For the last decade Balint Hamvas has created wonderful cyclocross books with pictures and stories around the cyclocross season. This edition – the final one – includes a profile on former US race organizer Brook Watts. The author of the article – Dan Seaton – was so friendly to share it with us.
Everybody is Brook Watts’s friend at a cyclocross race. And if you’ve had the good fortune to be at a race during the past decade, whether in Europe or the United States, there’s a chance you already know this firsthand. Watts, tall and lanky, with a broad smile, a bit of west Texas twang, and eyes that sparkle with excitement and mischief, might be the happiest man in the world at a bike race. He seems to know everybody, and greets even those he doesn’t as old friends, ready to joke and swap stories with anybody willing to talk about racing bikes in the mud in the dead of winter.
And if you’ve been to a race, or even if you just enjoyed watching one on TV, you owe him a debt of gratitude, whether you know it or not — doubly so, if you’ve been to an American race. You could make a plausible case that no single individual has had as big an influence on the shape of the sport over the past decade and a half. There are others, of course: the legendary Sven Nys, the face of cyclocross for nearly two decades; former world champion Erwin Vervecken, now sports director for the Belgian sports management firm Golazo, promoter of many of the biggest races out there, just to name a few. But if you look at the whole landscape of cyclocross, what it was 15 years ago, before the advent of Watts’s CrossVegas, and what it is today, you cannot fail to notice his outsize influence on the sport.
Watts, who announced his retirement from race promotion at the beginning of the year, founded CrossVegas, which would become America’s first cyclocross World Cup race, in 2007. Though he is well known to dedicated cyclocross fans, his outsize influence might’ve been nearly invisible if you weren’t looking for him. Instead of exploits on the bike or in front of a camera, Watts just made races work, and work really well. In addition to the Las Vegas race, he developed Trek’s Waterloo World Cup, served on the UCI’s Cyclo-Cross Commission, and laid the foundation for the successful 2022 World Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
And it’s my contention that along the way, he helped to fundamentally change the way both fans and race promoters thought about what cyclocross could be, helping to transform it from a provincial sport that mainly played out in flat, muddy cow pastures, to a spectacle with global aspirations. And although CrossVegas may have served as a spark to ignite some of that sweeping change, it is not the start of the story.
Image: Balint Hamvas, Brook Watts with his partner Kristin Diamond
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“I’m a Texan,” says Watts. “We moved when I was in fourth grade to Springfield, Missouri, southwest corner of Missouri. My dad tells me that he wanted to live somewhere where there were trees, so we left West Texas, Odessa, the middle of the Permian oil field, and finally ended up in Springfield.”
Watts says he remembers reading about big European races in school foreign language textbooks, but became excited about the sport thanks to his neighbor, three-time Olympian and four-time US National champion John Howard.
“John was always in the news because he was getting ready for the Mexico City Olympics, 1968. And that’s when cycling for me became more than a distant thing, it became a real thing,” Watts explains. “I’d see him out training. In later years, I’d see his father, Harry, motorpacing him behind this Cougar he had, painted to match John’s 1972 Olympic bike. And years later I came to know John while training together when he was in town.”
Watts recalls a first foray into racing sometime during his middle school years. “I got my mom to take me down there, and I got to the registration desk, and they said, ‘You can only be in this race if you’re a member of the Amateur Bicycle League of America’ — the precursor to USA Cycling — ‘and it costs three dollars for an annual membership.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to do that! Three dollars! That’s crazy. Mom let’s go home.’”
But a year later he returned to the race, now a criterium, and won the citizens’ race. “And I’m in the news, you know, as everyone is, and I got a pair of tires,” recalls Watts. “So instead of running track in high school and getting a dinky little medal, I got a pair of tires. It was the coolest thing.”
His interest in cycling piqued, Watts eventually made his way to the University of Texas, in Austin, where he studied advertising — and bikes, learning for the first time about the sport of cyclocross. While Watts was still a student, Howard, by then a friend and mentor for Watts, persuaded him to put in a bid to host the national cyclocross championships, which he and his friends won.
Image: Balint Hamvas, Brook Watts with Wout van Aert
“We organized the 1978 national championships,” says Watts. “Held in Zilker Park, the same park where they held the nationals some years later, in 2015. 20 guys on the start line, one category on the start line, but there was a junior in there and a woman in there. But it was a big deal. I’d catered barbecue, after the event, so you’d stick around and eat smoked brisket. It was hoot.”
Watts and his friends drummed up media interest, underwriters, found housing for out of town racers. It was old-fashioned elbow grease and grass roots organizing — rougher around the edges, but the same playbook Watts would turn to when he built what would become the biggest cyclocross race in America.
Reflecting back, Watts now views this work as a kind of creative outlet. “I’ve said it a jillion times,” he says. “Anyone can order port-a-cans, anyone can fill out the application to get a permit to use a public space like a park, you know. That’s just nuts and bolts, that’s just operational stuff. But the stuff I’ve always thrived on is the creative stuff….
