The US mountain bike calendar of elite cross country races has undergone several major changes during the off-season.
With plans for the major domestic races appearing to be stable at last, Cyclingnews took a look at the two national-level series that have emerged as a result of recent changes. Part I examines USA Cycling's US Pro XCT.
The US Pro Cross Country Tour (US Pro XCT) is heading into its second season after working through some changes in management during the off-season. For a time, the series faced an uncertain future as promoters and races came and went. The most notable change occurred when last year's organizers, the US Cup, withdrew itself from a management role and all but one of is races from the series. In the aftermath, USA Cycling assumed full responsibility for running the series - including finding other events to add.
"There's been a lot of uncertainty about whether the Pro XCT was going to happen. The Pro XCT is still happening and will be made up of all-UCI races," said Marc Gullickson, USA Cycling's Mountain Bike and 'Cross Director for Athletics. "The races will be important qualifiers for the World Championships."
This year's US Pro XCT consists of five rounds. The series will kick off with the US Cup in Fontana, California, on March 27, then move to the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California, on April 18 for the second of two west coast stops. On May 29, the series will visit Texas for the Mellow Johnny's Classic. One month later, on June 26, racers will contest round four, the Subaru Cup in Mt. Morris, Wisconsin, and finals will wrap the overall up on July 10, at the CTS International Classic in Colorado, Springs, Colorado, one week before the US Mountain Bike National Championships.
The Bump and Grind race was to have returned for another year as part of the series - serving as round four on June 5 - but the organizer decided not to pursue UCI-race categorization, and therefore the race will no longer be part of the US Pro XCT. The Birmingham, Alabama event will still happen, however, without UCI status.
Each round will include a cross country on Saturday and a short track on Sunday. There will be racing for elite, junior, master and amateur riders in categories similar to those at US Nationals.
All five rounds will count; there will be no dropped events. "The top three will be weighted heavier than in past years to allow a rider who has to miss an event or has a mechanical, to still do well and even win the series," said Gullickson.
Both California rounds will be UCI-category one races, and the other three rounds will be category two events.
A look back
"From my perspective, the 2009 US Pro XCT was a success," said Gullickson. "Certainly, it wasn't up to the level of the NORBA national series that many people remember from the 1990s. A lot of people hold that up as the pinnacle of domestic racing here in the States for cross country racing.
"We didn't get to that level with the US Pro XCT, but we're trying to get the prize money up and the UCI designation as well as get the media more behind the series." Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski (Subaru Gary Fisher) and Catharine Pendrel (Luna) won the overall men's and women's series.
The US Pro XCT replaced the National Mountain Bike Series (NMBS) in 2009. Prior to the NMBS, elite-level national racers and some international racers competed in the NORBA national series. Talk to racers who've been around a few years, and you'll still hear them using the moniker "NORBA series" to refer to the national series. NORBA is name of the mountain biking division within USA Cycling.
Gullickson believes the return to a higher profile national series will take some time. "From where we are coming a few years ago, it's a step in the right direction. It's a few-year work in progress. It was a good first step."
Growing the national series in the midst of a global recession hasn't been easy.
"There was a reason the US Cup left. I think it was difficult to make it financially successful for them. It was difficult to prop up the series," he said. On a more positive note, he added, "I think the groundwork is laid for a more stable series in years to come. I think this series will last longer and in the end result in a stronger, more well-attended and popular series."
He credits two USA Cycling-organized Mountain Bike Promoter's summits in recent years for helping the US Pro XCT come to be. "It's been good to get everyone on the same page. I know there was some criticism from some parties out there."
A positive outcome of the promoter's summit is better awareness and cooperation among race promoters when it comes to event scheduling. A look at the 2010 calendar reveals no date conflicts among the events of the US Pro XCT, the Triple Crown, the World Cup and the National Championships.
That doesn't mean there won't be any conflicts when other events are considered. "I'm sure there will still be some conflicts with the non-Olympic distance cross country races," said Gullickson, aware that many cross country racers also contest marathons and stage races, too.
"I'm happy that the US Cup guys are putting on the Triple Crown. They have a good point, there needs to be more top level racing and amateur racing across the US. There are plenty of good pros in the US that don't have the funding to go to all the World Cups. They are in the States and benefit from more opportunities to get to more big races with more prize money."
