Local cyclocross pro comes home to Colorado to compete this weekend
AVON — After spending the past few weeks chasing cyclocross races around the country, Jake Wells is back home and preparing to race here in Colorado.
You may recognize Wells from the Vail Recreation District’s summer mountain-bike race series, where he excels as part of the triple threat of pro riders whose names begin with J — Jay Henry and Josiah Middaugh being the other two.
Henry is a cross-country mountain biker, Middaugh an off-road triathlete. But Wells, the cyclocross racer, may boast the most interesting and exciting discipline of them all, at least from a spectator point of view.
“The atmosphere of the cross races are unlike anything you’ve ever seen,” announcer Dave Towle said. “You’re right there, it’s in your face.”
Over the past decade or so, Towle has been the announcer for some of the biggest bike races in the U.S. A few weeks ago he was on site calling the road biking world championships, which were held in Virginia this year. He says if you like cycling and you live in Colorado, then this weekend’s U.S. Open of Cyclocross in Boulder’s Valmont Bike Park is an event you won’t want to miss.
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“You’ll be able to peel back the onion a little bit and see what a bizarre, niche sport this is,” he said.
The race takes part on an outdoor track, usually in a park or on a field, which is constructed specifically for cyclocross and then removed after the races wrap up. Tracks are usually about 3 kilometers in length, muddy and sandy with obstacles along the way that force riders to dismount and run with their bikes over their shoulder. Spectators can see the whole thing, which makes it a lot different than a mountain bike race or a triathlon.
“I always tell people if you want to see a cross race, this is the one to come watch,” Wells said of the U.S. Open. “Some of the top racers in the world will be there, a lot of amateurs will be racing as well, and it’s just a really fun scene overall.”
‘NO ONE HAS IT EASY’
In some parts of the world, cyclocross races attract thousands of screaming fans who pay to enter the arena and create an atmosphere like we would recognize at an NFL game.
Here in the U.S. the sport hit its peak in 2013 when the World Championships were held in Louisville, Kentucky.
At U.S. events, spectators at the pro events are usually somehow associated with the race or the racers themselves — they’re either amateur cyclists also competing that day, or they’re a friend or family member of a competitor. That creates an atmosphere where, as the last racers on the day, the pros will often have fewer spectators than the amateurs. This leaves the pros competing more for the love of the sport than thrill of the fans.
“It’s like a family,” Wells said of the small group of pros who travel the country like he does.
Racers get to know each other, their people and their other interests besides cycling. Once on the course, however, they take it very seriously.
The equipment itself is something only the most dedicated of competitors would take on the expense of investing in. While a lightweight road biking frame is used, it’s the tires that set cyclocross apart from other cycling disciplines. Companies like Dugast or FMB make tires by hand which can cost $150 apiece. Wells uses tubeless tires from Stan’s NoTubes — the company is the title sponsor of his team — and bikes from Ridley Bikes. Racers will usually require at least two identical bikes available to them on race day because problems can and will occur, and mechanics need to accompany them, as well, as work is done during the race with pit crews in Nascar-esqu fashion.
All of this, along with the requisite travel, combines to create a very expensive form of racing that necessitates a high level of commitment from teams and competitors.
Towle says above all else, to compete at the highest level of cyclocross racing in the U.S. like Wells has been doing for over a decade, it takes guts.
“No one has it easy out there,” Towle said. “Traveling with all these bikes and wheels and having to manage all this stuff, showing up and having to have your A-game when the race comes … it’s a shame that effort isn’t rewarded financially the way we’d like to see, but what is cool is that Jake is living his dream, and your community should be proud that people like that live there.”
OPPORTUNITY AND LONGEVITY
In the past few months, Wells has taken on a new role in the sport, acting as a manager on the Stan’s NoTubes team, as well as a competitor.
Now 37, he’s looking at the future of the team and recruiting new members. The team has brought on a prominent female racer, Ally Stacher, who was a road racer now embarking on her first full season in cyclocross. At last weekend’s pro races in Waterloo, Wisconsin, the Stan’s NoTubes team was able to complement Wells’ 18th and 11th place finishes with third and fourth place results from new team member Dan Timmerman, who Wells brought on.
“We have amazing sponsors, and everybody’s really happy to help us out and partner with us, but in the end they’re paying for exposure and marketing,” Wells said. “So if you’re getting your rider on the podium you’re getting more exposure, so having (Timmerman) in the top three is a big benefit for the team, and hopefully creates longevity.”
Longevity is something Wells has been thinking about more and more lately. The sport of cyclocross hasn’t exactly seen growth in the U.S. since its peak in 2013 World Championships (if anything, a regression has taken place in terms of number of pro events and competitors), but there are opportunities associated with it and Wells has been taking a new look at what else he can give to the sport besides his blood, sweat and tears on the course. He’s found coaching to be very rewarding from his Edwards studio, Form Attainment. He’s exposed Eagle County’s core group of riders to cyclocross by helping to organize races with the Vail Rec District. And as a manager, he’s helped to grow his team with Stan’s NoTubes and Ridley Bikes.
“Everybody has a story of how they found their niche in the sport,” Wells said. “That’s one thing I try to explain to the juniors that I work with, there’s a lot of opportunity out there within the sport of cycling.”
This weekend’s races in Boulder take place all day Saturday and Sunday. Wells and the pros race last. For more information, or to see a complete schedule, visit http://www.withoutlimits.co.