The contrast could not have been more stark: in Belgium, 14 professional men set off from the gun to battle for their national championship, having been given the luxury of racing unmolested, a minute ahead of a somewhat larger elite-without-contract field. In the USA, by contrast, 105 elite men, and before them 111 elite women, hit out from the gun with a cacaphony of clicking pedals and shifting gears to battle for their national title in Boulder, Colorado, the pelotons as large as most of the UCI road races in this country.
While 100 riders is not the most the 'cross nationals has seen - there were 160 starters in Bend, Oregon in 2009 - the large number of riders has caused issues in the past. The course can get chewed up with so many racers, pits can be overcrowded, and lapped riders may not be pulled in time and get in the way of the leaders. But there are benefits, too - a big field gives the fans someone to cheer for almost the entire time the race is going on, adding to the excitement. It also gives all elite riders the chance to race in front of some of the biggest crowds they'll ever see.
While race winner Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus) saw little except daylight ahead of him as he hurtled solo around the Valmont Bike Park last Sunday, Micah Rice, the USA Cycling Vice President of National Events, admitted that having well over a hundred riders chasing him might have contributed to Powers' strategy.
"It's exciting to see 100 guys waiting to take the start, but I'm sure Powers was thinking about [the size of the field] when he drilled it from the gun," Rice told Cyclingnews.
Neither former US champion Tim Johnson nor 10-time champion Katie Compton had any issues negotiating the course, and both agreed that the implementation of the "80 per cent rule", which allows officials to pull riders before they get lapped, has solved many of the issues of large fields.
"The worst year was San Francisco in 1999," Johnson said. "[Lap times were] about five minutes: it was really short and there were huge numbers of riders. We were lapping people right away - on the first or second lap. But it hasn't been a problem recently."
Compton had a run-in with a lapped rider while racing at the Scheldecross in Antwerp, but said that this is the exception, and that longer courses and better officiating is key. "She went out of her way to elbow me, and is a rider who has a reputation for that," Compton said of the incident. "But as long as the officials do a good job of pulling riders, it's not an issue. Here in the US, riders are super respectful."
Participation versus competition
USA Cycling encourages participation in the masters age group, junior and collegiate events by holding numerous categories and fielding podiums of five riders rather than three, but it seems to be considering backing off on that focus for the elites.
This year, the elite podiums were more in line with UCI elite podiums around the world, with three riders, and USA Cycling is currently searching for the right way to better define which riders should be in the elite fields at the cyclo-cross national championships.
"The guy who's in the last row knows he isn't going to be fighting for a top 10 finish," Rice said. "At that point, riders are just participating, but we need to balance having an elite field with encouraging participation."
"In past years, I'd say about half of the field has done more than one event, many of the riders are double-dipping. We are trying to draw a better line in the sand for masters riders and elites. It would be nice if the first three rows of elite riders could race and not be hampered by the thought of 100 riders chasing behind them."
USA Cycling is still trying to determine what the optimal number of riders is for an elite race, and how or even whether to draw that line.
"We could limit it by riders who have UCI points, but we have so many chances to score UCI points in this country, that if a rider wanted to get a point, they would find a way."
Riders could also be prevented from racing masters nationals if they have UCI points, as they are with the world championships, or other rules implemented.
"We are also looking at our domestic elite team designation (used in the National Criterium and Road Calendars) and seeing how we can possibly apply that to cyclo-cross.
"It's easy for the men's road events: it's clean cut, if you are on a professional team, you're a pro," Rice said, in cyclo-cross, it is not so clear cut.
But Johnson and Compton both felt that cyclo-cross in the USA is not yet at the size where a division has to be made. "I don't want to have a nationals like in Belgium [where there were 14 elite starters]. Down the line, it might be an issue, but for now it's a luxury to have this issue. The sport is growing, that's awesome. We don't want to tell people to go away."
The situation is similar for the women - who actually outnumbered the men's field in Boulder. Compton was pleased that Colorado turned out such a large field. "They were all good, all legitimate elite riders," she said. "Women need to be out racing."
Rice admits that USA Cycling would lose out on some registration fees were they to cut down on the number of elite riders, but as the sport continues to grow, participation in the other categories can compensate easily.
"We expect to break even for Boulder, if we don't count staff time," Rice said of this year's bottom line. In past years the deficit has been in the tens of thousands of dollars for nationals, but he says it is USA Cycling's job to make the national championships a special event.
"We do big screens, webcasting - the whole look and feel - even without a lot of big sponsorship. It's our duty to create an event that is the best race of the year, and if I don't do that, then I've missed my mark."
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