Welcome to Part II of our “Director’s Cut” of the ECCC Cyclocross Program. We’ve talked to some of the behind-the-scenes workers who make the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference run so smoothly, especially during cyclocross. It’s certainly no easy task, since races aren’t strictly collegiate, and the calendar has to take location, size, elite fields and timing into consideration. It’s make even more difficult (or easy) this year since Nationals are now in January, right when most students will be on winter break. Because of this, the collegiate season will be extended well into December, which could affect students who would like to make it home for the holidays, but who are in contention for top spots in the conference. Last time, we heard from Drexel’s Joe Kopena and Tim Manzella. This week, we talk to Union College alum and New England cyclocrosser Steven Hopengarten.
Steven Hopengarten: Well, it all goes back to my time at Union College in Schenectady, NY. I revived the cycling team and started racing road in 2007, from there I moved to racing mountain bikes in the fall, and I did my first cyclocross race on a borrowed bike that November. I distinctly recall how amazing ’cross was and how I needed to do more. The following school year I got involved in a lot of web work and organization for the ECCC in 2008-2009, and 2010 I started to assist in the scoring for the ECCC cyclocross season. Over the last couple of years the Mark Vareschi (Rutgers) and Bill Palm (MIT) stepped down and since I had already been assisting with scoring, it just seemed natural to take the lead, and I’m also pleased to be co-director with Tim Manzella (Drexel) who has been instrumental as we get ready for the fall.
CXM: What’s new and exciting for the ECCC this year?
SH: This year we’re extending the cyclocross season by a full two weeks into December as Nationals has been pushed into January. We’re also trying to include more events in the Mid-Atlantic to get more schools from the New York City area, New Jersey and Pennsylvania out that have been prominent in the road scene.
CXM: Are there any particular challenges of planning a cyclocross season in the North East/New England area? Any benefits?
SH: On the planning side of things, it has always been hard to have enough geographic diversity for the entire conference. Seeing as the ECCC covers New England, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, we try to spread around the calendar to balance out travel for everyone. In years past, it has been the team that travels the most wins, which can be a little unfair to underfunded burgeoning programs. That being said, we also focus on coordinating with events that have good reputations, and promoters that want to be involved in the ECCC, so it’s been tough to find a balance between geography and quality.
Additionally, unlike the ECCC road and mountain seasons, the cyclocross season does not have distinct collegiate-only events and as a result many riders will race for their USAC team during the fall because they are doing the same races.
CXM: How do you think the ECCC CXers measure up against cyclocrossers from other conferences?
SH: I think as individuals the ECCC has had some of the best riders over the past few years, with Jamey Driscoll taking the Division 1 national title for University of Vermont in 2006 and 2007 and Will Dugan doing the same for UVM in 2008. Pat Bradley from Rutgers has also had some strong showings in the past couple of years.
On the women’s side, Arielle Filiberti won the 2009 Division 2 national championship for Dartmouth College and several teams have been strong for the team overall as well. Frankly, I think the ECCC will always produce riders with a strong chance at Nationals.
CXM: Any goals for the year in terms of what the ECCC collegiate riders do in cyclocross?
SH: The major goal for the conference is to have participation increase every year, so that eventually we can start justifying collegiate-only events as we have on the road and for mountain racing.
The shorter term goal is to be involved with events that have high caliber fields throughout the fall. The idea is that the stronger the competition, the better our riders will do when they arrive at the national championships each year.
CXM: How has collegiate cycling changed with the inclusion of cyclocross over the years?
SH: The only thing I’ve seen over the past few years since the cyclocross program started in the ECCC has been increased participation. Cyclocross is a great way to get into bicycle racing because it’s so fun, safe and low-key, I really think it is the gateway genre of cycling to getting new riders out on the road come spring and on the mountain bike circuit the following fall.
CXM: Are you seeing more students take up cyclocross?
SH: In short, yes. Participation has grown each year, and many schools are now favoring cyclocross over the mountain bike season because of the atmosphere, size and quality of racing.
CXM: How do you pick which races to do?
SH: It’s a matter of balance. We try to be as geographically diverse as possible without being too out of the way for the major population centers. While I would love the idea of getting more races for the Western New York, Central and Western Pennsylvania crowd, cyclocross hasn’t proven to have the same kind of draw as the collegiate road scene for travel yet.
Additionally, we’re looking for event quality, it’s been important that the racers have a good experience so they come back next fall for more.
CXM: Does the UCI switch with the MAC and VERGE series affect your plans?
SH: Yes, no, kind of. With the several of the MAC and NECCS events being non-UCI I’m hoping that stronger riders will be doing the elite race on the USAC-sanctioned days. In the past, buying a UCI license has been a big hurdle for folks who are itching to race elites. Over the past two years we’ve also added more grassroots events to the series to lower costs and increase accessibility as many of the major MAC and NECCS races sell out.
CXM: How do you plan for the elite collegiate racers to have maximum exposure?
SH: We try to have the elite riders get a mix of both grassroots and major events. With the inclusion of many MAC and NECCS events, our elite riders get to race against some of the strongest professionals in the country, which brings a lot of media attention and potential sponsor attention. Additionally, hopefully they can use that experience to perform well at Nationals.
CXM: Is it harder or easier planning a season that doesn’t have collegiate-specific races?
SH: In many ways it’s easier, all we have to do is get in touch with promoters who are putting on events regardless of the ECCC and they are almost always inclined to be involved with the series. Additionally, since we aren’t asking schools to put on events, we have a lot more freedom to design the season to get maximum attendance.
CXM: Do you think that in the future, there will be collegiate-specific cyclocross race?
SH: Yes. Based on growth I fully expect to see a collegiate-specific series down the road. Exactly when? I’m not sure. But the goal for the conference is to have enough participation that we can justify fielding our own events. Having looked at some of the attendance figures for the Mid-West conference, it’s clear that the number of collegiate riders is fairly similar, but since they do collegiate-only events the fields do not have as much depth as the major events with which we are associated.
CXM: Do you think that would be a good or bad thing for collegiate cyclocross?
SH: It’s kind of a toss up. On the one hand, it would increase accessibility for many collegiate riders and would decrease cost. On the downside, in the short term the elite race would simply not be as strong. Unlike collegiate road and mountain, cyclocross overlaps with a busy calendar and due to professional or elite amateur requirements many of the strongest riders would opt do to UCI events.
CXM: How do you think school clubs can get more students involved with collegiate cycling in general and cyclocross in specific?
SH: Clubs can get people involved the same way they always have: pretty girls and fit guys in skinsuits at the fall club expo! More specifically though, on campus, clinics would be the best, just to show people what cyclocross is all about, and put it front and center. [Editor’s Note: See our Newbie News piece on the Rutgers Cycling Cyclocross Clinic.]
CXM: Which teams are the “teams to watch” this season, do you think?
SH: For Division 1, it has to be Rutgers University: over the past few seasons they’ve really put a lot into travel, training and simply being the most consistent team on the ECCC circuit. Also in Division 1, you can never count out the University of Vermont, that is easily the most dedicated collegiate program in the conference, if not the country, and always play a role in the team and individual overall tiles. For Division 2, it has to be the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, every year they come up with huge attendance and strong results. I think the dark horse team to watch for Division 2 would be the Rochester Institute of Technology, last year they really gave MIT a run for their money and hopefully we’ll see them come up with some more elite riders this season. I’m also expecting big things from the Rhode Island School of Design this season, they came out of nowhere to be an influential program this past road season, and I think cyclocross will really suit their style.