What's up for 2010?
Although the US Cup is staying involved as the promoters of round one, USA Cycling will coordinate the 2010 series. Gullickson described the parting of ways of the two organizations as a "pretty friendly break-up".
"Our role is to pull together the best race promoters who are interested and create an association with them for the series," said Gullickson. "It seems simple to designate the series, but [Mountain Bike & Cyclo-cross Events Director] Kelli Lusk does a lot of work to make sure everyone's on the same page. USAC will take the lead as marketing the series this year.
"As a national federation, we have the power to create a national points series that is recognized as the national federation's series. There is a little bit of power there. People have been asking us to offer a national points series. It's something that's been around for a long time, and the structure seems to work.
"In the past, one promoter has often run the whole series and the problem with that is when the promoter goes away - such as happened with the US Cup - when it becomes not financially feasible for another one promoter to take over. It's expensive and if a promoter has to pull out, the whole series is jeopardized.
"The model for 2010 is that each race will be run by its promoter. There are no restrictions on sponsorship or how they run their event other than our standards and the UCI standards.
USAC will do the rankings, handle the paperwork and provide leaders' jerseys, number plates and signage to have some symmetry among the races.
"Each event has a longstanding history of success. I think Texas is the only event that is relatively new. I know they're motivated to improve on it." The Mellow Johnny's Classic was run for the first time in the fall of 2009. The new date and the strong Texas mountain bike community, along with inclusion in the national series, should help the race step up to a new level in 2010.
"There isn't going to be as much of a cohesive, visual feel, from one race to the other. They will all be UCI races and quality events. Last year, [the US Cup's] Scott Tedro and his staff put a consistent look on the races - marketing, start/finish areas, etc." Gullickson noted that the US Cup had brought a lot of resources to the 2009 series.
Gullickson doesn't have a commitment from any racer or team for the 2010 series, but he believes it will draw the top domestic talent, and likely some international talent, too. "I wouldn't say that I have 100 percent commitment from anyone, but I think a majority of the teams will be a majority of the races in the series. I think a majority of the best pros will be at all the races."
USA Cycling is committed to having a series of UCI-categorized events in its national series. UCI points are important to elite international racers as they influence starting spots at some races and the total number of starting spots at the Olympic Games.
The US Pro XCT events are the only UCI-categorized mountain bike races in the US other than the UCI World Cup in Windham, New York, and the US National Championships in Granby, Colorado.
It's the designation of the race that determines prize money. Cat. 1 events will pay 3,125 euros to the men over 15 places and 1,865 euros to the women over 10 places. Cat. 2 events will pay 1,415 euros for the men and 930 euros total to the women.
Although USAC is motivated to have a national series with UCI points, most promoters don't consider it a high priority. Inscription fees, costs of running the races to UCI standards, doping testing and mandatory prize lists add up to make running a UCI event a costly proposition for promoters. Therefore,USAC has decided to pay for some of the expenses of running the series rounds as UCI events.
"It's getting too expensive to inscript from the perspective of promoters. Yet, from a rider development side, I realized that it's difficult for our riders to get UCI points. It makes sense for our riders, who are racing this series anyway, to pick up UCI points to improve their individual ranking and our nation's ranking. I was able to take some money out of my athletics budget and cover the inscription fees for these UCI events."
"It was a big step for me. It's not done in any other discipline," said Gullickson, who noted that the end goal is to improve the number of American Olympic start positions. Nations can send a maximum of three men and two women to the Olympic Games. The points also determine start order at the World Championships.
"I'm motivated to bring UCI points to the US to help us qualify the maximum number of Olympic spots. It's not easy to do that when [Max] Plaxton and [Geoff] Kabush (both Canadians) show up and get points ahead of American riders, but it's good for those who do earn points. We're on track for the women to qualify the maximum of two spots for London in 2010, but we're on the bubble with the men qualifying the maximum of three. We're in fourth place overall now - on the bubble with Germany and Canada. If our guys have good seasons in the next two years, we'll be good to go." Both Canada and Germany have well-developed national series, with UCI points awarded.
"The inscription doesn't cover the prize money, it's only a fraction of putting on a UCI race, but it does have to get paid. We assume these bigger races would have pretty good prize money anyway," said Gullickson.
