by Kat Statman

Since 2006, Greg Keller has had a voice in the cyclocross community through his site Mud and Cowbells. He holds down a job – a tough one at that – has two children and a wife while still devoting enough time to regularly blog and be an active member of the ’cross community. While we think the growth of ’cross is great, it’s experiencing some growing pains here in the US. I sat down one afternoon to talk with Greg about all things ’cross related. We chatted about the Master’s racing situation in the US and Europe, about Master’s Worlds in Louisville, different ideas for youth development programs, the state of US ’cross and of course Elite ’cross. It was probably one of the most fun and serious conversations about our sport that I have had in a long time. So, go get yourself a cup of coffee or tea because this one is long (so long, in fact, that we’ve split the interview in two – look for the next round tomorrow) and enjoy as Greg Keller gives us his brutally honest opinion.

First question, what are your thoughts on moving Nationals to January?

If we are to ever fall in line with the international calendar, and if we have any hope of getting our athletes to peak in synchronicity with the rest of the world, we have to do that. The major hurdle in the past for Elites, U23s and Juniors is how do we keep the fires burning for another month or more in some cases. That has been a big problem and this change is therefore welcome in my mind. Frankly, not only for the sheer purpose of trying to fall in line with the traditional calendar, but we also have such a hungry competitive racer base that wants to pursue events until January. For many, cyclocross is the only discipline they want to participate in. It used to be the case that someone was doing road, mountain and ’cross and all that, now it’s “Shit, I’m going to start my season in September and hell yeah I want to go through January.”

There is inevitably a little down period that everyone has through Christmas and that whole thing, but everyone wants to ramp back up.

Definitely for U23s and Elites January Nationals is a different story. I have heard many Masters’ concern over the close dates between Nationals in Madison and Master’s Worlds in Louisville. What are your thoughts on that?

I usually have a comment for everything; I don’t have a comment for this since it is ridiculous. What do Masters expect – their own USAC event that is gracefully put at a different time to capture the National Championship by sheer virtue of when Worlds is? It is what it is. These events are from two different organizations, the UCI and USAC. Just because Master’s Worlds are in Louisville should we accommodate for a few years? I definitely don’t think that is the right idea. If you want to be there, you make it happen. If your objective is to win and you think you can win either a National Championships or a Master’s Worlds jersey and you are at that level, then you make the time to make it happen.

Greg visiting Baal on his Za Motherland Trip

Greg visiting Baal on his Za Motherland Trip. Photo Courtesy of Greg Keller

That being said, will we see you at Master’s Worlds next year?

Likely I’ll be there. I am really looking forward to forgetting about the 2010 season with all the injuries and trying over again.  Also, after having done Master’s Worlds [Greg went to Belgium in 2008 for Master’s Worlds and a host of other races], I want to see how we do it and be supportive in whatever capacity I can.

Do you have any goals?

Let’s just start with being there. Let’s say this, from a competitive standpoint I would like to peak and do my best for the Master’s Worlds. Things will change, the current stance of the UCI is to present a completely lottery-driven call-up sequence for racers. This is done in part and has been successful because the people who show up in Mol, Belgium, really respect the event enough that they say, “Hey, I know that I am a competitive racer and I should be lined up,” and you’ll have field sizes of 50-70 in the men’s groups. In the US we have the opposite problem, we have bloat, a category for every age group to make them feel good. Masters 45 B. We’ve used this as a symptom because we have so many people interested in racing the sport, which is great thing. All of this said, something has to change before Louisville in the restrictions of field sizes or call-up procedures. Cyclocross wasn’t meant to have 180 riders in the field over a 1.5-mile course. Whether we do the time trial or you can’t get in unless you have a Cat 2 or above license really needs to be considered for this type of event or it will be out of control.

I wasn’t at Nationals in Bend this year, but I was last year and seeing the numbers of racers on the course during the Masters races was insane. Even in the Elite field, I was staged in 100th of 130 or so riders, which was just ridiculous.

I agree. I think it is getting too big; our success is the embarrassment of the riches. Our success of getting people interested in the sport and loving it is at the point where we need to govern to make the races themselves enjoyable for the participants.

In terms of that we definitely have a good problem, where there are so many Masters racers interested. But at the same time, our Junior fields are tiny. Is there anything that ACA, USAC or OBRA could do to promote or grow youth ’cross better than they already have?

