Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Walk in the Woods, a Day at the Races

Providence CX Festival
It felt like one of those dream states where worlds collide and everything is mixed together. 80 degree heat in October. A supposedly obscure bicycle race with ball game-sized crowds. Roads closed, cheering heard from a mile away. But most disorienting was the warped sense of time and place. It was Saturday morning, and I was walking through the woods where I'd spent practically all my free time as a teenager many years ago. I had not set foot there in over a decade, but my rote memory remained intact. My feet did the walking along the still-familiar trails until finally I found myself in a clearing, facing that wacky neoclassical structure that now served as the podium for the Providence Cyclocross Festival. No matter how much I tried to incorporate this fact into my narrative of "the woods" of my teenage years, it just did not compute. Worlds, past and present, were colliding.

Providence CX Festival
They say that when you visit places from your younger years everything is smaller than you remembered, but the opposite was the case here. The clearing was more spacious than I recalled. The trees looked taller. The race course was enormous and complicated. They told me Cross Vegas was a bigger deal than any other race I was likely to see, but as a spectator I disagree. This was huge. There was more going on. And in the daylight I could see it all a lot better.

Providence CX Festival
Part of the course followed the lake, with the riders backlit picturesquely as they cycled along the shimmering water.

Providence CX Festival
Another part wound its way through a pine grove, beautiful trees and tight turns everywhere.

Providence CX Festival
The requisite bridge.

Providence CX Festival
The stretch of paved road leading up to the start/finish.

Providence CX Festival
And of course the exciting parts with the obstacles and the steep hills.

Providence CX Festival
But aside from the race course itself, there were many pockets of public space where spectators and racers could stroll around, socialise, eat, watch.

Providence CX Festival
A bouncy-house was set up for kids.

Providence CX Festival
There were multiple food vendors.

Providence CX Festival
And the beer tent offered some of the best seats in the house (though they wouldn't serve me as I didn't have my driver's license!).

ANT, Providence CX Festival
Finally, there were tents with handmade bicycles from local builders on display, as well as a tent selling interesting vintage bikes.

Providence CX Festival
It was easy to see why the Festival was attractive for so many: It simply offered a nice way to spend a day in the park, around nature and bikes. There was no charge for admission, and food and drink were reasonably priced. The turnout was impressive, and with the sun out people stuck around all day - some watching the races, others simply walking around, talking, picnicking. I never expected to see a bicycling event in the US with such a large public turnout, let alone in my former neck of the woods. 

Molly Hurford, Colavita
In her book Mud, Snow, and Cyclocross (available at the Ride Studio Cafe to purchase or read inhouse), Molly Hurford contrasts cyclocross spectator culture in Europe with that in the US. The main difference is that at American races, until very recently spectators were largely made up of participants. Amateurs would race, then stick around for the elite races that would take place later. Elite racers would show up early and watch the amateurs. And while friends and families would come and watch as well, the events have nonetheless been mostly insular, with no expectation of engaging the general public. In Europe, on the other hand, cyclocross has for some time been a spectator sport on a grand scale, much like baseball or football in the US. At that level, it would be ridiculous to suggest that one has to be a participant or know one personally in order to enjoy watching the event. It is entertainment. Hurford points out that at the moment, cyclocross in the US seems to be on the cusp of potentially transitioning to the type of status it holds in Europe. The audience I saw in Providence on Saturday certainly supported this possibility. 

Providence CX Festival
Listening to some of the conversations around me, it was clear that a substantial chunk of the public had no direct connection to cyclocross. They stopped by because they read about the event in the local paper's weekend listings. Or else their neighbour or co-worker was going and they tagged along. Probably because I had a big camera, I was approached on multiple occasions and asked questions about the event by spectators who were there for the first time and weren't sure what they were looking at. But despite not understanding what was going on around them, these visitors were obviously having a good time. They were sticking around. They were supporting the vendors. They were looking at all the bike and equipment manufacturers' names with interest. And they were saying "good job" to the racers. I wonder how many of them had a good enough time that they will seek out other races after this one. I can see it happening. 

