Almost every weekend during the cross season, you can find Stu Thorne working on a bike, paying attention to detail and making everything run smoothly, or as smooth as possible, for his Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld.com team. A high pressure environment where a small mistake can cost his rider a victory, and yet he seems to remain unflappable.
Not only does he run a successful and growing professional cyclocross team, but Thorne also owns and manages Cyclocrossworld.com and a successful bike shop in Massachusetts.
Just who is Stu Thorne? What makes him successful in an industry which seems to chew up and spit out many? One thing that is know is his attention to details but what else?
He smiled, shrugged and replied with New England restraint, “I don’t know.”
I asked the same question to Tim Johnson and Jeremy Powers. Both Johnson, who has known Thorne since 1993 and Powers, who raced for Thorne for four years, credit his innovative vision.
“He’s a hard worker, he’s spent a lot of times trying to figure out ways to do things better, he’s never sitting back, just kind of floating, he’s always trying to figure out a different way, a better way or a new approach.” Johnson told podiuminsight.
“I know Stu pretty well, he’s very innovative and he thinks farther ahead than most people myself included. He’s got a lot of really creative ideas, he’s extremely creative, clearly he’s an entrepreneur.” commented Powers who now races for the Rapha-Focus cyclocross team.
Johnson went out to point out examples. Can’t find parts for your cross bike? Thorne started Cyclocrossworld.com. No big US teams hiring riders? Thorne started a team. “That’s kind of how it permeates through all the different aspects of cross.”
Johnson continued, “A lot of the ways that I approach racing, this sport, business, I think he’s influenced me a lot because there’s one way to do things and then there could be another way and you’re always trying to maximize or be the most efficient at doing it.”
Powers added, “He and I see eye to eye on a lot of things. For example, behind the barriers, I wanted to do it so I did it, I’ll pay for it, I think it’s worth doing it for me, I wanted to do it so let’s go. That’s the same thing with him, even though it may at first seem like a bad idea, there’s a vision there, he’s got it and he runs with it and it’s special.” continued Powers. “You see that on cyclocrossworld, things that have been innovative that other people don’t have, he’s paved that road for a lot of exclusive European things that we never had in cyclocross, he made it an easy one stop shop. I think he’s very creative, very self motivated and I think he’s very smart.”
Johnson couldn’t pin down the most important thing that he learned from Thorne throughout the years. “I’ll tell you some things that I haven’t learned enough, I can’t get my garage and workshop as clean as his, I literally just hung up the very first mountain bike I ever got, I just hung up the very first road bike I ever got, and my favorite mountain bike that I used to race when I was a junior. And I just hung them in my garage and I can’t hang them as Stu would.” he laughed.
That attention to details again.
One thing that Powers learned was to take care of himself. “Look out for yourself, that’s the number thing, always worry about yourself first and everyone else second. I don’t necessarily subscribe to that but I completely understand because bike racing can be a very cut-throat, very fast paced environment and if you’re not looking out for yourself, you might be that guy. “ he said.
“I hate to say it but look at the road scene currently, there are a lot of guys out there that were on ProTour teams and they’re not anymore and that’s not because they’re not good riders but whatever happened, whatever their story was they didn’t look out and the writing may have been on the wall for a long time and they didn’t want to see it or didn’t want to believe it, now they don’t have the contract that they should have. Tim and Stu taught me a lot about taking care of myself, I really do cherish them for it.”
It’s all Thorne’s fault. After years of wrenching for a motorcycle team, Thorne got into cyclocross in 1998, racing in New England and at the SuperCups. His shop, Cyclocrossworld.com, was launched in 1999. He also started supporting riders starting with his wife Emily.
“Emily raced a lot and I supported her. I wasn’t going to make it to the next level, there was no point so I just started supporting other riders, Tim was one of those guys. I brought Tim to his first cross practice ever back in New England, that was probably 95 and we’ve been working together ever since.” Thorne said.
Johnson, then a punk mountain-biker was not interested in cyclocross. “He brought me to my first cross race the fall of 1995, basically kicking and screaming because I was racing mountain bikes and I was done. It was October, and he’s like no really, what else are you going to do? I was like I don’t know what I’m going to do. And, he’s like why don’t you come to a cross race, it will be fun, and I said alright.”
“For that whole fall, we piled into his big station wagon that his bike shop owned and we just rallied out to these races around New England. At that time, the first race wasn’t until mid-October and we did that every weekend for that whole fall and I was racing junior.” At that time, juniors raced with masters, so Johnson was often racing with Thorne who switched between that category and elite, and other legends.
