Among the elite cyclo-cross teams competing in the Northeast is a Philadelphia-based squad with a unique moniker and mission: the Philadelphia Cyclocross School. The team's website banner provides a succinct purpose for the team, "cultural exchange via cyclo-cross", and for the past three seasons several talented, young Swiss cyclo-cross riders have raced the fall 'cross season in the northeast US while being hosted by families in the Philadelphia area.
These aren't simply riders who venture to the US in search of UCI points, it's become an opportunity for the Swiss riders to spend 12 weeks hosted by a family and take an active, participatory role in the mentoring of American Junior riders on the team.
The impetus for the team's creation came in the spring of 2009 from a seemingly innocuous email to the MAC (Mid-Atlantic Cyclocross) Series listserv, the gist of which was, "Swiss bike racer wants to come race in America and learn English". David Berson, the Philadelphia Cyclocross School directeur sportif, still had fond memories of a several-month stint spent racing in Europe in the early '90s - immersion in a foreign culture and friendships formed which still last to this day - and decided to reach out to the author of the email, Valentin Scherz.
"Honestly, I had no idea of the quality or level of this rider," Berson told Cyclingnews. "I didn't know much about him. I contacted him to make sure he was a good guy and made the decision that if you want to come we'll put you up. I'm no longer racing but I still care about the sport, I'm enthusiastic about cycling, so it was a chance for me to kind of get back to the races with him and go from there.
"Valentin Scherz came over and lived at my house, went to all the races, but was still part of his trade team in Europe. I had a lot of friends, people were very impressed and really liked him. He would help people at the local 'cross practices, offer advice, and was a very approachable, nice, super-generous guy."
Scherz not only won the MAC Series, but his success both on and off the bike laid the groundwork for the 2010-2011 season and the inception of the Philadelphia Cyclocross School program.
"Friends of mine in the [cycling] industry volunteered that if you need anything let me know," said Berson. "That actually put a seed in my mind. Valentin had a successful year, he won the MAC, and we were talking about the next season. Valentin had to go into the military for the beginning of basic training which was for four months. He was kind of bummed out about it and he said 'I'd love to come back and race but due to family pressure and things like that it's got to be a real program. I can't just live at your house and race'."
Enter Jed Kornbluh, the Philadelphia Cyclocross School business manager. "I had worked in the bike industry for most of my life and left about 3.5 years ago to go into a different venture and at the time Valentin came here I was promoting Staten 'Cross," Kornbluh told Cyclingnews. "I saw some great potential in this guy and thanks to some contacts I had in the industry I was able to talk to a few friends. Dave and I already had the name PCS, which used to be our old club team back in the '90s, Philadelphia Cycle and Sport, so we just turned that into the Philadelphia Cyclocross School.
"From there we told Valentin to find another rider. He was approached at the MAC banquet by the Meier family, whose son Julz was a Junior racer, and they were really interested in hosting a rider should we grow the program. That was kind of the impetus for us thinking we can actually build a real team."
"We gave Valentin some pretty strict criteria: basically we need someone like you who wants to participate with a family, learn things, and share the whole cultural exchange," said Berson. "My wife loved it, my kids loved Valentin, it was a wonderful experience. So we said we don't want another rider who's just going to come over here looking for UCI points and a free ride at the races. It's got to be a participative, sharing exchange."
The program again struck gold in the 2010-2011 season with first and second overall in the MAC series, heightened support from both the cycling industry and cyclo-cross community alike, all punctuated by Scherz's 7th place finish in the under 23 'cross world championships in St. Wendel, Germany.
"Valentin Scherz proved you can come here and race a good, aggressive, strong season and go back to Europe and maybe not kick butt in the early World Cups over there, but ride well and train and pull it all together for the world championships which is really the end goal for every 'cross racer over there," said Berson.
"We were just absolutely thrilled after that race," said Kornbluh, "but we knew that might be the end for him. Valentin wanted to grow his career, try to get a pro contract, but he decided to follow his other dreams and went off to medical school."
Scherz, however, made rider recommendations for the current season and three new Swiss riders are currently flying the Philadelphia Cyclocross School colors: Eric Brüngger, 21, Lukas Winterberg, 23, and Lukas Müller, 19. The trio have two American teammates in the elite ranks, Patrick Bradley, 21 and Matt Spohn, 27, plus three Juniors: Julz Meier, Cole Reece and Jimmy Maurer.
"We clothe them, they get bikes, they get wheels, they get a lot of accessories, we transport them to rides, we pit for them, and we make sure their tires get glued." said Kornbluh.
The squad is having another banner season, with wins in MAC events plus high placings in UCI 'cross races in the northeast, increased local sponsorship from industry partners like Cyfac and Revolution Wheelworks interested in growing the sport, but more importantly the communal aspect of the program has once again blossomed.
"We like to think of these guys as part of our family," said Kornbluh. "We eat our meals together, we travel together, we spend a ton of time with these guys.
"There's so much more about cyclo-cross in terms of community. The race is only the sideshow. It's really all about the day, the event - warming up, pre-riding the course, discussing tire pressure - all the things that build a strong relationship."
"You go to the races and the Swiss riders are looking after the Juniors, helping to prepare for the races," said Berson. "They're pitting for them, teaching these kids about preparation, about routines, and giving advice during the races. From the sidelines it's great to watch, down the road these guys are going to be friends for life. That's probably the best part of the program, for me to know that."
Ultimately, Berson and Kornbluh would like to see their program grow into one of the premier 'cross development squads in the country, with the end goal to have US riders travel to Europe in the latter portion of the season and live with their European teammates.
"We're trying to figure out how we can grow this program without digging too far into our own pockets and without putting too much pressure on the host families," said Kornbluh. "We want to grow this, we want to become one of the bigger or biggest U23 programs in North America, but we know there's some limitations there.
"We want to be able to send our riders back to Europe. We need to grow our budget, we need to get more financial sponsors involved, but that would be the ultimate goal: to get our guys through nationals and then send them back to Europe to race up until Worlds."