By Steve Medcroft
There seems to be an escalating momentum in cyclocross in the United States. Although the sport has always had its followers, it hasn't been until recent years that U.S. cyclocross has earned mainstream credibility in the cycling world. Elite level road and mountain bike racers have crossed over to this once-obscure winter sport. ‘Cross specialists are getting the kind of publicity usually reserved for cyclists of any other discipline. And successful series like the U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross and the Verge Mid-Atlantic Cyclocross Series are providing platforms for a core of ‘crossers to emerge.
But besides the racers and media and promoters, one of the most important drivers of this momentum is the sponsorship community. The cycling industry has embraced ‘cross as a valid and valuable way to expose their products and services to the cycling consumer.
To understand the role a sponsor plays in the development of cyclocross in the U.S., and the importance of ‘cross for the business playing sponsor, we talked to Minneapolis-based Paul Schoening of Euromedia Group, the U.S. importer of Alan Frames, Barbieri cycling accessories, Ked Helmets and GSG Clothing. Schoening was en route to San Francisco for the final weekend of USGP racing accompanying Alan Factory Team junior racer (and USGP series leader) Bjorn Selander.
Cyclingnews: How did you get into the cycling industry?
Paul Schoening: I've been involved in cycling for 21 years in one shape or form. I raced in Italy as a U23 and senior; lived over there and raced seriously for six or seven years. I didn't quite make it as a pro so I shifted to career mode and got into consumer and business-to-business marketing. The whole time I was in business, I stayed active as a racer and sometimes race promoter.
CN: What's your history with cyclocross?
PS: I was always passionate about ‘cross but got away from it for a while. Then the scene boomed in the Midwest in the past four or five years and I started racing again. The business I have now came about from a combination of things. I have a master's, I'm bilingual (Italian) and I'm a cyclist but I wasn't using those things in my career. Then on 9-11, I stood in midtown Manhattan and watched the World Trade Center towers fall to the ground and my priorities shifted; I wrote a business plan for Euromedia Group over the next few months. It was a pipe dream at first; a way to combine everything I knew about business with cycling. Then I fell in with a good partner and grew the business. I continued doing consulting work to support myself until about two years ago when I was able to jump on board fill time.
CN: How did you get involved in sponsoring cyclocross racers?
PS: Our first year promoting the Alan line and the team was 2003. For the business, we wanted to bring unique and unrepresented companies into the U.S. Since Alan had a strong name in cyclocross, and ‘cross is a natural platform for all our brands, we sponsored three or four guys who traveled to races to build a name; maybe 30 riders nationwide including some grassroots riders. Last year, we grew to 75 riders and launched an elite team nationally. For 2005, we're up to fifteen elite and a hundred grassroots sponsored riders.
CN: One of your success stories is junior Bjorn Salender, who won the USGP of Cyclocross last year as well as last year's National Championship. Do you focus on working with juniors?
PS: Our ‘cross team is about all levels but I have an affinity to juniors because I don't feel they're supported very well. In the example of Bjorn, we saw a kid with potential but who didn't have the support. He lives in the metro ( Minneapolis ) area – right across the border from us. I had met his father (Dag Selander) some time ago mountain bike racing – he's a Norwegian ex pro. I bumped into him again at a road race in Wisconsin where we were just starting to work with Alan. Bjorn was 15 and needed a new bike so we helped him out. We got Bjorn and his father interested in ‘cross. We're proud that because of his ‘cross racing, he's now on the on the map of national cycling.
CN: He's having a strong second year; leading the USGP?
PS: Danny Summerhill and Alex Howes (both TIAA-Cref/Clif Bar) are chasing him but Bjorn basically needs only to put together two solid days (in the final USGP weekend in the Bay Area) together to clinch the series. His fitness is on the way up so we're not putting any pressure on ourselves. After this, Bjorn's looking forward to Nationals and he plans to attend Geoff Proctor's European Cyclocross Camp (a ten-day camp hosted at the USA Cycling Development house in Belgium during the ‘cross-crazy Christmas/New Year's week), the Worlds.
CN: The team has other success stories as well?
PS: Nicholas Weighall came second to Bjorn at nationals last year and he had no sponsor so we were able to help him. Matt Kelly was formerly junior world champion. I'd always admired him and when he decided he wanted to come back to racing after five years out of it, we approached him to do ‘cross. One other notable junior is Logan Loder. He won a bunch of local races but hadn't traveled because he broke his wrist in September. He's coming to the Bay Area and we expect him to do well. We're always trying to find junior talent. We support some other junior development programs in the Minnesota area; kids from 10 to 18. We also promote ten races and a 8 week weeknight training series in the area. These are the kinds of things we want to do – promote the profile of the sport and reflect positively on the brand. Bjorn's a good example of the kind of success our type of program can have.
CN: Do a get a chance to race yourself?
PS: I race masters 40 plus and sometimes as an A in local races - I might be the oldest A-class racer in Minnesota (laughs). I did master's nationals as a racer last year, but it's just as much fun to travel with the riders and be part of the team. This weekend, I'm pitting for Bjorn. I'm also racing.