Providence CX Festival
With attendance high and not limited to cyclocross inner circles, sponsors enjoy greater visibility. And if you look at the sponsors whose names are displayed on the team kits, many of them are outside the bicycle industry: real estate agencies, lawyers, dentists, grocery stores, landscaping firms. Greater attendance by the general public directly benefits these businesses, which makes it worth their while to continue - and hopefully expand - their sponsorship programs. It will also make other businesses consider cycling sponsorship as a viable form of local advertising. 

Geekhouse Bikes, Providence CX Festival
I think about things like this, because quite a few of my friends and acquaintances race, and there is a lot of discontent about how difficult it is to attract sponsors. But the reality is that sponsorship is a form of advertising, not a charity or a merit scholarship. A business needs to believe that a cyclist will provide sufficient visibility for their brand to make it worth their while to sponsor them. And for that we need wider audiences and greater media attention - even if it's just grassroots media - people taking pictures of the riders in their kits, then posting them online and sharing via social media. 

Providence CX Festival
Getting back to the idea of US cyclocross being in a place where it can potentially break out into the mainstream, one thing I noted in Molly Hurford's book is that by far not all of her interviewees wanted that. Some expressed disdain toward the fact that in Europe there are "fat guys smoking cigars" showing up to the races, as well as others who are not into the sport at a participant level. These critics would prefer that cyclocross in the US remain insular, "pure." It would be a valid point of view ...if those very same people then did not turn around and complain about lack of sponsorship opportunities. You can't have it both ways.

Providence CX Festival
Why do I care about any of this, you might be asking yourself? Well, because as a spectator I am finding cyclocross immensely entertaining, and I appreciate that. Entertainment is a big deal. We need to sustain those who entertain us if we want the fun to continue.

Providence CX Festival
Watching a cyclocross race in a place that I had filed away as belonging to a past life - separated from all this crazy bicycle stuff by at least a couple of other past lives - has challenged my tendency to compartmentalise things, to break up the past into distinct, locked memory boxes. Things do come around full circle sometimes. It's like following a trail in the woods, and eventually finding that you've walked around a lake. And now here you are, in the same spot where you first stood twenty years ago, straddling your rusty mountain bike in front of the Temple to Music. "You can totally race cross on a mountain bike," says a teenage girl to her friend behind me, as I stand there lost in thought.

31 comments:

  1. I watched my first cyclocross race Sunday and thoroughly enjoyed it. My family was there and we all had a nice time just hanging out and watching the races. More interesting than a long-course MTB race, and not as frantic as a crit race, CX is a lot of fun to hang out and watch. A really nice vibe permeates it. There were a lot of first time racers as well by the look of it. They seemed to be having fun as well. I hope the sport takes off to the point where it can be self-sustaining. Make a little money, get people interested in biking. All the pos and none of the negs! Just hope the popularity doesn't crash like it did w/ MTB racing.

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  2. I had my first Welsh league race on Sunday and it was as you describe with everyone watching everyone else, thought the kids/youth classes got the most cheers. Next race is a floodlit one, so it will be interesting going. Real mix of people.

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  3. I was there Sunday and found it pretty cool. My daughter loved it (we had to set up a course with hurdles for her push bike when we got home.) She wants to race in the kiddie cross next year.

    It was a cool combination of a fair and minor league ball game where you can see your neighbor race, then the elite racers go a few hours later. There was enough space in the course that you could get a great view in many spots. It sounds like Saturday was a bit more happening. We talked to some friends, our LBS owner and some of the families of the elite racers.

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  4. As someone who has promoted dozens of those bad insular and pure CX races I can tell you it's about the simplest and easiest event you could put on. We never had a problem running races strictly off entry fees and volunteers. Often enough those entry fees were in the single digits.

    Anyone with the inclination should consider putting a race on. Forget what you've seen at CorporateCross. There's no need to do all that. I've done courses under 800 meters that the fast guys could lap in under two minutes and been told by fresh-minted National Champions from 4 countries it was the best course they'd ever raced. That course might've occupied ten acres. Laps longer than 4 minutes are not a good idea. Lap times get long enough if it snows, if it gales.

    It is not too late to put on a CX this season. Racing in January is fine. Do not worry about accommodating the crowds that won't come or the riders that won't come. If you get five personal friends and five racers who read your ads you did good. The big crowds want homogenized corporate life. They will come to CX when it's dressed up like McDonalds or Starbucks.

    And yes, I am glad there's some money in the sport now. That's a good thing too.

