Since no one asked - whatever happened to 'cross?

"Do you know how freaking good you have to be just to suck at this?" Sometimes you hear yourself say things, even in a total oxygen deprived, "I just got beaten up by bad people swinging 2x4s for 50 minutes" situation, and you're like "holy crap I have to remember that one." 

We know that road racing has taken a pounding in recent years. Races have evaporated off the schedule, the races still happening see lower numbers, it's ever more challenging to put on races, etc. All bad news there. I didn't look up any particular data to cite there, because I don't think it's needed. 

But what about cross? Cross, from what I can see, is much better off. In New England, the peak has come and gone, which is not to say that it can't climb back up, but there was a participation peak a few years ago and now it's tailed off. In the Mid Atlantic, cross is still quite healthy. Here is MABRA's participation chart for the last few years

When you add it all up, the net +/- for 2019 versus 2018 is that 2019 was lower by like 26 entries. This excludes events that didn't happen in either 2019 or 2018. If you add those in, the losses for 2019 are much steeper, but to me the stability of the year-over-year events speaks loudest. Traditionally, MABRA (Mid Atlantic) has trailed NEBRA (New England) participation trends by a year or three, so we'll have to see if that holds. 

Yesterday sure was a nice day. Does anyone know where this is, apart from "in the zeitgeist"?

This very good article in ToBeDetermined.cc is really interesting, and makes the quite strong case that gravel kills road. There is a ton of room for causality and causation debate within it, but the gist is that the year of people's first participation in Rasputitsa (a hellacious cold/snowy/muddy event in VT held during the absolute peak of mud season) is the year they stop road racing. A similar dynamic exists for cross, but the slope is much shallower. 

Overall, my impression is that the same "you have to be so good just to suck" dynamic raises gravel's prospects at the same time it threatens road and cross. I'm such a weirdo that I take myself as a proxy for almost nothing, ever, but I think my personal dynamics are not so different here. In road, I could be in the race and do things and make pedaling noises and such, enough that it was really fun, but I sure never won. I was the pretty good guy who wasn't going to win the race. In cross, it was a much higher entry fee in terms of training and effort for me to be, let's face it, pretty bad. I still enjoyed it, the days at the races are fun, there's community, there's beer, blah blah blah. 

Tim sent pictures! Thanks, Tim. 

Gravel racing keeps most of the good points and alleviates the main bad one - feeling like you're getting curb stomped even if you've put a lot of effort in. Riding with a whole bunch of other people is wicked fun, and the events kind of serve as aggregators - instead of you rounding up all the neighborhood kids to go do a DIY thing (which I've done plenty and is also silly fun), the events shake the trees in a WHOLE LOTTA neighborhoods, and add the barbecue and beer trucks. Easy to like that, and if you drop back a group, eh, you drop back group. It takes cross's advantage over road on the "inclusiveness" scale and bends that curve hard.

There's a philosophical question in here about how much supply drives demand and vice versa. For events, sure, but I'm also thinking about product. I haven't see any real cross-focused innovations since I don't know when. Once Challenge and Clement/Donnelly and the others made their cross tires tubeless ready, that was pretty much it. Does anyone hew to the 33mm tire rule/guidance/idea anymore? It seems like a no. To me, the 20 to 21mm inner rim width seems dead perfect for a 33mm tire, but if no one's using 33mm tires, then there's no anchor at 20 to 21mm internal. So why would anyone innovate around that? Just go bigger, because the light and the heat is all around bigger. 

As I wrote that last paragraph, it became evident just how much the tires you want to ride drive everything - frame design, drive train, certainly rims. We can discuss that more in detail, but when you free CX from the pin of a specific tire size max, holy cow the gates open up.

Back to something resembling my original point, it seems like cross is actually doing quite well, thanks. This year is certainly going to be an interesting one, as people try to smash a whole year's worth of fun and events and everything good into a super limited time frame that shrinks by the day, and will compete with all of life's other demands. 


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  • Dave on

    Scott – No f’ing way! Without natural herd immunity or a vaccine, large group events nuh-uh. Especially those where you would test positive for being about 26 other people after the event finishes. But there’s still plenty of underlying support for cross when it does happen.

    Joe – The d-bag cycle. These same guys “turned cross into road” 8 or 10 years ago. I think for the most part cross was a big and strong and established enough enough culture to be able to normalize them pretty quickly. Can gravel do the same? Outlook is a little grim, since gravel has had this “gravel is whatever it means to you” ethic.

  • Joe Clement on

    Big downside is, all the jackasses that helped kill road are now bringing that shit to gravel. Seeing the difference this year was shocking, at least in Texas.

  • Scott Rosenthal on

    Would you line up with dozens of heavy breathing, sweating fellow racers without having a vaccine first? I won’t. 2020 season is unlikely to happen in any form



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