Cross Vegas 2014

Hunter S. Thompson stated in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that “A little bit of this town goes a very long way”. So found out the Australian cyclo-cross contingent who travelled to CrossVegas 2014 in early September.

CrossVegas is the first major race in the US calendar and timed to coincide with the Interbike bicycle industry exhibition. It is the brain child of Brook Watts who over the past 8 years has grown CrossVegas from a relatively small event to the current event which can attract Sven Nys, Lars Van Der Haar and several other big name European riders to Las Vegas to race early in the CX season. CrossVegas also attracted several Australians in 2014 to race from the Elite races to the support races. Oh, and an Elvis impersonator of course.

There is more to CrossVegas than just the Elite races which are the undoubted highlight of the event. Over the course of several days Brook Watts and his team of volunteers must build the entire course at the Desert Breeze Soccer ground. Yes, everything bar the grass is assembled on site. Considering that the course itself includes two flyovers, a return sandpit, three sets of stairs, one set of barriers, numerous turns, and is fully taped out- that is some achievement from Monday morning to Wednesday afternoon. And main races take place under floodlights. Brook’s team work 18 hour days to build the course in the Nevada heat which averages around 35c during the day only dropping to 25c at night. Also, this year it rained in Las Vegas on the Monday so time was lost and the grass was wet.

The Australian contingent was nine strong across the various divisions. In fact there was an Australian (including the Irish Australians) racing in every race of the day bar the USAC Women’s race.

Diane and I had caught up with Gary Milburn and Fiona Morris early on in the week as we were staying in hotels that were relatively close together in the context of Las Vegas in that it only took thirty minutes to walk the one kilometre between the two. Gary had persuaded me to drive him to Desert Breeze early on the Wednesday morning so that we could ride the course. We duly arrived at the venue around 7am to find the temperature around 30c and the course still being built.

On the first practice lap I took a tumble on going from the wet grass to the concrete path way. Later on that night this short section of pavement, around 20 metres, would prove the downfall of many riders, most notably mountain bike world champion Catherine Prendrel. So the good do fall off.

After a couple of laps we finished up practice managing to track down Brook Watts. The gentleman that he is took some time out to have a chat with us. He was super impressed about the size of the Australian contingent and about how much interest he was getting about the race from Australia.

Gary headed to bed as his race wasn’t until 9.30pm whilst Diane and I headed to Interbike to have a look around. At the Interbike demo day we had bumped into Morgan Nicol of Challenge tyres. He invited us to the launch of the new Baby Limus so we duly attended. It was all rather surreal sharing bagels and coffee with the likes of Helen Wyman, Stu Thorne, Johnaton Page, Elle Anderson, and Mr CycloCross Network the one and only Scott Dedenach.

Interbike didn’t last too long for us as we had a date at 3pm with the Telenet Fieda team for a training session. Arriving at Desert Breeze around 2.30pm the temperature was nudging 35c, some might say too hot for cyclocross training. Not the Telenet Fieda team, plus the Stan’s No Tubes team, who provided some expert tuition for the twenty or so who had signed up for the training. Tips were given on tyre pressure, tyre choice for grass courses and sandy courses, how to ride sand, and many other aspects of a cross race. Although these members of the Telenet Fieda team are young they are already world class cyclocross racers and would feature at the front end of race later that evening.

As the training session was finishing those competing in the USAC races were being to warm up. They were facing a race in about 30c into a setting sun. Meanwhile, some of the course was still being built, notably the raised turn before the TRP barriers. The USAC race started at 5pm with staging beginning from 4.30pm. This race was a forty minute race. By the second of lap most of the racers looked hot and bothered. Adelaide’s David Milller certainly did. David ultimately finished 69th in the 80 plus field.

By the time the Wheelers & Dealers race was staging at 6pm the crowds were starting to roll into Desert Breeze. It was $10 entry into the venue and an estimated 10,000 were in by the time of the main races. Yes, people will pay to watch top class cyclocross. Also, they get access to food and beer vendors, live commentary, and big screen TVs. Ultimately it is a party atmosphere which lends itself to the day that is in it. It is Las Vegas after all. There is one thing that CrossVegas teaches the foreigner is that  the Americans love their cyclocross with many fans flying in for the night and leaving on early flights out of Vegas on the Thursday morning.

I was racing in the media division of the Wheelers & Dealers,  the bicycle industry race. Diane in the women’s Wheelers & Dealers. My race only had 170 starters. I had a call up number of 83. At staging it took around 20 minutes to get everybody onto the start grid. I reckon I was around 15th row of over 30 rows. No holeshot for me, in fact when the start was signalled I reckon it took around 20 seconds for our row to get to the start line. No need for a super fast start. The course was long at over 3kms. I settled into the race reminding myself what Brook had told me many months ago that this was a hard race in the heat on long damp grass. He was right on all those fronts. It was hard going but I persevered picking off people during the race to finish 78th a couple of minutes down. The top guys were racing single speeds and were pretty good from what I heard later. Diane rode really well, despite the heat and her wounds, to finish 7th out of 19. She might have done better if she hadn’t been told to finish at the end of her third lap only to be told to continue to finish a forth.

After a very brief change and some food we were back on duty as reporter and photographer for Australian Cyclocross Magazine. We had our media passes and Diane had a photographer’s bib which allowed her access to all areas. The Elite women were staging from 8pm for a 8.20pm start.

Elite Women.

The Elite Women’s race had 7 of top 20 ranked UCI riders including CycloCross World Cup Winner and multiple USA CX Champion Katie Compton, recently crowned World MTB XCO Champion and Canadian CX Champion Katerine Prendrel, 2014 CX Worlds 3rd place and British champion Helen Wyman, World Cup medalist and Cezch Republic CX Champion Katerina Nash, 2012 London Olympic XCO Bronze medalist Georgia Gould, and ex US road champion and US CX worlds team member Meredith Miller.