’Cross is still a sort of fringe sport to USAC. The ACA is a much smaller regional alternate governing body, but it does a really good job for its own part for Junior ’cross development. But the money isn’t there to build an ACA Junior ’cross program. The ACA does not choose who is sent to Worlds, it’s the USAC Junior development athletes that go to Worlds.

It all comes down to what the USAC balance sheet looks like and what can be done with that cash. With the injection of Marc Gullickson, I think hopefully you’ll see a dedicated resource that knows the game and is bringing young participants over to Europe. If you are looking for details it has to start with USAC truly creating a program.

On that note I can’t bear to hear another blog or Tweet or Facebook profile asking to help a kid get to Worlds. Buy the kid a plane ticket.

Everything ranks below in priority if it doesn’t have a path to Olympic recognition. And that begs the whole question of whether or not cyclocross should be an Olympic sport

How did Nationals go for you, and how do you think the TT set up played into the race? Was it a good thing?

I thought the time trial organization and injection into the process was extremely welcome. What that effectively did was take away any degree of uncertainty like, “I may be strong, but I’m on the last row.” It was purely Darwinian; if you were strong you were meant to be where you were, from the second row back; you were placed where you should have been. All that nonsense where a good first lapper would have been gridded farther up didn’t happen. Look at Brandon Dwight. If you look at him from a time-trialing perspective, he should have been at the back, but he flowed and showed his form and that he belonged where he was. It was a welcome part of the process.

It took away the stress of the whole thing. “OK, I am going to be where I naturally should be.” Furthermore, it was fun because it injected a second race that was meaningful. I don’t want to do the B race, I don’t want to get hurt by a bunch of hacks that might take me out. [The TT] was a great accompaniment to the weekend.

To the second point my race was abysmal. Unfortunately I spent most of it running. Given whatever fitness I could have trained for, I was exactly where I needed to be, fifth row. It was fine, I was content and happy to be there even though it was freezing. My goal was to be in the top 30, and I thought that was achievable and I was going that way until someone wiped out in front of me and I went ass over tea kettle, bent my derailleur and had to run a big section of the course from the back pavement section to the pits. But I finished and that was that. Just happy to be there and start drinking some Deschutes.

Obviously Bend was pretty cold this year and last year. Madison is going to be a lot colder. Do you think they are going to have to have anything special in place with the more than 90 percent likelihood there will be snow?

First and foremost hypothermia is going to be a real problem. If the temperature averages maintain what they are, the race organizers need to really think through the warming areas with pre- and post-racer warming tents; you could have dangerous situations with racers going into hypothermia.

Some people have said it’s not the place to have a ’cross race. I challenge that by saying look at Tabor, both ’99 and ’09 [Ed. note, the 1999 World Championships were in Poprad, Slovakia]. There are other races that have had six and seven inches of snow also. It is what it is. We need to sample different areas of the country that want to expose the sport to said region, and whatever natural occurrences happen, be it snow, rain or heat, happen. We should sample the best talents to handle those situations. Net, net, quit your bitching and all races can’t be in the same latitude as Brussels. We’re not going to have the same weather patterns that they do for the prototypical skinsuit and embrocation on your legs.

’Cross is all about preparation. Talk to Pete Webber and he will absolutely assure you that a major portion of his success comes in his preparation. And that is not only your training but also asking, do you have the appropriate gloves, what tire pressure, do I have toe spikes? Enjoyment and improving your chances of success all come from proper preparation.

Some people think that, for better or for worse, you are obsessed with the Pro lifestyle. If you could go back in time and had the appropriate genetics would you want to be a cyclocross professional?

Could someone please tell me what the pro lifestyle is? If that precludes having children with a beautiful wife, then no. My lifestyle is professional. I earn money for my family through building my own business. Cyclocross is such an immensely important part of my life that I wouldn’t change any of those components. Not my sport, my business or my family. If I could change anything, any of those questions about genetics are irrelevant. I am given what I am given. I think that the harder that I can go and the best I can be is as pro as I can be with the time in this life that I am given to devote to ’cross.

It’s a question that is odd for me to hear. It’s indicative that people that read my blog have this idea that I am something that I am not. I must be doing something wrong if I am not writing about the balance of the layman worker to achieve success in life, which is the single sickest life I know with my family and friends that happen to race bikes.

Keller living the 'Pro' Lifestyle. Photo Courtesy of Greg Keller