The international cyclocross season opened last weekend in Pennsylvania and continues this week in Washington and Vermont, but it is not until Wednesday, September 18, in a soccer complex on the outskirts of Las Vegas that the heavy hitters of international ’cross start to stretch their legs.
Among those stars are world champion Sven Nys (Crelan-Euphony), who headlines the seventh edition of Clif Bar CrossVegas, and former world champ Bart Wellens (Telenet-Fidea). The season’s first C1-level event, which will partner with Lazer to offer equal prize money to men and women, will also see the return of inaugural women’s winner Lyne Bessette (Cyclocrossworld.com), as well as former U.S. champions Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus), Todd Wells (Specialized), and Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com teammates Tim Johnson and Ryan Trebon.
The desert ’cross event did not always enjoy the prominence that sees much of the industry flee the Las Vegas Strip for the suburbs during the Interbike Expo to see major Belgian and Dutch teams compete on U.S. soil.
The event began, according to race promoter Brook Watts, as a dare when he and former partner Chris Grealish were bored of the Vegas nightlife. VeloNews spoke recently with Watts about the significance of Nys’ appearance, the genesis of the race, and the future of CrossVegas and U.S. cyclocross.
VeloNews: How would you describe the significance of Sven Nys, as world champion and the sport’s biggest star, coming to the U.S. for CrossVegas?
Brook Watts: I think what it shows is that, number one, he has this incredible afterglow from his Louisville experience. I don’t just mean the win, but finding Americans so welcoming. We showed our friendliness and this is what has struck me time and time again when I meet these guys at the airport. We go for a ride at Red Rocks on Sunday to shake their legs out, and time and time again, they say, “These Americans are so friendly. They come up to me and want to shake my hand.”
This was a genuinely great experience, so now, as he’s starting to look more at the back door than the front door of his career, he sees this as an opportunity to have some fun and promote the globalization of cyclocross. These are my words, not his.
VN: Have you tried to bring Nys to Las Vegas before?
BW: I’ve worked with his manager, Jan Verstraeten, I’ve worked with his agency, Golazo Sports. I’ve met with him on multiple occasions and asked them to come over, and bring him. They’ve always said he’s got his eyes on the prize. Now he’s got those stripes. It also helped that he wanted to come. Often it’s business, but he really wanted to come to Las Vegas.
We’ve got our window as American cyclocross [early in the season]. We only have this narrow little window to get guys to come over. We’re not going to get guys to come over November 1 and blow things out with travel. We have this window and we have to take advantage.
VN: What was the genesis of CrossVegas?
BW: It was [Boulder Cup promoter] Chris Grealish and I, and we’re still dear friends, but not partners anymore. It was almost a dare. We go to InterBike and we’re not into gambling, we’re not into lap dances. We went out there and it was too bad there wasn’t anything going on. There was nothing going on outside of the convention center.
We started with a roadmap. That dates us right there. We flew to Las Vegas and went to every green spot on the map. Some were next to the projects and that wouldn’t work. Some were postage stamps. By elimination, we found a park under the approach to [McCarren International Airport]. We met with the city and someone across the table said, “Have you seen Desert Breeze?” We said, “No, it’s not on this map.” They said, “No, it’s a new park.”
We get there and say, “This is a freaking soccer field; there’s nothing here.” Then you get up to the retention basin, that big bowl, and, “Holy cats, this is a cyclocross stadium.”
I got on the cell phone, we say we’ll take it, we write the contract with Desert Breeze, and we were off to the races.
We came back and said, “What if the course did this, what if the course did that?” We decided we needed to do an opening lap like an Overijse race to shake things out before they go out onto the big lap. And the result is what it is today, with some fine tuning over the years.
The first few years the pit was backwards until I woke up one night and said, “Shoot, if I moved the pit over to the right, then we’d have a real pit and that would open up the stuff in the middle to do other things.” Then I had the bright idea to put the flyover out there.
This year we’re moving the Spyover, the flyover last year, down into the bowl and, if things go to plan this year, we’ll have a second flyover, where the Spyover was last year. So, two flyovers. We’ll also have some top-secret features that I’d like to be a surprise.
It’s going to be totally goofy, people are going to say it’s wacky, but what the hell? It’s Vegas. First and foremost I put on a show, then I put on a race. I’ll be the first to say you couldn’t do this course in January in preparation for worlds. It’s not true ’cross. It’s 99.9 percent grass; I realize that, but it’s a hell of a show and a great way to open the ’cross season. It’s a hell of a show and it’s a great opening to the cross season.
So, those are some of the course changes over the years, beginning from that first, very humble start when we had 3,000 people show up at CrossVegas in 2007, then the next day at the show, guys like Redline wrote more orders for ’cross bikes than they’d ever seen before.