“I was racing with Tom Stevens and Paul Curley, and other legends of New England cross and we had such a good time at that first race that we just decided to go to the weekly training series, every Tuesday, Wednesday night with Tom Stevens in Concord. So I was racing on the weekend and doing that mid-week through the fall and I started to do really well, I started to win races, and eventually won Nationals that fall and went to Cross Worlds for the first time that winter.”
“It totally is.” replied Johnson with a laugh to the comment that it was all Thorne’s fault. “I didn’t know what cross was until he showed me. It was so much fun that I wanted to do more, I just wanted to keep going.”
But why Johnson? “He was just the local kid.” replied Thorne. “I knew him through the mountain bike thing a little bit. He was a natural so we ended up just started supporting him because we lived near each other.”
Though Thorne did win a SuperCup race, the precursor of the USGP series in his day. “It was 1998 in Boulder.” explained Johnson. “He pounded stakes the day before, raced in the morning, won the masters 35 race against really good guys and then he got into the pit for Emily, his wife, and she was like 5th in the women’s race and then he pitted for me. That was a very typical day for Stu.”
“I have a good story for you.” Johnson said during our chat. Before he became the US National Worlds Team mechanic, Thorne went to the ’98 cyclocross world championships in Middelfart, Denmark as a fan.
“I had been 10th in ’98 and so I’m racing in ’99 and kind of have a good shot at the race. We hadn’t really talked whether or not he was going to come over but all of a sudden, he and Bruce Fina, buy last minute cheap tickets, the closest airport that they can get into is in Budapest, Hungary so they fly last minute from Boston to Budapest, get a rental car, drive through the night, the middle of nowhere, in the winter to Slovakia, and drop into this little town.” recalled Johnson.
The 1999 cross worlds were held in Poprad, Slovakia where Johnson claimed the bronze medal in the U23 race won by Belgian Bart Wellens. “I remember Stu and Bruce coming into our team hotel, they were with me in my pre-race warmup on race day and it was like the best thing in the world to have someone that I knew so well, that had been with me through this whole thing. Bruce had taken me to a couple of the SuperCups that year, this is before he started the USGP.” Johnson said. “Half an hour before my race, here’s Bruce and Stu really being there with me and then I go out and get my medal, we ended up having a great time, huge party. These two flew halfway around the world, risking their lives in a rental car through an ice storm to get to the race.”
“One footnote to that is, I came around a corner in the race and started going up this really steep ride-up, and I hear my name and I hadn’t heard my name besides the start/finish.” Johnson continued. “These three guys jump on a plane in Boston, same thing, totally surprise me by flying to Slovakia to watch worlds. They didn’t tell me they were coming until I heard English on the hill and it was awesome.”
The three guys were Paul Boudreau who runs GP Gloucester, current USA Cycling Board of Directors Vice-Chairman Mark Abramson and his friend. “That year was so pivotal for a lot of things, a lot of people that are in the sport now were there that year, it’s kind of cool.”
Growth. The first officially sponsored was junior world mountain bike champion Walker Ferguson while Thorne still helping out Johnson. And then Lyne Bessette, Johnson’s wife, joined the list. “We had Lyne on the team, and I’d help Tim as well . We had two sort of teams, Tim was a little bit separate because he had his Cannondale gig separately, but we all worked together out of the same rig.”
More riders were supported throughout the years and the super-team was created with Powers, Johnson and Jamey Driscoll. The trio under Thorne’s leadership dominated for a few seasons. The team continued to expand by bringing in women, first young talent Kaitie Antonneau in 2010 and Nicole Duke for the 2011/2 season.
Thorne’s impetus to bring in women was to grow the program. “To be honest with you there just weren’t that many women out there that weren’t already contracted with somebody else. Kaitie came along, she showed a lot of promise. We just wanted to help out other riders that showed some potential and came from programs that didn’t have the resources, just to see what we could do with that. Our goal with Kaitie long team would be to get here for 2013 and we’re working towards that. She’s shown a lot of improvements, she’s got a great coach and she’s really, really good to work with so we’re happy with that.”
Did he have to change anything when Antonneau and Duke joined? “Its always different working with women but then again, I worked with Jeremy for four years” Thorne joked with a laugh.
“Every rider is different, I don’t really like to say that anyone is high maintenance or anything like that, everyone has different needs. Christian (Heule) came onboard and it’s a different dynamic, you have to learn to work with a rider. That’s the thing with Tim and I, we just know what each other wants, it’s super easy. There are definitely days where it gets stressful no matter what because that’s where we’re at.”