“That led to the whole CrossVegas thing, where I said, ‘I don’t organize a race, I put on a show.’ And that’s what I wanted to do, put on this show. All creative types have a certain amount of, like, attention deficit disorder. We’re ready to move on to the next thing. You know, something new, something creative. To say, ‘That’s just okay. I’ve done this. Now let’s move on to the next thing.’ I always want to do something new and creative. Learn about something, to execute something — something different.”
Image: Balint Hamvas, Brook Watts promoting Dan Seaton Motorhomes at a cyclocross race
Through the late ’70s and ’80s, Watts bounced around a little. He spent some time working on an offshore oil rig, to which he credits his logistical prowess — his attention to the details that big-time races require, from food to traffic flow on course to the infrastructure required to stage a live, international TV broadcast.
“I worked for this company called Schlumberger, which is world renowned for its geophysical and oil field exploration,” he explains. “I was very fortunate to get the job through a connection, even though it was just hard labor and didn’t require an engineering degree — we had engineers who did all of that. What I saw is because you’re one hundred miles offshore on a rig you had redundancy. You had proper planning. You had three of everything, and you had tested them before you loaded them on a truck to drive them to the dock, and so you just were ultimately ready with almost NASA-like redundancies and planning And so that persists still, you know, when I go out to the garage to do something. I’ve got three rolls of electrical tape, because I might run out. It’s just this ultimate kind of planning, and that played into my event and operational background.”
Watts eventually earned his degree, helped promote the Tour of Texas, and worked a variety of bike industry jobs before spending a few years helping develop the professional beach volleyball circuit. Ultimately he landed in Boulder, Colorado in the 1990s, just in time to catch the beginning of what would become an explosion in interest in cyclocross in America.
Watts teamed up with Chris Grealish, a long-time race promoter in Colorado’s Front Range, to build the Boulder Cup cyclocross race, before the two realized there was an opening for a big race in Las Vegas, alongside the huge — and since defunct — bike industry trade show Interbike. “There was nothing bike-related to do at Interbike. At six o’clock when the show was over, guys went out for steak dinners,” says Watts. “So the initial reception was, ‘This sounds cool. This sounds interesting.’
Image: Balint Hamvas, Brook Watts
After early success in 2007, Watts added an industry race — the Wheelers and Dealers race — and interest grew more. In 2008 Watts invited Peter Van Den Abeele, a former Belgian pro cyclist who became the UCI’s off-road discipline directory and now serves as UCI’s overall sports director, to visit the race. “I remember Peter’s reception,” remembers Watts. “I picked him up at the hotel. We drove out there. You park in the parking lot and then you walk about three hundred meters before you see that bowl [the race venue], and Peter says, ‘Oh, my god, this should be a World Cup.
“And I said, ‘Yeah, right, whatever. You’re out of your mind.’ But 2008 was when it was really starting, the second year, there was some vibe, things were picking up, Erwin [Vervecken] came over because he was doing several races around the US… Lance [Armstrong] was there because he was making his big comeback. And things kind of took on a life of their own.”
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Full disclosure here: Brook Watts is my real-life friend. Around the same time CrossVegas really started to take off, attracting big names and European racers, I was living in Belgium, writing about the sport in Europe. And I got to know Brook, first, just by encountering on the side of the course at European races, and later on learning to appreciate his eye for the hidden details that made a good course function and a badly organized race falter, listening to his Texas-sized stories about his life in cycling, comparing notes on everything from pre-race favorites to the best places to get frites in Brussels.
When Amy Dombroski died tragically in 2013, Brook made the trip to Heist-op-den-Berg, Belgium, to be at her funeral and, a few days later, shivered through some of the worst weather I have ever seen at a bike race alongside Balint and me to watch Nikki Harris’s moving finish line tribute to her teammate.
In time, I came to count on Brook for his insights into the sport’s history, inner workings, and hidden stars.
Image: Balint Hamvas, Brook Watts talking with Belgian commentator Renaat Schotte
It was in this context that I came to see one of his real gifts, watching him studiously walking the courses with Belgian promoters, learning their tricks, but also making suggestions of his own. The gears were always turning, there were always new insights into how to make a course more accessible, easier to navigate, better for TV, and always — always! — how to make the experience more fun for the spectators.
To me, this focus on the whole experience, this kind of showmanship that looks at not just the race, but everything that happens at a race venue, was the real stroke of genius for Watts, and it is what set his work apart from other races.
At CrossVegas, working with his partner Kristin Diamond, he developed a cooperative project with Johnson and Wales University, a business school with an emphasis on the hospitality industry, to enlist students to improve the behind-the-scenes logistics at the race. And, arguably, doing so was what helped lay the foundation for the World Cup — America’s First — in 2015. And showing it could be done in Vegas, opened the door to many more races: Waterloo, Iowa City, Fayetteville, and, no doubt, more in the future.