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  5. It's really neat to see cyclocross taking off like that. When I raced cross 15 years ago, it was tiny, yet we all had a great time.

    "there is a lot of discontent about how difficult it is to attract sponsors."

    Why do racers need sponsors? I raced for 10 years, and it seemed that we would have been better off without sponsors, and the sponsors without us. For them, it was a reluctant charitable donation to support our team, and for us, the pittance was hardly worth the effort to "cultivate" the sponsors. And when we got equipment sponsors, we preferred to ride our own bikes in the end.

    It seems that sponsorship is a badge of honor, a sign of having arrived in the upper echelons of the sport, just like prize money is. When I saw lawyers and doctors sprint for a $5 prime, I had to laugh.

    Wouldn't it be easier to just be a true amateur and race because you enjoy it, without pretending that it's your job? And to obtain your gratification not from your status, but from how well you raced?

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  6. Cyclocross has been big in many areas for a long, long time just not the spectacle it seems to be now with all the tents and fanfare. When racing in the 70's we'd attract several dozen local riders and the courses were quite easy to set up. Every weekend, it was a blast and it was available. I think corporate sponsorship can kill what makes it special. There is always trade-offs.

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  7. "You can totally race cross on a mountain bike"

    No kidding, stop compartmentalizing.

    No way it's going to take off on its own as a spectator sport, has to be wrapped with other things like this event unless it's in pdx.

    Sponsorship...whatever. All sports cost a lot of money and no one said you have to bring better equipment than the pros. ROI is pitiful.

    Oh yeah you hated racing a year ago, as did a large portion of your readership.

    Finally, "I never expected to see a bicycling event in the US with such a large public turnout"

    Ha. I am continually amazed by those new to cycling stating such things. Currently the Tours of Cali, Utah and Colorado are huge. The RED ZINGER CLASSIC?!

    Does anyone remember the late, great San Francisco Grand Prix in which one million, yes one million, spectators created a rolling roar every time the riders came around? It was only a few years ago yet the internet doesn't know about it so it didn't happen.

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  8. Love the picture of the parent helping the child over a hurdle! That's really what it's all about, isn't it? Having fun, sharing what you love with the people you love, cultivating the next generation of cyclists. Love it!

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    1. I have a whole series of these shots (here's another); it was really cute. The course is open for practice/recon between races, at which point it is apparently open to anyone who wants to try it.

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  9. Regarding sponsorship -- Jan, all due respect, you have a very narrow field of vision on this subject. The majority of the money sponsors of the club I belong to are enthusiasts who have enjoyed some financial success, and who now are committed to supporting their sport, in particular the development of junior riders. Our equipment sponsors offer deep discounts, and there is no obligation to ride or to buy. Team funds are used to put on a couple of sizeable races each year, which gives folks like yourself a chance to participate, and also to defray the costs of sending juniors to events out of state, including State and Nationals. In a way, I'm one of the "sponsors" -- I renew my membership every year, and send a donation as well, though I rarely ride with the club any longer. It's my way of saying thanks to the people who helped me when I was an 18-year-old racer. Junior development is a big deal to me.

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    1. I agree that sponsoring young riders is a great thing. I have seen a lot of that informally when older guys simply set up young riders with a used quality racing bike. If there is a stipend to send them to Nationals, wonderful. All that is great.

      However, I was part of the racing culture where sponsorship meant you had arrived, that you were "somebody" in the sport. It's like seeing your name in the paper when the results of some small race are listed.

      I was very proud when Schwinn sent the top riders on our team their Reynolds 853 framesets free of charge, but when I built it up, I realized that my handbuilt Marinoni was a way better bike. When I rode the Marinoni instead of the "team" bike, I got a few complaints from our main sponsor, a bike shop owner, but he finally said: "I care more about your results than which bike you ride."

      Now that I am older, I have outgrown the need to "look pro". Today I ride with the randonneurs, and we don't have sponsors or publicity, and still have a vibrant cycling culture and at least as much fun.

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    2. Since you make a distinction between amateur and pro racing, it's worth noting that in cyclocross many riders at the elite level struggle with sponsorships, especially the women. That is mostly what I was referring to in the post.

