Inside CXHairs Devo's incredible season, and why it represents the very best of American cyclocross
Reports of American cyclocross’ demise have been greatly exaggerated.
“I keep reading reports about the death of cyclocross, and I’m not seeing it in the same way,” Chris Merriam, co-founder of the cyclocross development squad CXHairs Devo, says. “I’m seeing lots of positives in the United States now, even as we’re competing with other branches of the sport for those entry fees and free weekend time.”
True, in the grand scheme, the United States doesn’t have the cyclocross ferocity or success of, say, Belgium or the Netherlands. How could it? Cyclocross was born and bred in Europe beginning more than a century ago. The biggest races are usually an ocean away for American riders. And because the sport is relatively niche in the United States, a much smaller proportion of the population has been introduced to its charms — its unique obstacles, love-hate relationship with the weather, and passionate, wholesome community.
But there are signs that American cyclocross is as healthy as ever, and the rise of CXHairs Devo is one of the surest. The team was elevated to UCI status before this season as its roster grew to 13 riders. This year, with increased support from Trek, the squad will send two riders to World Championships in Hoogerheide, Netherlands — Miles Mattern, one of six junior men’s riders representing the U.S., and U23 U.S. men’s national champion Andrew Strohmeyer.
CXHairs Devo has assembled an impressive group of enthusiastic young riders who could one day spearhead the elite American racing scene. Katherine Sarkisov, 18, won the junior women’s national title in 2021. Newcomers Daxton Mock and Dillon McNeill both took third at Pan-American Championships and U.S. Championships, respectively. Mattern, another team newcomer at 16, and Ella Brenneman, 17, both took fourth in the junior men’s and women’s U.S. national championship races, respectively.
“We have a huge supply of young people coming up into this sport,” Merriam says. “It’s a great entry point for cycling, especially for the younger kids. It’s a family event. It’s a fun event. As bike racing goes, it’s pretty safe and you’ve got all your friends and you can run around in the park. If we can protect that part of the sport, we’re going to keep bringing kids in.”
CXHairs Devo is rooted in a deep passion for cyclocross racing shared by both Merriam and Bill Schieken, CXHairs Devo’s other co-founder. Merriam latched onto the sport in the 1980s, when the sport was still burgeoning in the United States and few people had dedicated cyclocross bikes.
[Cyclocross is] a great entry point for cycling, especially for the younger kids. It's a family event. It's a fun event. As bike racing goes, it's pretty safe and you've got all your friends and you can run around in the park. If we can protect that part of the sport, we're going to keep bringing kids in.
- Chris Merriam
“We were just at the point where we would take old soccer shoes and ride steel road bikes with toe clips,” Merriam says. “My friends and I couldn’t afford mountain bikes back then because, basically, you had to go visit Gary Fisher or Tom Ritchey and get them to custom make you one.”
The sport is much bigger now than it was then, with formal races across the country, impressive turnouts at events like the Trek CX Cup, and easier access to sleek CX racing machines. According to Schieken, cyclocross’ highwater mark of popularity in the United States was around 2013, when Louisville hosted the first Cyclocross World Championships ever held in a non-European country.
“We saw huge participation on the amateur level, we saw local series being very important for people. You wanted to go out and race every week because you wanted to do well in your series,” Schieken says. “And from that time on, I think that we’ve plateaued for a while and maybe even started to decline some.”
Schieken attributes that decline in part to burnout. Cyclocross is admittedly hard. Races have historically been held during the fall and winter months, forcing riders to brave freezing temperatures in addition to wind, rain, snow and so, so very much mud. At some point, many riders may have weighed racing another season of cyclocross against the merits of being warm, and decided they’d rather stay inside.
But during that mid-2010s lull, diehards like Merriam and Schieken stayed firm. Both were entrenched in the cyclocross scene at that point. In 2008, Schieken started a blog called “In The Crosshairs” that documented domestic cyclocross, especially races in the Mid-Atlantic area. Around the same time, Merriam worked as a board member of the Mid Atlantic Bicycle Racing Association. (Both Schieken and Merriam live in Washington D.C.)
Over time, “In The Crosshairs” was shortened to “CXHairs,” and Schieken’s site grew into a trusted resource for cyclocross coverage near and far.
“I was interviewing local people in the Mid-Atlantic about how they were succeeding,” Schieken says. “If you were on a podium — and it didn’t matter if you are a Cat 3, or elite, or whoever — I wanted to know how you got there, and I had this list of questions. That curiosity led to making this ‘SVENNESS’ video series that was popular and making my own content.”
Schieken and Merriam became friends by running in the same circles and realizing they had similar ideas about how to grow the sport. Merriam was one of the first riders to join Schieken’s “Crosshairs Cycling” club, which was formed in 2012 and was largely comprised of mutual friends in the bike messenger community.
Merriam remembers exactly when, in 2017, he got the idea to form a devo team. His wife, Libbey Sheldon, had just done a local race after winning the World Championship for her age category. She noticed two 13- and 14-year-olds, Ella Brenneman and Katherine Sarkisov, had been nipping at her wheel at the front of the race.
“She said, ‘Dang, these kids are getting fast,'” Merriam says. “In talking to their parents and knowing the families from around there, there was this question of, ‘How do we get these kids — who are doing the same races year in and year out and really enjoying the sport, and having great friends, and learning a lot from it — to a regional level, or a national level, or perhaps an international level?
“And so, in 2018, we started the program.”
One of the great things about cyclocross as a sport is that it helps anybody who wants to be a bike racer.
- Bill Schieken
Sheldon is now teammates with both Brenneman and Sarkisov as the most senior rider on CXHairs Devo.
