#CrossIsComing. But is it though?

Disclaimer: I don't race cyclocross. (Dave does, and got quite good at it so may have a different perspective than the one you're about to read.) I did, through a mix of curiosity, contractual obligation and masochism (more on that in a bit). I enjoyed it inasmuch as I enjoy winter camping: it's something I hated at the time, but was glad to have done when it was over. Back in 2012 I wrote a blog about the experience, outlining some of the differences between road and cross while still trying pretty hard to like it. 4 races in and the leaves were changing color here in DC and races went off on 65 degree sunny days, surrounded by friends and teammates having fun in a field. But 6 races later, the weather turned, my legs and lungs ached, 6am practices were harder to rise for, my will folded like a Dahon, and the courtship was over for me.

Some of you genuinely do like cross. You relish in the challenge at the nexus of skill and suffering. But many, I know, feel about it the same way I do. It's hard. It's really damn hard. But it's also often cold and wet and muddy, and requires a mental fortitude as tuned as an elite racer's physical conditioning. Getting out there and practicing a few early mornings every week and then punishing yourself against the field, course and elements for a couple hours every weekend (without fail or respite, so you don't give up the points you need for your starting position) isn't really bike racing. It's as if someone wanted to take everything that's already hard about cycling, and turn it up to ridiculous. Cyclocross is to bike racing as cross fit is to running on the treadmill. 

No surprise, then, that cyclocross was introduced to this year's Cross-Fit Games, where yesterday participants had to complete 3 laps on a grassy course with barriers, a sand pit and many corners designed expressly for the occasion. The selection should provide some context into how the rest of the world views cross, as the event is staged alongside events like the Strongman's Fear, where you transport a 420 pound yoke, 170 pound logs and a 265 pound sled across a field, walking on your hands back to the start for each leg. Or the Madison Triplet, where each rep includes a quarter mile sprint and a bunch of burpees with a 100 pound sack where you have to clean a hay bale. And the First Blood, where you run through heavy underbrush in a tank top and then have to stitch closed the lacerations on your arms without anaesthetic, 6 gashes on the left arm followed by 6 on the right.

As bike company guys, Dave and I are very appreciative of cyclocross. Tire selection ends up being very important, which allows many racers to justify having multiple sets of wheels at the ready so they can decide what tires to run when they get to the course, and not have to rush through a tire change. Also pit bikes are a thing - a spare bike you swap to when your first bike gets muddy. These too need (NEED!) wheels, and spare wheels. And now that many racers have plunged headlong into their disc brake migration, their long-curated wheel portfolio needs to be replaced or at least rebuilt with new hubs. It's wild - almost as if the bike industry itself had something to do with the rising popularity of cross and disc brakes over the past 8 or 10 years.

At some point, a portfolio like this (which is Helen Wyman's) evolved from dream state to standard equipment. 

Dave and I were talking about the upcoming cross season and he mentioned that anecdotally that he is seeing less interest than a few years ago, which is also borne out by our seasonal sales data. 

There are three main selling periods for cross wheels

  1. prior to the season, when you're putting training time in and want to make sure you're giving yourself every advantage
  2. after 3-4 races, where you're convinced you could have reached the podium / beaten that dude / picked up more points if only you had the right wheels or some game-day tire choice options
  3. right before your regional championships or Nats, when you're convinced your season all comes down to this.

Last year, we were down across the board compared to previous years. At the time, we attributed it to disc doldrums: people who hadn't switched to disc but might were reluctant to buy more rim brake wheels, and riders who did switch to disc were buying complete bikes that already had wheels (and used up all their money).

But there's another trend at work as well - diminishing participation. At the end of last season, CrossResults mastermind Colin Reuter tweeted some data on race participation (the comments thread has more charts as well), which sparked a longer exploration on James Scott's blog that got play in larger pubs. 

