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US cyclocross nationals rollercoaster: next stop, race day

January 12, 2015
Junior mud model

Junior mud model

Many cyclocross riders slipped into bed Saturday night in Austin listening to what they’d call sweet music: the drip-drop of rain falling, sometimes drilling heavily on the roof.

“I was ecstatic,” 16 year-old Gage Hecht (Alpha Bicycle Co.) said about the rain. “I was like, ‘Yes! We’re going to get more rain, more mud.’” Hecht was to race the junior men’s 17 – 18 category at cyclocross national championships on Sunday as one of the favorites.

Athletes in the 15 – 16 junior category as well as U23 and elite competitors were to race Sunday as well. They dreamed of the mud they’d slice through the next day that would cake and dry on their faces, spot their teeth, and ink the backs of their kits chocolate brown. The mud that would test their skills in sloppy conditions.

But most of all they likely dreamed about how it would feel to become a national champion. Being the best. Punching the sky. Blinking into camera flashes as they stood on the highest step of the podium.

“People have trained hard to get up to this point,” said junior Katie Clouse, who won Saturday’s junior women’s 13 to 14 race. “This is the thing they’ve been training for the whole year…”

But the next morning on Sunday racers arrived at the Zilker Park nationals venue and found police cars with spinning lights blocking entrances. While the police turned some people away – others continued to walk or ride into the park, the competitors heard rumors about possible cancellation. “The mayor of Austin has decided the event can’t go on,” one junior said.

Next the juniors, parents, U23 riders, spectators, photographers and journalists – it was too early for the elite riders to make an appearance, were advised there’d be a delay while the race officials worked with the city representatives to decide what would happen. It turns out damage to the park, especially potential damage to trees, was the main concern.

At about 10 o’clock word filtered out that the event was to be cancelled – cycling industry representatives in the expo area and others had been told they could pack-up. An 11 o’clock press conference would provide more details.

Athletes and spectators milled around the team tents, trying to absorb a decision that seemed unreal and illogical. Cancel a cyclocross race due to the impact of weather? Since when?

Author and racer Molly Hurford summed it up in a story on the Canadian cyclocross national championships website: “At its heart, cyclocross is what you do when the weather sucks too much to ride on the road or single track. The sport is based on how bad the weather can be and how tough you are and how much you can get through.”

Sport veteran and Raleigh Clement team manager Donn Kellogg said he’d never seen a ‘cross race cancelled due to damage to the landscape.

“I’ve seen races cancelled because of high wind on the road, where it was absolutely putting riders in danger. I’ve seen races cancelled due to lightning, tornado warnings, those types of things, when it’s really pretty sketchy. But this, no. This is new ground.”

Reactions to temporary cancellation

Some riders responded with humor. “Spencer’s already voted himself national champion,” Hecht joked, speaking about one of his main rivals for the 17 – 18 title and last year’s 15 – 16 national champion, Spencer Petrov. A win by his younger brother on Saturday will undoubtly fire-up Petrov despite recovery from illness that dogged him in Europe.

Hecht was processing the decision in a balanced way. “I’m a little torn because I would really have liked to race today; it looked like a really fun course. But I don’t want to get Austin in trouble or [jeopardize] any cycling here in the future.”

Others were just beginning to make the mental shift around lost goals and opportunities. After a bumpy start last year due to contact with other riders, Yannick Eckmann (California Giant Berry Farms / Specialized) took risks to return to the front of the action but lost the U23 title in a close contest with Logan Owen.

When asked what the cancellation meant for him, Eckmann said, “It’s a weird feeling. I’m sad it’s cancelled. I really wanted to race and see where I was at. When I rode ‘cross at the beginning of this year, I wasn’t at the point where I was hoping to be, closer to Logan [Owen] and Curtis [White].

“My goal for nationals was to battle up front with them. I was going to go for the win for sure.” A cancelled event, he said, “cuts out my last time to be a U23 champion as well. Everything…it’s just gone.”

This season some elite riders have progressed to their highest ever level of potential to win or podium. And their chances for becoming champions seem very good right now due to issues the perennial favorites have recently faced. Katie Compton (Trek Factory Racing) has been struggling with health problems for much of the season. Jeremy Powers (Aspire Racing) has been recovering from a knee injury.

This could be Courtenay McFadden’s (GE Capital/American Classic) year for an elite women’s title, for example, or Jamey Driscoll’s (Raleigh Clement) or Danny Summerhill’s (K-Edge/Felt) time for a red, white, and blue jersey for the elite men. After a disappointing showing in 2014, a win for Summerhill would electrify the meaning of redemption.

The show goes on after all

At about 10:30 a.m. USA Cycling officials announced to teams that a compromise had been reached. The event would not be cancelled; Sunday’s races were now rescheduled to the following day starting at noon, with a compressed schedule to reduce the amount of time wheels touched the course.

In the press conference USA Cycling’s Micah Rice and Sara Hensley, Director of Parks and Recreation of the City of Austin, provided explanations.

Live oaks near the longer limestone steps on 'cross nationals course

Live oaks near the longer limestone steps on ‘cross nationals course

“…we just have to protect our park and particularly our trees which we value so much in the city,” said Hensley. “We’re going to walk the course and mitigate some areas we know are sort of out of control with some deep ruts and a little bit better mitigation around some trees and some root zones. We spent a large amount of money over the last years, particularly in Zilker Park, protecting some of these trees and we want to make sure that we keep them viable and growing. But we don’t want to send people away without completing this event…”

She continued to say that while the trees, some of which are 200 years-old, were important, the protection of the park in general and visitor safety were at issue as well.

USA Cycling officials indicated they strove to find a way to avoid nullifying the event. “We are just happy that we are able to run a national championship here in Austin, Texas at Zilker Park,” Rice said. He also said changes to the course could be made.

Emotional choices

The decision about whether to stay on an extra day to race brought on intense, conflicting emotions for riders, families, and support crew.

For some the situation presented no choice. They had to return home to work, family, or other obligations, or couldn’t afford the cost of changing airline tickets, losing a day’s pay, or another night’s lodging. Even if their time was flexible, parents with one or more junior racers faced considerable costs to extend their travel.

Yet with so much time and effort and funds already invested in contesting nationals, choosing to go home also seemed inconceivable.

Monday is going to be interesting. Rider motivations may be stronger or deflated. Reduced field sizes could affect the podiums. Less spectators will likely show on a weekday and some of those who flew in will have gone home.

Emotions are bound to surface. A combination of gratefulness to be able to take a shot at becoming a national champion, anger over footing increased expenses, and the feeling of racing in a second act will probably all show up at the start line.

From → Cyclocross

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