Both Schieken and Merriam have myriad connections to races, organizations and sponsors across cycling. They share the shifting responsibilities of running a development team. No two days look alike, but in general Merriam handles the day-to-day operations, which means overseeing several million details necessary to getting riders and equipment to races safely, and Schieken does what he has always done best, telling stories largely through photos and social media.
More than four years into their devo team adventures, they’re still learning a lot about what it takes to run a sustainable program. This year, having UCI status made traveling to Europe feasible for the squad. The team went over with four riders in October, and again with USA Cycling in December for the legendary “Kerstperiode” gauntlet. Sending a gaggle of teenagers across an ocean is a logistical nightmare, but fortunately they had some help.
First: Though CXHairs Devo’s new UCI status confers numerous benefits, few are bigger than having a designated parking spot at races: “We are with the elite teams,” Schieken says. “We’re setting up our space next to Pauwels-Sauzen or next to the Baloise-Trek Lions. It’s another thing when you are a development rider, and you’re able to see what the future could look like. You’re sort of getting that very high level professional look at what the sport can be.”
Second: CXHairs Devo’s tight relationship with Trek means they get to share resources with other Trek-sponsored teams like Baloise-Trek, Trek Factory Racing, Bear Devo and the Steve Tilford Foundation: “It is a help when, oh boy, we need these brake pads,” Merriam says. “We all have the same equipment, so we can go to the other tents and work together. So it’s been a tremendously beneficial environment for all these kids to be racing competitors, but under this larger Trek-supported umbrella.”
One of the best resources as Merriam and Schieken waded through the fraught waters of European racing was Trek Factory Racing mechanic Angel “Litu” Gómez, who also has years of experience as a rider and factory team manager. He gave them and the riders his perspective on what it takes to compete at the highest levels of cycling.
“Just from his experience as a professional road racer himself, when he was talking to the guys about that, their eyes lit up,” Merriam says. “But also his ability to share with us how detail-oriented a professional program like Trek Factory Racing is, and how we organize the day, how we think about our racing, how we think about our rest. It was a tremendous learning experience, and one that I’m trying to internalize so that when I do this again in the future, I can up my game and make life better for the riders.”
The squad managed some encouraging results during its European expeditions, highlighted by Strohmeyer’s sixth-place finish in the Men’s U23 World Cup race in Tabor last October. But even when the results weren’t stellar, all of the riders grew from their experiences.
“The most specific example was the Koksijde sand racing,” Merriam says. “I sent a group text, and each one of them responded, ‘That was amazing. It was the hardest thing ever and I learned so much.’ And until I can get them out into California to go running in the dunes or something like that, you just don’t get that experience in the United States.”
I sent a group text, and each one of them responded, 'That was amazing. It was the hardest thing ever and I learned so much.'
- Chris Merriam
At World Championships in Hoogerheide, Strohmeyer and Mattern will be among 10 riders on Trek Boones out of 16 American selections. Also noteworthy is that just three of those 16 riders are racing as elite.
One could make a number of conclusions from that stat. On one hand, the U.S. has perhaps struggled to keep riders in cyclocross, or develop them well enough to create a sizable pool of elites. On the other hand, the sport seems to have no shortage of young talents champing at the bit to change the domestic landscape of the sport.
Though Merriam and Schieken are partial to cyclocross, they don’t view themselves as evangelists. They are teaching young talented riders the joys of cycling, full stop. They are more than happy to wax poetically about cyclocross singular charms, while knowing that the sport also prepares riders well for just about any discipline they may choose to pursue professionally.
“One of the great things about cyclocross as a sport is that it helps anybody who wants to be a bike racer,” Schieken says. “We have people on our team who are probably going to be more involved in road racing than they are in cyclocross, and that’s fine. We want to give them the opportunity to build these different skills that may help them down the road. We’ve seen examples of this with Van der Poel, Van Aert and Pidcock. All these people who started in cyclocross are going on to these great careers, be it in road racing or even mountain biking.”
In Merriam and Schieken’s view, rebuilding the American cyclocross scene bigger and stronger means spreading their love of cycling as far and wide as they can. There will be more great riders racing cyclocross when there are more people on bikes, period.
“Individual sectors of competitive cycling always seem to be in competition with one another,” Merriam says. “People say, ‘Oh gravel is killing cyclocross,’ or, ‘Cross country is killing our domestic road scene.’ And no, we need people who really, really like riding bikes and are going to invest their time in the weekends in finding what it is that they can do that allows them to scratch that competitive itch. The more people who think of themselves as bike racers, whatever category that falls in, then the better the entire sport is going to be.”
The best thing for American cyclocross, according to Schieken and Merriam, is that it remains a welcoming space. Both of them applaud the National Interscholastic Cycling Association — NICA — as a model for showing young riders how to have fun racing their bikes while also connecting them to professional pathways. And although NICA primarily promotes youth mountain biking, Schieken and Merriam believe that the organization has helped boost participation numbers in cyclocross, too.
The more people who think of themselves as bike racers, whatever category that falls in, then the better the entire sport is going to be.
- Chris Merriam
“You have people who are involved in NICA who are like, ‘Hey, this is cool. I really loved it. What else can I do? Let me go race cyclocross in the fall and winter.'” Schieken says. “And they’re doing that. And that’s feeding into finding these riders who are going to be racing at the top level.”
While American cyclocross has had tough years in the recent past, CXHairs Devo should make anyone optimistic about the sport’s future. Participation may have dipped a few years ago, but stewards of the sport like Schieken and Merriam are keen to rectify past mistakes, and build a culture that is distinctly American — one that emphasizes performance, but never at the expense of passion.
“It’s just great to be part of the sport on the development side, making fantastic and potential Olympian bike racers,” Merriam says. “I think we need to keep tweaking the dials, we need to pay attention, but this sport is far from its last gasp.”