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Five Minutes With: Brook Watts, CrossVegas

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The 10th edition of CrossVegas is coming up on September 21 during Interbike. Over the years, the best ’cross racers from around the world have competed on the highly technical, soul-crunching course. It’s harder than you think! We caught up with the “head honcho” and founder of the amazing spectacle in the desert, Brook Watts, to reflect back and look forward to what is to come.

Take us back to 2007 and the first edition. At the time, did you have any inkling that this would become as big as it has? No way, but I can’t say what exactly we envisioned beyond creating a party and filling a void that existed at that time. That is, what does somebody attending Interbike do if they’re a ’cross fan who doesn’t gamble, drink or go to strip clubs. I knew the next day we had stumbled upon something as I walked the aisles of Interbike and had manufacturers tell me: “I’ve never written so many ’cross bike orders as this morning.” I think there’s a direct line from CrossVegas 2007 to the state of U.S. ’cross today with a tangent shooting off called gravel bikes. It’s been an interesting decade.

World Cup CrossVegas will stream on the NBC Sports app.
• September 21, 2016, (LIVE) Digital Stream: 11:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. (NBC Sports app)
• September 22, 2016, Linear premiere UniHD (Universal Sports): 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
• September 23, 2016, Linear re-air UniHD (Universal Sports): 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

I remember the Park department “way back when” was hesitant at the time and the subsequent years, there’s was even talk of a venue change. That seems to be all in the past. As with any park department and their “crown jewel” park, as Desert Breeze is to the Clark County Parks Department, there’s a concern. Now we all know that cyclists don’t have the best party manners, so we had bumps like illegal parking in adjacent businesses, jaywalkers hauling cases of beer and a list of other things that would raise the eyebrows of anybody. The move to a fenced venue, with a modest admission fee largely alleviated those concerns since access was controlled though a single entrance. The relationship with Clark County at all levels is tremendous, as they get a kick out of “Desert Breeze” being as widely recognized worldwide as, say, Koksijde or Hoogerheide. And the event was recently recognized with a proclamation honoring the decade of contribution, that’s a nice honor.

The first three years were dominated by Americans like Trebon and Compton. Now it seems the Euros have taken control. You think they just like to gamble or is it because of it being the first UCI World Cup race of the season? We saw the first all-European podium for the men pre-World Cup status, in 2011, so the world’s best riders got onto it early. Either because they wanted to see what it was all about, or in the case of the winner in 2011, Lars Van der Haar, his sponsor Giant understood the value to the brand to have him here. Sven Nys came in 2013 as reigning world champ because he enjoyed racing in the U.S. and wanted to showcase the rainbow jersey to American fans. Of course, the pressure of World Cup points means they all need to come, but I don’t think that means an end to U.S. riders on the podium. There’s still some significant firepower among U.S. riders.

Brook Watts
Watts says he’s stuck between the Belgian lifestyle and Puebla, Mexico. “Not a bad mashup,” he says.

The course has changed a bunch since the early editions. I remember it being basically just deep grass. Now it’s a true grinder with sand and such. In the end it’s still a park. How big of a challenge is it each year to tweak it? It’s still deep grass, or as Jonathan Page tagged it in 2007: “Like riding on five layers of carpet.” The various course features have become a way to satisfy my hidden desire to be a P.T. Barnum and create a three-ring circus. For 2016, we threw the deck of cards in the air, reshuffled it, and have redesigned 99 percent of the course. All the pieces are still there: the Raleigh Ramp, the Sand Dune, the Shimano and Kask flyovers, the four sets of stairs, the barriers, but now they’re in different locations designed to create a more interesting and more difficult course for the competitors. Ultimately, we want to create a show for spectators.

Sponsorship was tough early on. Now it seems because of UCI status, because it’s in Vegas during Interbike, because it now attracts top-level Euro cross racers, it must be completely satisfying to have the likes of Clif Bar as the main sponsor…. Clif Bar is the greatest group of people in the world, and it just happens that they’re my sponsor. If we could all go through life living the Clif Bar business ethos we’d be immensely blessed. And then you layer the multiple industry players, many of whom have been with CrossVegas since Year 1, and the blessings multiply. Sure, at the end of the day it’s still a hard sell, it’s business after all, but there is no finer bunch of people than the bike industry, people who want to create a fun atmosphere for their customers, staff and guests at CrossVegas.

What’s your fondest memory so far of Cross Vegas? What comes to mind as a fondest memory would be a CrossVegas memory but at the world championships in Zolder last February. When a smiling Wout van Aert grabbed me after the award ceremony, pointed to his rainbow jersey and said, “Look, Brook, I’m gonna be wearing this at CrossVegas next September.”

Where’s the best place to watch the 2016 edition? I’d say the great thing about CrossVegas and “the bowl” venue is you can stand in one spot and see 80 percent of the course as well as the remaining 15 percent on one of the six big screens. But I prefer the roaming approach: consider that the men will do about seven laps, that means you can scramble to each of the course features and see them pass through them all and still make it back to the finish line.