In anticipation of the 2019 Cyclocross National Championships here in the PNW, both MFG Cyclocross and Cross Revolution will be hosting “practice” events at the Nationals’ venue, Ft. Steilacoom Park in Lakewood:
The Championships are happening December 10th-15th.
The Pacific Northwest last hosted the Cyclocross National Championships in 1996.
MFG Cyclocross partner Zac Daab reminisced: “The 1996 elite men’s race featured a 9th place ride by Bend, Oregon’s Bart Bowen, and a 15th place finish by Seattle’s Craig Undem. It’s very cool that Bart and Craig are still racing cross in 2019, and are also coaching juniors and masters through their Bowen Sports Performance and Rad Racing p/b Cycle U programs.”
I checked in with Coach Craig about his memories of 1996.
“Cyclocross pre- ’96 Nationals was a pretty cool and small scene. There were typically 2 starts each day, a women’s race and a men’s race. There were no porta-potties at races, and the woods were all we had. The total number of riders who competed in a season was about 150. Compare that to the 2018 season when there were 1700 racers in the MFG series alone, and statewide we are now over 2500 racers. The venues back then were very ‘backyard racing’ style deep out in Black Diamond on Pete’s 40 acres or Bellingham and some of the same courses we race on today, but typically lots of tricky single track with huge puddles. There were only 8 races held on Sundays prior to Nationals each year put on by the Marymoor Velodrome Association to make money to bail out the track. Now we have about 30 races including the series in Bellingham and a good series in Spokane.”
“By the time we hosted the Nationals in ’96, Jerry Baker had added a kids race, and a few more fields were added. At that point only the top 10 were scored at any race.”
Craig was in peak form in 1996.
“I was serious about ‘cross for 3 years and I had the best form with a chance to be on the podium at the ’96 elite nationals. But, I made a mechanical mistake that cost me a chance to finish well. Wick (who now runs the Cross Revolution Series), my sponsor at Control Tech, had given me a 2nd pair of Look pedals to set up a 2nd bike, but I hadn’t tested them. On the first narrow run-up both the McCormick brothers from Saturn got in front of me, and Mark turned his bike sideways and slowed down while his brother Frank took off with a gap. I was so mad I grabbed Mark’s bike and ripped it off his shoulder and got in front of him, but when I went to clip in at the top of the run-up the pedals wouldn’t hold me in, and I released each time I pedaled hard because the spring tension was too low. It was a demoralizing loss after 2 years training to win this race in front of a all my friends and family.”
Craig got some redemption last year when he won the 2018 55-59 Masters Cyclocross USA National Championships.
“Prior to that I was a full-time pro mountain bike racer for 3 years, and a road racer prior to that. Simon Burney wrote a book on cyclocross and that was the bible all of us followed, trying to learn the ways of the Euro ‘cross racers in training and preparation. This was pre-internet, and all we had were books and magazines to learn from, and an occasional bootlegged vhs tape from European TV.”
Given his long history as a PNW cyclocross competitor, Craig is now a source of local cyclocross history.
“Cyclocross has evolved from a elite and hard-core experience for a select few, to more of a festive, inclusive, 5k run-type atmosphere today. That change has been awesome for the sport. The elite racers are still focused year-around on improving and only live to race, but the other 700 people at the weekend races use cycling as part of their fitness lifestyle and often get introduced to bike racing through ‘cross.”
“The junior racers are the most fun for me to watch. They are so ferocious! It is encouraging to see so many young riders really having a good time and working hard physically, learning to love the bike and growing up to be strong and capable people. ‘Cross teaches you so much, and at every level the benefits to mind and body are huge.”
“The equipment is also amazing now, my new Giant TCX is like a spaceship compared to what I started on. Back in the early 90’s you couldn’t buy a ‘cross bike at a store, you had to make it from a road bike (all bikes were steel, so a frame shop had to weld on cantilever brake bosses for clearance, but you didn’t need much because the fattest tires were only 28mm wide.”
Craig plans to be a presence at Nationals supporting his young protégés, connecting with old friends, and defending his championship title.
“My objectives are to lead the RAD p/b Cycle U Junior Team to a great experience racing against the best in the US in each age group from 7 years old and up, and to defend my Masters 55-60 age group win from last year. I have blocked out my calendar from Tuesday December 10th till the final race on Sunday December 15th to spend each day out at Steilacoom enjoying the spectacle and amazing energy of ‘the Championships’ held each day. There are no easy categories to win at Nationals, so every race is amazing. There is nothing quite like it, drawing all best from around the country to lay it all on the line for the Stars and Stripes, and I get to see a bunch of old friends from back in the day who are still just as passionate about ‘cross 25 years later.”
American Cyclocross Comes of Age” in a 1999 edition of the Bicycle Paper.