by Scott Rosenfield
Mention ’cross and Florida does not immediately come to mind. Between the Northwest and Northeast, the majority of races on the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Calendar are spoken for.
However, ’cross continues to grow nationwide, and some of the most exciting events are emerging in the most unexpected places. Removed from the typical ’cross racing hotbeds, Florida has experienced explosive growth in racing. From 2009 to 2010, the Florida Cyclocross Series has added four races – expanding from eight events to 12.
Innovative race promotion has been a large part of the growth. Capitalizing on the existing road and mountain bike riders, savvy and professional promotion has combined to attract large fields to ’cross.
Built on a horse steeplechase track, one of the more interesting races of the Florida season is the Little Everglades Ranch Cyclocross weekend, promoted by Dan Millstead. Now in its third year, the race weekend has expanded to include a second day of racing, the cyclocross State Championships and electronic results by AMB Identification and Timing.
With the race weekend less than a month away, Millstead speaks with Cyclocross Magazine.
Cyclocross Magazine: Can you give some background about yourself and how you became involved in cycling?
Dan Millstead: Back in 2000, I started mountain biking. I then moved to road riding in 2004. I used to be a golf course superintendent for 14 years. One of our fertilizer representatives was telling me about a horse ranch. I interviewed with the Blanchards [the owners of the horse ranch] and knew I wanted to work with them. I kept working there, and I kept saying it would be awesome to have a ’cross race. There are rolling hills, and the ranch is private. It makes a killer ’cross event course.
CXM: How healthy is the ’cross scene given the size of the Florida cycling community?
DM: Cyclocross is pretty big in Florida. It’s growing all over the country. We have so many cyclists down here…. You’re starting to see ’cross bikes on the showroom, which is a plus. There’s a big following in Florida. It’s exciting for spectators. It’s good for the families. You go to a road race and they [the racers] go by you one time. This way [in ’cross] their family members and friends can really cheer their people on. It’s really a great sport. I’m even racing this year!
CXM: And what are the fields like – which categories are the strongest?
DM: My biggest class was probably masters. And I think last year we had 20 to 25 1/2s. Speaking to a few of them after the race, it’s the snowball effect.
The Juniors are real big. The women’s class I had was a little small. We’ve got a pretty strong field of Juniors doing it. I would say the women’s class is the weakest right now. That hopefully will grow.
CXM: Do many of the road and mountain bike riders do ’cross?
DM: With the road crowd you see a lot of them doing ’cross. I’m trying to get the mountain bike crowd more involved with it because a lot of them are discouraged by racing mountain against ’cross. That’s why we are going to do a dedicated class so they can experience and see it. We also have a singlespeed class. There’s something for everybody. We’re trying to take it to the next level.
CXM: This is your third year putting on a cross race. How has the event changed and grown?
DM: 2008 was our first cyclocross race. The second race was last year and we doubled our entries. This year, we’re bringing in the State Championship. The owners of the ranch are really excited.
Originally, I had a vision of this being an awesome ’cross event and it’s starting to come around as one of the biggest events in the state. I know it takes time to build an event.
CXM: What sets your event apart from other ’cross races?
DM: I’m hoping it’s the way I put the event on. The entire course is taped – and that takes a tremendous amount of time. I give a T-shirt away to all the racers. I make sure I have great quality prizes to give away, like medals. This year, I’m getting custom medals for the championship course, and it’s 75 dollars to make them.
Plus, the course is a draw. It’s in a part of Florida where there are rolling hills. There is a bit of elevation. People say it reminds them of the Northeast. People come out here and can’t believe they’re in Florida.
I feel I’m trying to make it a super quality fun event where people want to come back. We have huge signs on the main road and coming into the event. Nobody gets lost. I’m sure you’ve been to races where it says “race” on a paper plate with an arrow. I have big neon sings flashing “Cyclocross race here.” It sets it apart.
Like a spoke on the wheel – if you get a broken spoke, the wheel doesn’t work. I try to do every little thing so that people don’t miss the event.
CXM: Given the success of your races, why only put on one weekend of ’cross racing a year?
DM: You need to be excited about doing it. I do one event a year so it’s fun. I don’t want to get burned out – just do one of them, and make it the best event you can. Sometimes people do a lot of races and if the fun isn’t there, the quality of the event sometimes suffers.
CXM: Are there any unique challenges to putting on a bike race on a horse track?
DM: After a horse event, bicycles are nothing. I take the course down the next day and within a week you don’t even know any bicycles were on the property. It helps having strong, healthy turf. It resists wear. It’s very low wear when you compare it to a bunch of horse hooves.
CXM: What are the courses like this year?
DM: The Saturday course is the same as in 2008 and 2009. It’s a very fast course with lots of straightaways. Sunday is going be a little more tight, but still with some fast areas. We have a big run-up with these stairs that’s going to be a part of it.
I like the course to be true ’cross. I don’t have any single-track. Mountain bikes don’t have any advantage. It’s gravel roads, sand and grass. If you make the course fast, the riders will make it hard. I don’t want to throw in a bunch of tricky, crazy stuff. And I think that brings people back.
CXM: Why use two courses rather than use the same course both days?
DM: We try to keep it exciting. I’m not just going to turn around and run them [the courses]backward the next day. A lot of people buy ’cross bikes and don’t get to ride them much. This way, you get to go to two different races. Sunday, they’re doing something completely different. It’s a lot of extra work after Saturday’s racing setting up a new course, but I think it will be worth it.
CXM: Are there any competing events over your race weekend?
DM: Actually, there is a mountain bike race on my weekend, but it’s down in Miami. A plus of Florida is that it’s so big, you’re not going to overwhelm racers of where they are going to race any weekend.
CXM: And how many other racers are you expecting?
DM: The way I’m gauging it, I’m thinking 150 a day. Maybe more. I know 95 percent of them will race both days. I have a pretty popular band [Orange Hour] playing Saturday night, so that should draw a lot of that crowd. There could be 200, maybe more. I’m pretty certain it will be the biggest ’cross event this year. I know I had the most numbers last year.
CXM: With the short-term growth, is there a long term vision?
DM: I want to make it a UCI or a national event because we have the venue to do it. It’s just opening eyes to the ’cross world – the Northwest and Northeast – to give Florida a chance. That’s the hurdle.
I had a five-year vision. In the fifth year, I’d like to have a national event.
CXM: Who are the names to watch out for at States?
DM: Hopefully Gary Yates will be down again. Darren Dowling (Florida Velo) – he’s with Florida Cycling Online Magazine. He’s real strong. Jason Bergwall (Ball Watch Cycling Team) – the one in the video – he’s real strong.
Video of the Course to Be:
If you’re close enough to get there for the weekend, or need some warmer weather at the tail end of your season, head down to Florida and check out what looks to be a great course! More info about the Third Annual Little Everglades Ranch Cyclocross: www.littleevergladesranchcx.com