I think, I’m not going to take all the credit, but I do feel that, as part of the growth of cyclocross in America, it was people coming to CrossVegas, retailers from, I don’t know, Yuma, Tampa, far flung locations, saying, “Wow. They can do this in a soccer park? We can do this in Phoenix, in El Paso, Texas.” I think that helped fuel part of the growth in ’cross in America.
VN: Do you have a favorite edition thus far?
BW: This is going to sound very non-patriotic, but I really enjoyed the year the Americans got knocked off the podium . You had [Lars] Van der Haar, [Rob] Peeters, and [Christian] Heule on the podium. It was like, “yeah, we’ve arrived.” Then last year, what happened? Our two favorite Americans [Jeremy Powers and Tim Johnson] dominated, and our adopted American, Ben Berden. It showed CrossVegas has arrived and brought the cream of the crop to America. Then the next year, it showed that our guys had arrived.
VN: What about the women’s races? Do you have a favorite there?
BW: In the women’s race, 2011 was the year that Amy [Dombroski] surprised the hell out of me with the last-lap bridge, and last year’s race was one of my favorite women’s editions. Sanne Van Passen played it well, Lea Davison was a great animator, and Alison Powers was always there. It was punch, counter-punch.
Now Lyne Bessette, she was the one. She was the one who could take it to Katie [Compton] consistently. Lyne’s a great competitor and I don’t think she’s lost anything over the years. She doesn’t have any points, but in a field of 40 women, that’s not a penalty, really.
VN: Turning to the future, where does CrossVegas go?
BW: What is the model of CrossVegas? It’s show first, race second. I’m looking for an opportunity to bring in the non-endemic industry sponsors, looking for ways to bring in broadcast television, not just webstream. We’ve been successful with the 2011 Sporza [Belgian television] piece following [Bart] Wellens and Peeters. They’ll be back again this year, with Sven, maybe an hour-twenty program.
I think there are some opportunities with the CrossVegas brand in international markets and that’s something I continue to pursue.
The question is what about a World Cup? I don’t know about that. I’m not jumping through hoops to make CrossVegas a World Cup because the economic model of a World Cup doesn’t meet what I do at CrossVegas. While I’d love to have on my tombstone having promoted the first World Cup in the U.S., I’m not going to risk economic ruin to make it happen. I never want to be the guy who comes out five months later and say we changed our mind and we’re not going to be able to do that.
So, the World Cup prospect for CrossVegas is not as bright as some would like it to be.
VN: Then where do you think the first World Cup in the U.S. will be?
BW: That’s not for me to say. I know there are a couple parties that are interested, but I don’t know how far along they are with their proposals. It has to be a location that can draw a reasonable crowd, close to an international airport, but a location that has natural interest to international visitors, because a significant portion of the crowd will be international visitors.
Finding a course isn’t really difficult. Finding a welcoming atmosphere with easy logistics, without having to travel an excessive number of time zones, those are the real challenges.
VN: How do you grow CrossVegas?
BW: Sixty-eight percent of spectators are part of Interbike. That means 32 percent are non-Interbike, roughly 3,200 people. I feel like I can grow that 32 percent to a larger number. You do that by not preaching to the choir. This has been the challenge of cycling.
For me, it’s always been with this mantra: “It’s free. It’s an international festival.” The bike racing itself ain’t cutting it. It’s about coming out here and seeing this racing. You don’t have to know anything about ’cross to see it’s exciting. This is real racing.
VN: What advice do you have for new promoters in the sport?
BW: My advice to a new promoter is, number one, build a relationship with your local [Convention and Visitors Bureau]. Build promotional partnerships with the media.
It’s super easy stuff, but it’s lots of work, lots of elbow grease, but you get spectators through the door. More promoters need to think about, “yeah, we’ll get the bike racers, but how do we get the non-bike racers?”
VN: You’ve been involved in getting the Cross After Dark Series off the ground following the dissolution of the North American Cyclocross Trophy a few years ago. What role do you see the national series playing in U.S. cyclocross right now?
BW: It’s going strong this year. We have CrossVegas, Gateway Cup for two day, Cincinnati on Saturday night, and we close at LACX. We’re looking at growing into other markets in the future, but in the economic environment today, we’re going to keep it in the four markets of last year.
People need to think about what’s the importance of a national series. All too often there’s just a move to have a national series without thinking about why.
So, what’s the purpose of a national series? To try and get all the best racers in the same spot at the same time. What does a national series accomplish?
You should have a prize list at the end that rewards the best rides and therefore draws the best riders. I think you start to address some of that under the format of a calendar, which is the USA Cycling style of doing things, versus a series. So, I think that’s a good first step and I think from that we’ll start to see even greater interest in making a collection of races into a national series.”