But it was more than that: Watts succeeded in putting on that show he aspired to, and in so doing, proved to the sport internationally that there was room for growth, that cyclocross could be bigger and more ambitious, attract new viewers beyond the borders of Belgium. And it’s true: the party atmosphere in the massive sand pit in Zonhoven, urban races in Kortrijk and Brussels, the epic snow race at Val di Sole; would any of these have happened two decades ago? Maybe yes, maybe no. We’ve had other races — under the lights in Diegem just after Christmas, on the steep wooded slopes in Overijse — like this for a good long time. But I look at the newer races and their spectator-friendly approach, and all I can see is Brook’s influence.
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It hasn’t always gone perfectly for him. Watts and Diamond conceived — and nearly succeeded in staging — a world championships in Denver’s Ruby Hill park, a course beneath the sweeping vista of the Rocky Mountains, before it was scuttled due to concerns about the race potentially disturbing toxic materials long ago buried there. Watts’s involvement in Fayetteville came to an ignominious end, thanks to ugly political forces in Arkansas among other things, although the success of that world championships is testament to the foundation he laid.
And attendance is down at a lot of races back in Europe too. Here in the US, Watts notes the rise of gravel racing has supplanted some interest in cyclocross to some extent. In Belgium, with the sport’s biggest stars focused on the brighter lights of big stage races and road classics, race attendance has slipped.
And still, in spite of the missed opportunities and ceaseless ebb and flow of interest, Watts sees a bright future for the sport. “What it has done is come back to this more natural, sustainable level in the US,” he says. “Internationally, I’m still a dreamer. So I still have hopes that globalization continues. My theory was that cyclocross internationally could more mimic a Formula-One series, where the season starts in Australia as they’re finishing up their winter, then has a stop in Asia, comes to America for the September period for a week or two, and then goes to Europe, the heartland, as they’re rolling into their fall and winter where it is. It stays until the world championships.”
It’s a bold vision, but one that could actually happen.
Image: Balint Hamvas, Brook Watts talking with the crew
International cyclocross seem to be here to stay in America. The World Cup looks ever more like a true World Cup, with stops in Ireland and Italy and Spain, among others. Flanders Classics and Golazo are still investing, even breathing new life into older races that had become stale. And though he is quick to dismiss the idea that he had anything to do with this, I can’t help but feel that CrossVegas changed the paradigm of cyclocross in ways that are still just being felt now, years later.
I have a theory about all this, about Brook and his vision and why he has been so successful in winning people over to the sport, winning people over to his point of view about racing and to the idea that there is room for growth in cyclocross.
Brook is a dyed-in-the-wool baseball fan. So much so that he made a pilgrimage to see every ballpark in America during the summer of 2021. He’s felt that pulse of electricity that runs through you when you emerge into the lights in some storied ballpark — Fenway Park in Boston or Wrigley Field in Chicago — on a warm summer evening.
He grew up in West Texas, where the gridiron lights on Friday nights can draw a whole town together. He has a deep, almost innate understanding of the power of sports to unite us, and when he builds races this is his guiding light. He knows that old magic works just the same at the Super Bowl as it does on hardscrabble dirt fields in towns so small they play 7-on-7 football. It’s the same magic on the slopes of Belgium’s storied Koppenberg hill as the little local race that draws three dozen 10 year old kids to a cow pasture in West Flanders to ride in circles and play at being the next Wout Van Aert.
And he knows how to summon this magic. He has done it over and over, from that first, scrappy national championships in 1978, to the biggest years of the CrossVegas World Cup. And he knows how to make you feel welcome, a part of something bigger, no matter which race it is.
And though he says he is retired, he also hints that there might be some more of that magic still, for the right race, the right opportunity.
I sure hope so, but in the meantime, he plans to watch as a fan. If you see him at a race, go say hi. Introduce yourself. You can count on him having a good story or two to share. After all, everybody is Brook Watts’s friend at a cyclocross race.
The story above is a snap from the cyclocross 2021/2022 book published by Balint Hamvas.
Balint Hamvas fell in love with cyclocross after just a short exposure to at a race back in 2008 and it soon took over his life for a period that lasted almost 15 years. Though he mostly shoots puppies and kittens these days (with his camera, mind you), he still loves ‘cross deep down. It’s just he loves being there for his toddler son even more.
The story was written by Dan Seaton.
Dan Seaton is a reporter and photographer who has covered international cyclocross, road racing, and the science of cycling since 2008. He has written for ESPN, CyclingTips, VeloNews, Cyclocross Magazine, Grit.cx, and many of Balint Hamvas’s annual cyclocross photobooks. He lived in Belgium from 2008–2015 before relocating to Boulder, Colorado. When he’s not riding or writing about bikes or hanging out with his family in the mountains, he works as an astrophysicist, designing space missions to study the Sun at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder.
The link to the book: https://cyclephotos.bigcartel.com/product/2021-2022-cyclocross-album
Link to the other books: https://cyclephotos.bigcartel.com