Now this was the first UCI Elite Women’s race (and men’s for that matter) that we had watched live and up close. One thing struck me from the start. Those ladies are fast, especially the top four (Compton, Miller, Prendrel, Nash). You don’t appreciate the speed that they are racing when you watch the TV coverage. To see those ladies battle it out for the win was an honour. The rest of the field were having their own battles as this was a race full of racers who understand cyclocross racing tactics.

Lisa Jacobs started from the second row. She found herself in a good group throughout the race finishing a very creditable 17th from 58 starters, only 2 minutes down on the winners. To put this in context Lisa finished on the lead lap, was never in any danger of being pulled and finished near, or in front of, several big names of US women’s cyclocross. She looked comfortable in this field on this course with some of women’s cyclocross leading lights. Unfortunately, Gemma Kernich did not have such a good race finishing 2 laps down but she enjoyed herself.

Australian Results
Lisa Jacobs – 17th in Elite Women (2 minutes down)
Gemma Kernich – 49th in Elite Women (2 laps down)
58 starters. Average speed 25kph. 5 laps

Elite Men

The Elite Men’s field was 62 strong containing Sven Nys, Lars Van der Haar, Jeremy Powers, several of the Telenet Fieda CX Team (including Thijs van Amerongen), and numerous other world class CX racers. This was a field of serious depth with nine countries represented.

If I thought the women were fast the Elite men were a league above. Van der Haar won the holeshot in a fast and furious start. Interestingly, when Gary and myself had been chatting with Sven the night before Sven told us that he was too old to worry about winning the holeshot as it was better to win at the end than the start. He had a crystal ball.

Apparently the first couple of laps were quite pedestrian according to the on-site commentators. You could have fooled us, but the lap times proved it. This was as tactical race with nobody really wanting to do the work in the heavy grass. Most attacks were shut down. Only from the start of the third last lap did the big favourites form a break away group. Boy they were now motoring in the floodlit park.

We had positioned ourselves on the TRP barriers on the last lap. Fortuitous. As this is where Nys made his move against Van der Haar. Nys had been riding the barriers all race as opposed to the overwhelming majority of racers who took the less riskier option to run the barriers. At this level the racers don’t lose much speed when running but in this race the barriers are slightly up hill with a corner around where the re-mount should take place. Van der Haar opted to run the barriers whereas Nys rode them. We saw this move from about three meters away. Nys executed his perfectly whereas Van der Haar was a little slow back onto the bike. Nys had made the winning move.

The Australians found themselves at the back of the start grid and at the back of race in general. These are the top end of the Australian cyclocross racing and were finding it difficult to stick with the pace. Gary was riding the barriers much to the crowd’s delight. Chris caught Gary with a lap to go but Gary caught him back in the last couple of turns. Apparently the results are wrong.

Talking to Gary afterwards he commented “The race itself was as expected, fast! The Aussies were down the back of the group on the start line and we had a fair task in front of us to find our way to the front. I had a fast start and found my way into the top 20. From there it seemed like it was all backwards. I dug deep to try and stay in the pasting in groups but then settled in around 40th position.

Racing was hard, it required high-power and the conditions were quite hot. Each lap the crowd is going crazy, spraying beer and handing out dollar bills. It was hard not to get caught up in the atmosphere of the event. With four laps to go I decided I was feeling good again and rode off the front of my group.  With two laps to go I starting to feel the pain of my effort.

A small group of chasing riders including Aussie Chris Aitken closed in. I decided it would be best to ease up, let them get on and play the next cards from there. We went in to what would be our final lap. Sven was closing in and we were so close to remaining on the lead lap. The Americans knew what was happening and attacked the group in the final stages of the lap to ensure they held a higher position. Just metres before going out for our final lap, we were pulled, as Sven was coming home to take the win.”

Gary was wrecked from his efforts, as indeed we Chris, Jade, and Tom. But, like ever other Australian who raced that evening, they had done Australian cyclocross proud.

Chris Aikten –  42nd in Elite Men (2 laps down)
Garry Milburn – 45th in Elite Men (2 laps down)
Tom Chapman – 50th in Elite Men (4 laps down)
Jade Lean – 51st in Elite Men (5 laps down)

Average speed 28.5 kph. Sven’s last lap was 6 minutes 20 seconds.

Watching races of this caliber live is exciting and informative. Having raced the course before makes it even more enjoyable. For those who weren’t lucky enough to be at CrossVegas 2014 a couple of points to note on the course. It was considered more technical that previous years as turns were tighter. The pinch climbs were steep. The stairs had deliberately been placed closer together to ensure that they could not be ridden. The transition from grass to concrete to grass was extremely difficult causing many riders, including several Elite riders, to fall.

Sven survived bottle gate not to be disqualified. Rightfully there was controversy about the cards and beer being thrown at the racers. But all in all it, was a great day / evening out. Entertainment as you would expect in Vegas just that it came in the form of a bicycle race.

Being around the highly professional US cyclocross scene opened our eyes. The professionalism of the teams, the organisation, and the size of the team busses blew us away. But the over riding feeling was that of being part of the world wide cyclocross community. Whoever we talked to during the day of CrossVegas, and in the days before hand, everybody had heard of Australian cyclocross and was keen to hear more. In fact Sven mentioned it to us when when were chatting to him. And yes, the Diane and Fiona did get to kiss him for a photograph.

For those who are interested, and you should be interested, CrossVegas 2015 will be September 16th.

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