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
- prior to the season, when you're putting training time in and want to make sure you're giving yourself every advantage
- 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
- 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.