      The kind of strained relationships you describe between amateur racers and the businesses who reluctantly sponsor them are indeed good for no one. But even at the amateur level, I believe that sponsorship could work out in a way that is beneficial to all. Most local businesses advertise somewhere; why not on the jerseys of a popular local cycling team that gets lots of media attention. It has to be well thought through and done right, but it could work.

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    3. I'm not sure local cycling teams get 'lots' of media attention. Maybe in other parts of the states or the world... but in general, in my experience, if you are rolling down the road 'training' in your team kit, you are an obstacle to get around to most people. When you are racing, you are likely to maybe be captured by a camera from the local paper, maybe a blogger pics it up, but generally its pretty insular, no?

      I think this sort of thing is far more about good will than it is about attracting revenue from advertising.

      And jerseys? There should be a law - 2 logos each. A primary and secondary. No more.

      Less, or none, is OK, and preferred. A rolling billboard of logo vomit is should not be something we strive for.

      And no pictures of bikes, or chainrings, or anything bike related. You are likely to be wearing it while... on your bike!

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    4. Yeah, bmike. Look @ Hurford's jersey -- what a mess. No one cares what that says. Assuming Colavita, the rest is jibberish to me, and I follow the sport.

      What's visible above? Brooks, Verge. They both advert their own brand.

      Mackie Properties -- that work, but goes to what anon was saying: some deep-pocketed guys with a love for growing the sport fund it and get no ROI but through their children. Money coming back to them? Maybe through some other well-funded dad or even mom who said to Mr. Mackie, "I love it" but otherwise his accountant would say, "You know this is totally a losing proposition right?"

      BTW you are being an advocate here for the sport, so quit saying you are not an advocate.

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    5. If you want to know why some title sponsors are gun shy do some research into the words and deeds of Trebon or Compton.

      Both have rep'd their sponsors and themselves poorly in the past.

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    6. "BTW you are being an advocate here for the sport, so quit saying you are not an advocate."

      Directed at me?
      I'm confused.

      I love all things bike, except when said things regarding bikes involve people being complete ***holes. Then I do not love those things, and I will usually say something about them.

      Me - I advocate for long rides by oneself or in small groups over dirt roads exploring the world that you might not see from the office or a car window. Getting wet, cold, and tired. Repeating as necessary.

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    7. bmike, sorry not you. I was picking up what you said but directing at V. She has a habit of saying she doesn't want to be involved yet puts herself right in the middle of it.

      We are completely in accord wrt all things you wrote. Those VT "roads" look great.

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  10. I'm shocked, shocked I tell you, to find out that cross racing has been going on in my home town! And, according to Molly's book, to find out that two National Championships have been held there too!
    Good for you, Providence! Looking forward to next year.

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  11. Watching any race (or any sort of organized sporting event for that matter) that lasts longer than the 100 metre sprint and I'm checking for texts and e-mail on my phone.

    That said, if CX mania adds to cycling awareness, bravo, I suppose.

    In the East Coast at least where open land is limited, sponsorless groups might find access to suitable CX pitches financially prohibitive.

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  12. They're called barriers, not "hurdles". Just saying. If you want to make statements about a sport based on knowledge you've apparently gained from reading a single book, you might try at least getting the vocabulary right.

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    1. I was using the word to refer to various obstacles, including barriers. Maybe it was not the right choice of word, though I've heard it used. My knowledge is mostly based on having friends who race, not on a book.

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  13. There are two kinds of cyclists--those who feel the sport must grow and be understood and appreciated by all, and those who, like the music freak discovering a new band, feel it will all be poisoned by the slightest hint of popularity. This first desire, to make the general public embrace cycling one way or another, is kind of like the sport's promotional holy grail. Maybe it goes back to the sports early days, when six-day races filled Madison Square Garden and a cyclist could earn more money than Babe Ruth. Back when I was reporting from the field, (in the early to mid 90s, not the 20s) something calling itself the National Cycle League was the big format idea that was going to propel cycling up the American sport popularity ladder. It was kind of a criterium/points race on EPO, with the big gimmick being city-based teams. Just like baseball and the NFL! I interviewed the commissioner for my magazine, which may have been the most entertainment the league ever provided.

    Events like the one in Providence would appear to be taking the opposite approach of the NCL, with more of a participatory public feel than the traditional sit in your seats fan thing.