Gullickson noted that mountain biking is the only discipline receiving such USAC funding to help subsidize the costs of UCI races. "I can't make that argument for cyclo-cross, for example, because it's not an Olympic sport. Mountain biking gets its funding from the USOC as an Olympic sport." In addition, the US Cyclo-cross calendar is not hurting for UCI-categorized events. Several dozen were on the 2009-2010 UCI calendar.
"We hope this assistance will get the series over the hump and eventually we won't have to pay the inscription fees. We hope that eventually the promoters will be able to pay the fees because they'll be making good money from the events."
Each US Pro XCT event will offer elite men and women UCI points. Under 23s will race with the elites and are eligible for points if they place high enough in the elite races. For juniors, there are no mountain bike UCI points.
Scouting for talent
Given his role with athlete development, Gullickson views the US Pro XCT as a chance for aspiring junior, under 23 and elite racers to get noticed.
"For domestic riders, looking to get on my radar, the Pro XCT races are the best place to get on my radar," he said. "I will designate one of these US Pro XCT races as a worlds qualifier, but I'll look at all the races to watch for new talent. I'll tell all the juniors to go to those races."
The US Pro Gravity Tour (Pro GRT) serves as the US downhill national series. At present, the two series are run separately, but Gullickson thinks there may be room for overlap of some rounds of both series in the future.
"Some teams have both cross country and gravity riders, and they are having a hard time with all these venues being split. It taxes their budget. They voiced concerns at the promoter's meeting this fall. I think in the future there might be some effort to try to combine some of the venues. Certainly not all venues will be able to host gravity events. It might be nice to bring the Pro GRT and Pro XCT together a few times during the year and ease the burden."
There is also a push to make some Pro GRT events into UCI events. Although downhill racing is not an Olympic sport, Gullickson said, "The gravity community is pretty focused on UCI points, too. Our pro gravity riders are pushing to get to World Cups and they need 20 points to start a World Cup."
Some criticism of the US Pro XCT has centered around the distribution of venues across the US. With the withdrawal of the Bump and Grind and the upgrade of Windham from US Pro XCT to World Cup, there are no east coast US Pro XCT rounds, for example, and the Pacific Northwest lacks an event in the series, too.
"It's a struggle," said Gullickson of the effort to balance locations. "If we had a promoter in New England who wanted to step up and do a UCI event, I can guarantee they would have been in the series. Maybe there needs to be more outreach to some of the promoters to help them step it up?
"There is a bit of a hole this year - it's tough to see that. Mount Snow has been a strong partner for us in the past. Maybe they will come back for 2011. The Northwest is a tough one - I think more work needs to be done there. OBRA is really strong so there's a bit of a disconnect with USAC - I think that could change. There's lot of momentum up there for cycling."
Only time will tell whether the series will grow in terms of the number of events. "There are two schools of thought. When I think of it from perspective of top 10 men or women or Under 23 races, they have a packed schedule because they have World Cups, too, and Pan Ams and Nationals and the Triple Crown. Inevitably there are few other big events that these guys do that aren't part of a series.
"When you try to add more to a national calendar for them, it feels like we're stepping on toes and stretching our best riders kinda thin. It's a goal to have our best riders attend a majority of the series races.
"Our racers already are at a disadvantage with how much travel they have to do. It affects fitness and fatigue and you don't want to make them do even more. Their sponsors might like them to race every weekend, but they also need some time off."
"On the other side, the domestic pros who are looking for more, big events... those riders will be happy with the Triple Crown. Scott [Tedro of the US Cup] is stepping up and paying some good overall prize money. Those riders would benefit from more opportunities to race."
Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for Part II, which will feature the 2010 Triple Crown.
2010 USA Cycling Pro Cross Country Mountain Bike Tour (Revised)
March 27: US Cup Fontana - Fontana, California (UCI Cat. 1)
April 18: Sea Otter Classic - Monterey, California (UCI Cat. 1)
May 29: Mellow Johnny’s Classic - Dripping Springs, Texas (UCI Cat. 2)
June 26: Subaru Cup - Mt. Morris, Wisconsin (UCI Cat. 2)
July 10: Carmichael Training Systems International Classic - Colorado Springs, Colorado (UCI Cat. 2)