan’s career, would you have thought it would be fair to compare his ability to play to the top ranked Belgian basketball player? I’d wager no. So in the same sense, why do we need to compare a rider like Jeremy Powers to Sven Nys, who I’d very much call the Michael Jordan of the current cyclocross era.
Belgium is full of talented riders, deeply ingrained cycling culture which fosters both respect but also the financial rewards needed to attract the number of riders to go through the meat grinder of racing to see who can hack it and who can’t.
Another bit of anecdote fodder to consider is Jens Vandekinderen. A Belgian I wrote about in an earlier blog who came over to compete at HPCX in the USA. I just happened to be watching these races (same weekend as the Valkenberg World Cup in Holland) and Vandekinderen was able to take a second and then a win over the weekend. He didn’t dominate over riders like Cameron Dodge, Travis Livermon and Robert Marion who were able to hold his wheel, launch attacks and compete. But compare his World Cup results this season and it says a different story. The following is the race, Jen’s result and then best American.
Koksijde – 22nd (50th Marion)
Namur – 24th (23rd Hyde)
Zolder – 30th (16th Powers)
Lignières – 40th (23rd Powers)
Hoogerheide – 29th (31st Powers)
Here is a guy who just squeaks by to gain auto-entry into the World Cups who can best America’s best at times in Europe, but is not as dominate in the US racing. I’m not trying to say Vandekinderen or American racers are either bad or good, just trying to lay out some context to say it’s hard to quantify one race to another.
Does it require a full time of being in Europe?
That is an interesting question … and my answer is the one I usually give to people who ask it to me – What do you want out of your racing? If you want to be competitive against the world’s best, yes you need to move to Europe (for at least a majority of the season). If a talented Belgian basketball player wanted to do well, would you suggest to him to play almost 90% of his games in Belgium/Europe, then go selectively to the US to play? So why expect our riders to do this and be competitive on an international scale.
Can it be done?
YES! It’s been proven time and again in the Women’s field with Katie Compton’s win in the overall of the World Cup series, Kaitlin Antonneau making podiums at World Cups, Gage Hache making the top 10 often at Junior races at World Cup races. Even on the men’s side the US has had success. Powers has shown flashes of incredible performances when it works out right for him. But the standard for my thesis is still Jonathan Page. He’s shown what sacrifice and dedication to racing full time in Europe can achieve. Several national championships, a podium at Worlds, a well respected career as a racer within European CX. Did this success come overnight? Hell no, but it happened, and many factors had to come into play to make it happen.
For my part. I’m building towards having the full infrastructure to make a team happen, create a place for talent to develop. This isn’t just some whim I’ve thought up recently, but a project I tried to start back in 2010, but that ultimately came to nothing. One problem with this grand idea of Americans competing in Europe exclusively (or for a majority of the season) is that US sponsors like to see their racers in their home market, while European counterparts, even multi-national industry sponsors, don’t want to support foreign riders. I spent way too much time dealing with buck-passing on a great idea to keep wasting it, so I did something about it.
In lieu of searching for cash sponsors constantly each year for this project, but also the Junior and U23 development programs we run at The ChainStay I started my own company within the cycling industry, Steen Wear. I poured all those countless wasted hours of sponsorship search (and future search, sponsor communication upkeep, etc) into a business that I plan to grow into an organization that is large enough to continually support projects like a full time US / European cyclocross program and maintain its longevity for the long term.
So I’m willing to help create this grand idea I have and based on commenting on Facebook, many other people agree and share my passion for making it happen, but at the end of the day, the funds need to be there to make a project happen. I don’t think I’ll be there for the 16/17 season, but I have hopes for 17/18 of making a project happen that will allow people a pathway to compete full time in Europe. Until then, we open our house each year to ambitious young racers like Mark McConnell, Michael Van Den Ham and Gary Millburn who come to compete for 3 full months in Europe.