    As far as sponsorship, I agree with Jan; for anything but the pro level, it's just kind of lame and a bit unseemly. When I was racing, I belonged to the Century Road Club in NYC. We all had the same jersey, which we paid for with our dues. We wore the jersey in club races around Central Park and at "open" races. I guess some felt disadvantaged by this arrangement, because as I was getting out of the game, the club introduced "sub" teams--essentially sponsored teams under the umbrella of the CRCA. It probably made the club races in the park more tactical, but that could just as easily have been accomplished by handing out various colored "practice" jerseys. It's really all about the schwag...(Clubs used to do a fine job of promoting and helping out junior racers. Even if businesses or individuals help out at that level, that's more support than true sponsorship, like Joe's Deli Softball or the banners at Little League games.)

    BTw, I won my first crit, and $400, in Providence, so fond memories there! It was all about the wind...

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    1. What year was that crit?

      I do not remember any bicycle racing going on in RI in the 90s. Though a friend's father participated in what I realise in retrospect must have been randonneuring.

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  14. My memory was a bit faulty, oops. It was definitely RI, but not quite the 90s (1989) and not Providence, but Newport. One of my younger brothers was living in Providence at the time, and I combined a visit with the bike race, which was in Newport. It was very well run, and a nice prize for the Cat IV (there was no Cat V at that time.)

    I found a newspaper clipping down in my basement (can be magnified):

    http://tinyurl.com/8z498dp

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    1. Oh I believe there was bicycle racing in RI, I only meant it's funny that it was not on our radar back then. No one except for a few teenagers seemed to be riding for transportation either. Now it's like this center for cyclocross races, and commuting by bike is popular as well.

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    2. That's hard to believe. Usually, wherever there's a bike shop there's a racing culture, even if somewhat hidden. Many, back in the day, would have a bulletin board or something posting where the races/time trials, etc. where and the fees and sometimes carpool info. Also, wherever there's colleges and collegetowns there are usually more cycling commuters than average. At least that's been my observations as a long time commuter/racer/professor/bike mechanic....

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    3. Velouria--Sorry, "What year was that crit?" sounded like a direct question! But in any case you were wondering around in the woods back then, why would you notice a bike race ?;^]

      Anon--no need for obscure bulletin boards--I found it listed in VeloNews.

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    4. M - It's my original answer that was confusing sorry :) The what year question was direct; but the rest of it was rhetorical. I jumbled it up.

      Anon - But remember, this was before the internets. And we were teenagers, living in a small town (not Providence and not a college town). Although my friends and I rode bikes (myself and a couple of others never got into cars in HS), we were viewed as extremely unusual in the community and were completely severed from any bike culture that might have existed elsewhere in the state at the time. I don't recall ever seeing anyone riding around the neighbourhood in team kit back then, nor grocery shopping by bike, ever. But even as far as "the big city" - Providence, Circle A didn't appear on the scene until 2001 or so - and there was not much of a scene even as late as that according to them. I moved away in 1997.

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    5. Oh...Perhaps it's regional. In Oregon, even in the 70's, lot's and lot's rode bikes. On streets, in the woods, young and old. Also, lot's of races but I never heard of the term 'team kits' ...my town of four thousand only had teenagers on bikes, too, but heading into the city we'd discover another world of cool bikes and bike culture....we didn't have to travel far to race. I don't even remember computers back then :)

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  15. Must share this, which is only slightly related to your post but an incredibly confident rider on an incredible lightweight team bicycle!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZmJtYaUTa0&feature=em-share_video_user

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  16. This sport is awash in money. If you are doing anything at all that is interesting or notable or significant the sponsors are looking for you. Those of us who have been in it for a lifetime for love of the sport are embarrassed by all the money being shoved at us.

    If you want a sponsor because you're looking for ego massage or because you picked an extremely expensive hobby or because you believe a doctor/lawyer/hedge fund/gangster bike will make you faster you deserve to be disappointed although you may still get lucky.

    Speaking of expensive hobbies why on earth are supposedly normal people racing CX on carbon wheels? On five figure full customs? Nicest CX I ever had was a LeJeune atelier build I found in the alley. OK I spent a couple hundred fixing it up. If you ain't fallin' you ain't haulin'. Fall on a bike you can replace on CL and you won't so much worry about the sponsor thing.

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