Decker takes the men's win at Alpenrose.

Decker takes the men’s win at Alpenrose.

Carl Decker (Giant) and Serena Bishop-Gordon (All Access) claimed the first wins of the 20th Cross Crusade Sunday during the series opener on the iconic Alpenrose Dairy course.

The Oregon series started in 1993 with less than 100 riders taking part in each race and has since grown into a behemoth that sees upwards of 1,500 riders in 18 age- and skill-graded categories competing every Sunday for nine weeks.

Race director Brad Ross said he remembers the days when the race barely brought in enough cash to buy pizza and beer for the crew after each race. Ross, who started out as a crew member when the series began in the ’90s, quit his “real” job in 2000 and now works full time as a race promoter.

The Pacific Northwest’s notoriously wet winters and Portland’s burgeoning cycling culture combined to brew up a perfect mix throughout the ’90s that drew more and more participants. The race grew by about 20 percent a year until recently.

“We were making just enough to sort of make it through to the next race, and then it started evolving,” Ross said. “Everybody thinks that it just exploded instantly, but it didn’t. It’s just grown progressively over 20 years, and it was about 12 years ago that we realized somebody needs to actually manage it year round.”

As the world’s largest participatory cyclocross series, the race topped out two years ago with a record of more than 1,600 competitors at a single day of racing. Since then, numbers have plateaued and in some cases shrunk a bit – Sunday saw between 1,300 and 1,400 riders competing – but Ross said the contraction is mainly due to the number of new races and series that have popped up around the state.

“Part of the reason it’s flattened off is that there’s all these other races and series going on,” Ross said. “We’ve got a Saturday series, we’ve got Wednesday nights. We’ve got good races going on around the state, so people don’t necessarily have to travel to Portland to do high-quality cyclocross races.”

The Gran Prix Erik Tonkin, a three-year-old Saturday series, has been drawing nearly 1,000 riders each weekend, and the Wednesday night Blind Date at the Dairy series set a record with more than 500 racers this year. But the Cross Crusade remains the undisputed king of the hill.

The series is sanctioned by the independent Oregon Bicycle Racing Association and does not carry any UCI points or draw national fields, but the final UCI C1 race of USA Cycling’s Pro Cyclo-cross Calendar will take place in conjunction with the Cross Crusade’s final weekend in Bend. The Deschutes Brewery Cup on Saturday, Dec. 7, should draw North America’s top cyclo-cross specialists looking for crucial UCI points and a chance to affect the overall series standings.

“The main focus of the Cross Crusade is to put on a race for the masses – all ability levels just come out and race cyclocross,” Ross said. “But we also throw down and put on a UCI C1 or a USGP every year, just because we want people from around the country to take a look at what we’re doing here and see how good the scene is.”

The Cross Crusade’s final race of 2013 will take place the day after the Deschutes Cup UCI race at the same Old Mill District venue that has been used multiple times for the former US Grand Prix of Cyclocross and the US national championships.

But riders will race eight times before they get to the series finale in Bend. During Sunday’s opener, both Bishop-Gordon and Decker won convincingly. Decker sailed away from the field early on during the men’s 60-minute race, coming in ahead of Molly Cameron (Portland Bicycle Studio) and J.T. Fountain.

“It was ideal,” Decker said of the course that had been pounded by rain for a week before two days of sunshine dried it out. “It’s been wet so there was no dust, and it was greasy a little bit, so it was challenging and fun but not boggy at all.

Decker said he’s excited to be able to race most of the series this year before he starts getting ready for next season’s enduro races.

“I usually don’t get a chance to do that,” Decker said. “But Giant is a sponsor of the series this year, so I’m pretty excited to do as many as I can. It’s really nice to drive to races and have your stuff and not have to fly and all of that.”

Bishop-Gordon started out with an early lead as well but had to duel Beth Ann Orton (Team S&M-Kona) on the final lap to secure the win.

Bishop-Gordan takes the Alpenrose win.

Bishop-Gordan takes the Alpenrose win.

“She caught me with a little over a lap to go, and I let her lead through the velodrome so I could take a rest,” Bishop-Gordon said. “And then I was just like, I’m winning this race. I rode the long hill on the last lap because I knew I had to get away from her.”

Bishop-Gordon’s strategy paid off with a win head of Orton and Alice Pennington (Team S&M-Kona).

The 2013 Cross Crusade continues next Sunday with race #2 at Rainier High School northwest of Portland along the Columbia River.

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2013 Cross Crusade Schedule:

  • Sunday, Oct. 6 – Alpenrose Dairy, Portland
  • Sunday, Oct. 13 – Rainier High School, Rainier
  • Sunday, Oct. 20 – Heron Lakes at PIR, Portland
  • Saturday, Oct. 26 – Deschutes Brewery, Bend
  • Sunday, Oct. 27 – Deschutes Brewery, Bend
  • Sunday, Nov. 3 – Washington County Fairgrounds, Hillsboro
  • Sunday, Nov. 10 – Infield at PIR, Portland
  • Sunday, Nov. 17 – Barton Park, Barton
  • **Saturday, Dec. 7 – Deschutes Brewery Cup / UCI C1, Bend **Not a series race
  • Sunday, Dec. 8 – Deschutes Brewery, Bend