One after another the riders careen down a mountain of sand. They float over their bike seats as their skinny tires tear through the sand at nearly 40 miles an hour. The riders are barely in control. On either side, thousands of fans roar.
This is Zonhoven, Belgium, one of the meccas of cyclocross, an adrenaline-fueled sport where cyclists tackle off-road courses filled with mud, sand, gravel, and roots — often jumping off their bikes to avoid barriers and other obstacles.
At its highest level, cyclocross (or ‘cross) is a sport dominated by Europeans—particularly the Belgians and the Dutch — and few Americans find success overseas. But one American team has bucked that trend, and they are located right on the North Shore in Beverly.
Stu Thorne, of Wenham, founded Cannondale Cyclocrossworld in 1999. What began as a small offshoot of Thorne’s bike shop business has blossomed into the most dominant domestic cyclocross team in the United States, racking up more than 25 national championships at every level. Even more impressive is that Thorne’s racers have found the success in Europe that has often eluded other American teams.
“Our riders are some of the best in the country,” says Thorne, speaking from the Cannondale Cyclocrossworld headquarters, tucked in a quiet industrial park just off Brimbal Ave. in Beverly.
The team is in the early stages of a 2021-2022 season with high expectations (the season runs from September to February). The four-member pro roster is anchored by three strong women: Clara Honsinger is the defending U.S. national champion and finished fourth in the most recent world championships; Kaitie Keough took second in the World Cup overall in the 2017-2018 season; and Katie Clouse is the defending U-23 U.S. national champion. On the men’s side, Beverly resident Curtis White is the 2018 Pan-American champion and a perennial national championship contender.
When Thorne started the team, this success wasn’t on his radar. Running a team was born out of his lifelong passion for bikes.
Thorne grew up in Manchester as a kid who loved bikes. It started with mountain bike racing, before he discovered his passion for ‘cross. Eventually Thorne turned that passion into his career. He worked at bike shops across the North Shore before operating his own shops, including Bay Road Bikes in Hamilton and Pinnacle in Beverly. Those brick-and-mortar businesses eventually gave way to cyclocrossworld.com, an online retailer serving as a digital hub for the niche equipment needed by ‘cross riders.
“In those early days, the team was really an offshoot of the business; we sponsored riders and races,” says Thorne, who ran every aspect of the team, including working as the mechanic for riders.
In 2006 though, Thorne took things up a notch when he inked a sponsorship with Cannondale, the bikes the team has ridden ever since. The team’s profile increased, but the organization remained small. “We wear many hats,” says Thorne. He no longer turns the wrenches, but he handles every other aspect of the team: securing sponsors, signing riders, planning travel and logistics for races in the U.S. and Europe, and serving as the biggest cheerleader on course. “I enjoy the technical aspects, the bikes, the equipment, and I also love that every season brings new challenges.”
In the U.S., Cyclocrossworld is a juggernaut, but in Europe the team is an underdog, which makes the recent success of Clara Honsinger and Kaitie Keough so remarkable. Each season the team usually spends a couple of months in Europe, racing at the highest level of the sport.
“The racing itself in Europe is 50 times harder, the aggression is higher, it’s a way more professional field. It’s a whole different level,” says Thorne, noting that European teams not only have bigger budgets, but they have the home course advantage. “It’s amazing that we do what we do in Europe with what we have.”
While the most popular ‘cross races in the U.S. may attract a few thousand fans who watch for free, the weekend races in Europe regularly attract 15,000 paying fans. Each race is broadcast on national television and top riders have multi-million-dollar sponsorships. “It’s basically Belgium’s baseball,” says Thorne.
Despite all those obstacles, Thorne’s team has shown it belongs. He has his sights set higher though. Thorne envisions a program that attracts top mountain bike and road racers, fielding teams throughout the year. Thorne wants more international success too. “We’ve won national championships at every level, but having a rider who can contend for a world championship would be special.” A world title would be extra special this year, because the world championships will be held in Fayetteville, Arkansas in February.
Thorne’s vision means attracting more riders, which means more money: to pay riders, to fund travel, and to build out a larger support team, including mechanics. “There’s room for new sponsors who can help our team and sport grow,” says Thorne.
Even though the team has an international focus, it’s still a North Shore organization at heart. One of the team’s long-time mechanics, Mike Berry, lives in Ipswich (the other mechanic, Gary Wolff, is based in Colorado), while Curtis White moved to Beverly last year, and has quickly become a fixture on the local cycling scene. Chandler Delinks, another Ipswich resident, manages the development team.
“We’ve just quietly existed and produced countless successful riders, all in this sleepy little space in Beverly,” says Thorne, which is fitting for ‘cross. It’s a sport that’s remarkably accessible, especially in the U.S. Fans can easily mingle with riders before and after races and they can stand close enough to the course to hear the labored breathing of the riders.
“There’s a huge level of camaraderie in the ‘cross community. It’s a family,” says Thorne. That’s what keeps bringing him back year after year. “I do all of this because I like what I do. If that ever changes, I may have to re-evaluate things.”
Interested in watching the Cannondale Cyclocrossworld team in action? Fans can live stream most races by signing up for the Global Cycling Network Racepass.