 

 

The other trend we are seeing is part of a broader shift away from hyper-competitive to casual-competitive events. Whereas most of our customers were racers five years ago, now our customers list different use cases to satisfy their competitive streaks: gran fondos, group rides (both road and gravel) and Strava KOM chasing. No doubt part of that is us. We attract a demographic less likely to be racing and more likely to be conscious of their own mortality, compared to the US FB audience at large:

All of which is to say that I'm not surprised to see that we've reached peak CX. Its appeal is at odds with the other trends in the industry, and it's frankly too damn hard to survive as a mainstream activity. Many of us have tried it and have first hand appreciation for it, but are finding other ways to satisfy competitive itches (which could be said of road racing as well, frankly).

Also, as cycling sports go, you don't actually go very fast in cross. The bicycle was invented to allow us to travel faster with less effort. A good portion of a cyclocross course is done at 10mph with herculean effort. What's the fun in that?

A few years ago, Dave and I ran a "Take back the fall" promo, aimed at road riders who saw all the cycling attention during a prime riding season being co-opted by cross. Maybe it's time to reprise it. Or maybe we don't have to.

 


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  • Jon on

    Observations from the 4/5 racer…

    CX is alive and well in New England. You could easily race every weekend from mid-September through mid-December, and sometimes you might even have a choice on races in a given weekend.

    Obviously, some races/venues are going to be much better than others, but in my experience, they are all pretty good and most are worth the effort to get there. Many of the larger races have no issue filling all available slots for every category they host…your talking 100+ racers in the 4/5 races at these events. Perhaps the number of racers has plateaued, but the appetite of the folks attending is still pretty rabid.

    With that said, I have no idea what is happening outside of New England. I just count my lucky stars that I am fortunate enough to live in this CX hotbed…at least that is how I see it.

  • Dave Kirkpatrick on

    Hussein – I don’t think anyone’s saying it’s not a good/valid/fun/exiting/whatever other positive kind of racing, right? And of course it’s nothing about road racing versus cross racing – racing in general is noted as down, which it is. It’s just that the price of entry, in terms of fitness prep and accumulation of skills, to be able to play the game has gotten higher than palatable for a lot of people. In New England, the road race season is more or less used as prep for cross season, where the reverse was traditionally more true. And all of the things that you mention, while very attractive to some people, are the things that cause many more people to say “think I’ll pass, thanks.” Also you advocate your aggression towards others in cross (pushing bikes off of people’s shoulders) yet indicting it in road. A bit incongruous.

    Dirk – It’s sort of funny how some people can be so much better at some disciplines than others, huh? I personally even it out by being wildly unexceptional in all of them.

  • Dirk Diggler on

    But then March comes and I get to dust all the guys who schooled me in cross. So, wheels.

  • Hussein on

    A few fantastic CX attributes didn’t make it to the article:
    Countless, repeatable opportunities to corner on the absolute limit of traction
    Additional opportunities to use body-english to increase grip
    Opportunity to use line-theory with relative success
    Opportunities to use single-track skills on more difficult features
    Countless opportunities to push bikes off the shoulders of faster bros who don’t belong in cat 3/4 races
    The proposition of taking chances and leaving significantly less skin on the racing surface when things go poorly
    Racing with honor and integrity, as half a dozen teammates cannot serve-up one dude with a win
    No one has ever come up to me after a race and said, “You moved over 6” and the next time I do that I’m going to put you into the curb" or “stop calling me a bed-wetter when I don’t put in work”.
    Horizontal top-tubes!

  • Dave Kirkpatrick on

    Feels like breaking a rule to comment on our own blog here, but I liked this one. The perspective that I gave Mike after reading it was that in the grand scheme, I am not actually “quite good” at cross. I can finish lead lap of an elite race if I’m in good shape and the course isn’t crazy super technical. So in the grand scheme, I’m actually terrible at cross. yet if most average bike-riding people went for a cross bike ride with me they’d be screaming for momma within two seconds. Which leads me to the canned phrase that I use to describe my annual “about this time of year” cross ennui – “do you know how good you have to be just to suck at cross?” It’s daunting!


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