Running a big cross team is almost a full-time job but Thorne loves it. “We’re traveling three, four months out of the year but there’s so much more that goes on behind the scenes for the other seven to eight months. It’s become a little bit more full time in that respect, it’s just a lot of work. We plan a lot ahead, Tim contributes a lot and consults a lot and we work together on how we hope things go. And then I do most of the organizational stuff, do all the hiring and that sort of things. It’s fun and it’s a lot of work, I don’t mind it.”
Though the days can be long at races, from seven in the morning to eight at night, depending on light and weather, it’s still fun. “We try to get everything done here, and still have some fun. It’s still fun, Tim and I have always had that theme, if we’re not having fun, we’re not going to do it.”
Throughout it all, Thorne seems to stay even keeled. Does he ever get angry or is that just the stereotypical taciturn New Englander in him?
“It’s funny, it’s a regional thing.” Johnson laughed. “He doesn’t get angry, he get bullshit. Anger is when it’s a violent response, bullshit is like pissed off, it’s different. He’s been bullshit about things. You’re right, it’s not that he’s unflappable, he just shows it in a different way.”
What’s next? Obviously the cross scene has changed a lot since that fateful day in 1995.
“From an elite perspective, the depth of the field has gotten faster but it’s kind of shifted. Back in the day, it was six or seven really strong guys racing the national series, it’s kind of similar now. But the numbers are bigger, all the other categories are huge,all the masters categories, they’re huge, it’s amazing. There’s been a lot of growth in that end of it, lots of riders, tons of participant, a little more spectator base, a little bigger.”
The next step for his team were still up in the air. “I’d like to bring on a younger guy, sort of what we did three years ago bringing Jamey in. We kept him in New England, he did a bunch of races, built up his confidence, he was really good, killing it and then we brought him along and he’s been great to work with as well. It would be kind of a fun to bring in a U23 rider in, or a junior.” he said. “I don’t know for the future what we’ll end up doing.”
He would also like to grow the junior side of his grassroots program, Cyclocrossworld.com which has currently eight riders from junior to elite to masters.
“Chandler Delinks has been overseeing that program for us and he’s doing fantastic, we’d like to grow that.” Thorne compared it to a farm team. “Bring a couple of kids in, have them race in their region, and we’ve only been doing it in New England so far only because it’s from a logistical perspective it makes it much easier.”
As for the sport itself, Thorne would love to see it go to another level with proper television coverage but he doesn’t know what that would take.
“There’s a lot of participation at the grassroots level, I think that the numbers are strong but are we brining a lot more people into it? I think we should focus on trying to bring the spectator base into it and make it something that somebody might want to come watch. Most of the races that we go to, most of the people there are racers, or their immediate family and that’s just a fact.” Thorne said.
“What do we need to do to get people off the couch? I don’t have the answer to that. Is it a pipe dream? Well everything takes time. Cycling in this country is not nearly as big as it is in other countries. There’s been a lot of ‘oh we should be bigger, we should do this’ but when you look at it, cyclocross, a lot of the people that are out here racing today weren’t around 20 years ago when we were racing and boy has it come a long way. I think some people look at it and go why isn’t it any bigger, we’ve been doing this for five years, why isn’t the sport any bigger? It takes time, nothing is going to happen overnight and so we just need to keep plugging at it. Sponsors like Exergy and Greenware that aren’t industry sponsors and outside industry sponsors, it’s nice to have them aboard and that’s where it’s going to help to drive, I think, getting some other people, It’s just going to take time getting everybody on the same page.”
Just how important is Thorne to cross in the United States?
“I wouldn’t be where I am, not at all.” replied Johnson.” I was a little ratty mountain bike kid who liked to ride my mountain bike, I became a little ratty mountain bike kid that liked to race a cross bike because of him. Without him, I wouldn’t be doing what I was doing.”
“As far what US cross would or wouldn’t be like, I think was Stu does is that he’s always supportive and a part of a lot of these different things that happen. When a race gets started like at Gloucester, he was there, he was one of the people that started it with Paul. When the US team at Worlds is under-supported, he’s there to actually run a team of mechanics properly so all the riders are at least getting to the start line with bikes that are in good shape. When there’s something like the SuperCups, he’s pounding stakes, building the course the day before and the morning and then he’s racing his own race mid-day and then he’s pitting for me in the afternoon. So that’s how he’s been a part of all these different things.”
Johnson concluded, “The sport, the races, the riders, they’re never made by just one thing or by one person, there’s always teams of people that do different things, and he’s just one of those people that’s always there and a part of it, he’s never going to be one saying ‘hey I started this, look at me’, he’s not that guy, he’s just always there, a part of things.”