Over the past half dozen seasons, the red-green-and-white kits of the Clif Bar cyclo-cross team have become synonymous with US 'cross excellence. Now the junior development wing of program is stepping up to send three riders on a European campaign over the holidays.
With a schedule similar to the Euro 'Cross camp run by Geoff Proctor, three Clif Bar juniors and their chaperone will live and race in Belgium for two weeks. They'll fly out of Boulder, Colorado, at the end of the week and start racing at the Namur World Cup on December 23. Juniors can only race twice a week in Belgium, but they hope to time it right and fit in six races, finishing up with the Bpost Bank Trophee in Baal on January 1.
Elite rider and team manager Mitchell Hoke will take juniors Maxx Chance, 16, Spencer Downing, 17, and Ian McPherson, 17, on the first of what Clif Bar team director Ben Turner hopes will become an annual trip. Turner said news that Proctor's camp might have fewer spots for junior racers this year prompted the idea.
“It seemed like a good time to get all three of my crew over there without stressing out the system that Geoff has,” Turner said. “That way he can take six of his own, and we'll have all three of our guys getting the same experience.”
And that European experience is crucial for young US riders hoping to compete at the top international level.
“I think it's really the thing that teaches them how to race and improve their racing strategy and toughness for here when there racing against their own counterparts,” Turner said. “But when they go to do Worlds and this other European racing they just get this crash course where thy sink or swim.”
Hoke, who first floated the trip idea to Turner, has traveled to Belgium with Proctor's camp several times and took a similar trip on his own last year with teammate Troy Wells.
“He felt they had a pretty good system in place with a mechanic they knew and a place to stay,” Turner said. “So he felt he was ready to run the show this year and give those kids the opportunity.”
It's a brand-new step for a team that has been at it for awhile. The current Clif bar 'cross program traces its roots back to the old TIAA-Cref and 5280 road teams run by Jonathan Vaughters during the middle of the last decade. Turner was one of the team managers, and in 2004 he decided to set up a cyclo-cross program to supplement roadies' training and give them a glimpse of the growing fall and winter discipline. The team's development also coincided nicely with the emergence in 2004 of the US Gran Prix of Cyclocross, which provided a national platform for the team's riders and sponsors.
Past elite riders include Will Frischkorn and Colby Pearce. Troy Wells and Brady Kappius have been with the team since the beginning and continue to ride the Clif Bar colors. Previous junior team riders include Peter Stetina, Alex Howes and Tejay van Garderen. The roster reads like a who's-who list of the many of the top young US riders currently plying their trade in the European WorldTour. Former Clif Bar devo riders Yannick Eckmann, who moved on to Cal Giant-Specialized, and Danny Summerhill continue to race at the top of US elite/U23 fields.
“We started out with just five riders, and over the years it's kind of fluctuated,” Turner said. “Some years we've really tried to support a lot of people. It's just a reflection of what kind of sponsorship support we've been able to get. Some years it's good, some years it's a little slim. We've had maybe 12-15 kids involved at some level, and then we've had nice small groups of five or six guys as well.”
One of the team's biggest cyclo-cross success stories has been Summerhill. The 23-year-old from Englewood rode into the silver medal at the 2007 Junior world cyclo-cross championship at Hooglede-Gits.
“One of the most incredible experiences I've ever had as a coach and a team manager was working with Danny for a few years and then seeing it all come together in Belgium when he almost won the race,” Turner said.
Summerhill went on to focus on road racing with Slipstream's Holowesko Partners and Chipotle development teams, but he also won the U23 national cyclo-cross championship in 2010, and he continues to be a factor in any elite races that fit into his road schedule. Summerhill will move to the UnitedHealthcare Pro Continental team next year, and he credits Clif Bar, Turner and Proctor for his success in both cyclo-cross and on the road.
“They put blood sweat and tears into it,” Summerhill said of all the many people who are part of the Clif Bar program. “That is what gets results and what gets people in love with the sport. It's people like Ben Turner and Geoff Proctor. I wouldn't be where I am without those two.”
Maxx Chance, one of the riders heading to Belgium later this week, has also benefited from the blood sweat and tears of the Clif Bar crew. He won the UCI junior series overall for the USGP after competing six of the eight races, and he's now focused on the World Cups, nationals and then a shot at the world championships. He said that although the team offers an opportunity to race at the national level, the squad's local feel and connections are what make it work.
“The management is all local, and I think the farthest person away is in Durango, but most of us are based out of the Boulder and Louisville area,” Chance said. “It's sort of like a local team that races nationally and internationally. It's a tight-knit group, and I think that's what helps it go so well.”
While Chance took the USGP series overall with a consistent run through six races, his teammate McPherson started hot with two wins in Fort Collins before faltering and falling to fourth overall. Downing's consistency earned him the fifth overall spot. The results provide a good send off for the trio as they tackle the best Juniors in the world in some of the most historic 'cross courses in Belgium.
Turner said team sponsors, several private donors and a recent fundraiser will help pay for the trip.
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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.