Believe it or not, Portland’s Cross Crusade cyclocross series enters its 20th season this weekend.
Founded in 1993 when Rick Potestio and Russ Humberston took over a smaller series dubbed “The First Mud”, the Cross Crusade has grown by leaps and bounds. Today it’s known as the largest cyclocross series in the world in terms of participants and it has played a key role in the burgeoning popularity of the sport in the United States over the past several years.
Cross Crusade Director Brad Ross was there at the beginning. I spoke to the 47-year-old professional bike race promoter from his home in southwest Portland this morning.
When Ross moved to Portland from southern California in 1989 he had never heard of cyclocross. He was an avid Category 3 road racer and after his first season in Portland his riding buddies started asking, “You’re going to race ‘cross aren’t you?”
Potestio, Humberston, and Ross were on the same bike racing team in the early 1990s (it was called “Ciclo”) when prolific Portland-area race promoter Jeff Haase decided to move away to pursue a job in another state. That’s when Potestio and Humberston took over his cyclocross series. At that point, Ross recalls, he was just a helper, doing whatever he could to help the five-race series happen. “Back then, we had about 80 people racing per weekend. We would make enough money to go buy pizza and beer after the race and that was it.”
The trio was good at putting on fun bike races and Ross says it grew by about 20% each year. At that rate, “It doesn’t take long until it kind of becomes a big deal.” In a few years, their small series had become a business and Ross became the front man as Potestio and Humberston were too busy to do all the footwork it required.
From the start, Ross says, he and his ‘cross compatriots operated with the same basic principles: put on a good race and make sure people have fun. “We never had any crazy marketing strategies, we just put on super good bicycle races and everyone has fun and tells their friends about it.”
It worked. By the year 2000, Ross quit his other job and became a full-time bike race promoter (he was also the director of the Cascade Classic). “It was about 2000 or so, when we all kind of figured out that the Cross Crusade was actually a legitimate big deal and it was at that time it took on this mythical status.”
Unlike other major race promotion companies that cater to the elite riders and pros in attendance, Ross and his crew focused on what he calls the “rank-and-file newbie”. “We have always just wanted anybody and everybody to come out and give ‘cross a try. The rank-and-file newbies are the people we make sure have the best bike race and the most fun we can possibly provide,” he says.
The central tenet of the Cross Crusade, Ross adds, is to support the growth of cyclocross at all levels.
“Back then, we had about 80 people racing per weekend. We would make enough money to go buy pizza and beer after the race and that was it.”
And that’s exactly what has happened in the U.S. over the past decade or so. The sport has exploded in both popularity and the attention it gets from the major industry brands. Ross points to Portland’s hosting of the US Gran Prix of cyclocross in 2003 and 2004 as a launching pad for the sport. “Those were the years we got on the national stage and people from around the country came out here and saw the scene we had created,” he recalled. Then the industry started to take notice. Ross says the sheer number of Portlanders crazy about the sport made it a smart business decision. “1,400 people racing cyclocross bikes [in one day] here, you might want to pay attention.”
Even the Cross Crusade itself now attracts major corporate sponsors. This year’s list includes: Giant, Shimano, Yakima, GoPro, and others. Asked if it’s tough to balance the fun, irreverent, grassroots vibe of such a successful event, Ross said that’s not an issue. “It’s all about who you are putting on the bike race for,” he said. According to Ross, about 80% of their operating budget comes from riders via entry fees. Sponsors account for the remaining 20%. “I’m always very clear to our corporate sponsors that making them happy is not my primary focus. All my emphasis is to make sure riders have a great day and a great bike race.”
A few years ago, the Cross Crusade almost got too big. “It was becoming a circus,” Ross said. There were so many racers at some events that Ross and his partners considered creating another series just to compete with the Crusade in hopes it would decrease their numbers. That strategy was never needed, because other promoters have stepped in. There’s now a very popular race series on Saturdays, a weekday racing series that sees hundreds of racers, and well-established races all over the state.
That competition led to the Cross Crusade’s first ever decline in participants last year. At first, Ross said he was disappointed in those numbers, but then he realized that more races means the sport is healthier than ever and the Cross Crusade is doing exactly what it was meant to do: grow the sport. “As long as people are racing ‘cross bikes. That’s what we set out do, so we are very supportive of those other races. It’s literally written into our charter that the one thing the Crusade does is to support the sport of cyclocross.”
At this stage in his life, Ross is scaling back his promoting duties and putting more effort into the nascent North American Bicycle Racing Association. While he plans to step back from the Crusade soon, right now he’s just thinking about the upcoming race. Alpenrose is the largest race of the series and Ross expects about 4,000 people to pack into the 12-acre dairy property in the southwest hills. For the past few days he and his crew have been busy setting up tents and fencing off the entire race course.
“We want to create the best impression at the first race,” Ross said in his typical irreverent tone, “then we can slack off.”
— The nine race series begins this Sunday at Alpenrose Dairy and runs through December. Learn more at CrossCrusade.com
— 2013 cyclocross season coverage on BikePortland is sponsored by Sellwood Cycle Repair (7953 SE 13th Ave). Drop by the shop for their great selection of Kona bikes and trusted cyclocross service.