After teetering on the brink of cancellation, the 2012 US Gran Prix of Cyclocross is ready to roll off the start line for its seventh season Saturday and Sunday with the Planet Bike Cup in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
Trek Bicycles stepped up as the series' title sponsor after the Exergy Development Group, which signed on as title sponsor last season, failed to meet its financial obligations to the race. Registration for the Sun Prairie races was briefly delayed while series director Joan Hanscom looked for alternative funding.
Trek, which this year is sponsoring a number of regional and elite riders, including eight-time US national champion Katie Compton, joined brands such as WD-40 Bike, Clif Bar, SRAM and RadioShack in coming forward to fill the gaps when the series' scheduled title sponsor missed its payment deadline in August.
"It was really nice that the industry came in and did great things," Hanscom said of finding the last-minute sponsorship to get the series back on track. "Absolutely."
The Planet Bike Cup is the first of four weekends of racing that make up the USGP series, which continues Oct. 13-14 at the Fort Collins Cup in Colorado. The Derby City Cup on Nov. 10-11 will take place on the same course as the 2013 world championships in February.
"Nobody's ever raced it before," Hanscom said of the Louisville course that will be used for this year's USGP and later for Worlds. "Even though we've raced at the park before, we've never raced on this course before. It will be a unique opportunity to ride the actual world championships course."
The series culminates with the Deschutes Brewery Cup in Bend, Oregon, on Dec. 8-9. The series finale moved from its traditional spot in Portland to Bend for the first time last year, and Hanscom said the organizers were happy with the result.
"It's such a great cycling town, it's a great, fun place to end the series," Hanscom said. "The course is tremendous. The venue couldn't be better – on the grounds of Deschutes. Nobody complained about that. It was a great turn out, so we're pretty excited to go back to Bend."
But first the riders hoping to cap overall series success in Oregon have to get things rolling in Wisconsin. And the line-up for the race indicates the competition for the podium will be tough. The men's field boasts all the top US riders save for Todd Wells, who recently wrapped up his Olympic mountain bike season with a win at the US MTB marathon national championships.
The 63 riders who are registered for the race, however, will have little time to miss Wells. National champion Jeremy Powers and his Rapha-Focus teammates Chris Jones and Zach McDonald will be on hand to pick up the battle they started at CrossVegas with Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com riders Tim Johnson, Jamey Driscoll and new signing Ryan Trebon. Jonathan Page will be in Sun Prairie, along with Trek World Racing's Luka Fluckiger.
"We've got the whole depth of US 'cross here," Hanscom said. "We're not missing anybody. The whole Cannondale crew is here, the whole Rapha-Focus crew is here, the Raleigh-Clement team is all here. We have some Optum guys racing. Everybody's racing."
The women's field is equally stacked. Compton will be joined by Bob's Red Mill's Mo Bruno Roy; Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com's Kaitlin Antonneau; Rapha-Focus riders Gabby Day and Julie Krasniak; Raleigh-Clement's Caroline Mani and Nicole Duke; Mical Dyck; Ashley James; Cal Giant-Specialized's Meredith Miller; and Luna Pro Team's Teal Stetson-Lee and Georgia Gould, fresh off her bronze-medal performance at the Olympic cross country mountain bike race.
Defending USGP champion Katerina Nash, the Luna teammate of Gould and Stetson-Lee, will miss the Sun Prairie races but picks up the trail during round two in Colorado.
People familiar with the course in Sun Prairie can expect a few changes, Hanscom said. But the weather will be much like last year's.
"We've changed the course up a little bit this year. We've added some features on the hillside where we have the run-up. We've added some challenge there, so it should be good. It's raining now, so it's going to be cold and damp tomorrow, for sure. Sunday is looking beautiful and sunny. But tomorrow is going to be rainy in the morning. So we will have mud. We always like to start with 'cross weather."
Saturday's opening race, like the three other Saturday USGP races, is an important UCI C1-ranked event that offers valuable points that determine starting positions at World Cup races, nationals and the world championships. Coveted spots on the Worlds team can also come down to UCI points. The USGP's Saturday races make up nearly half of the total of nine C1 events in the US this season. The Sunday races are ranked C2.
In the men's competition, Powers struck first in the battle for points by winning the country's initial C1 race of the year at CrossVegas Wednesday evening. Now the rest of the contenders will be looking to make up for lost ground at one of the few opportunities they'll have in their own backyards. Aside from the glory and prize money, which is equal for the women, bigger stakes are up for grabs this season when it comes to how the series races could affect the riders' run toward the first-ever cyclo-cross world championships in the US. Hanscom said she thinks it will definitely add to the excitement.
"I think it's going to be a great year for 'cross in the US," she said. "I think a lot of people have had their sights set on this season for a few years now."