Cyclocross Nationals in Austin Serves as a Lesson for 2016

A racer toughs it out in the mud on Jan. 10, 2015, at Zilker Park in Austin, Texas during the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships.
A racer toughs it out in the mud on Jan. 10, 2015, at Zilker Park in Austin, Texas during the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships. Charlie L. Harper III
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The City of Austin and the national cycling community are still trying to make sense of the disastrous finale to the cyclocross championships that happened here earlier this January. Foul weather nearly canceled the finish, and it touched off a blame game that may never be resolved. Many Austin cyclists love cyclocross, so the entire community was thrilled that Austin was hosting the national competition—that is, until the whole event got stuck.

But 1,100 miles to the east, on a picturesque private estate in beautiful Asheville, N.C., organizers of next year’s USA Cycling Cyclocross Nationals are looking at blue skies ahead.

At least, in a figurative sense.

“As of today, everything looks to be in very good shape for 2016,” said Ben VanCamp, executive director of the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission, which is helping organize the nationals at the historic Biltmore Estate in Asheville in January 2016.

Few in the world of cyclocross will forget what happened in Austin on Jan. 11, when the final day of an otherwise successful four-day national championship was postponed after a local conservation group complained in an 11th-hour protest that the race—taking place in excessively muddy conditions at the city’s Zilker Park—was endangering irrigation and root systems of heritage trees there.

Racers wait to be hosed off after a muddy day on Jan. 10, 2015, at Zilker Park in Austin, Texas during the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships.
Racers wait to be hosed off after a muddy day on Jan. 10, 2015, at Zilker Park in Austin, Texas during the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships. Charlie L. Harper III

Moving the marquee race day to a Monday proved costly—both to racers who had to change flights and accommodations, and vendors who lost money because spectators had to go to work. The whole thing was blamed on a woeful lack of planning and communication, and nobody—from the city to USA Cycling, to the nonprofit group that raised the issue—escaped unscathed.

“The circumstances of Austin were unfortunate, I think, for everyone,” VanCamp said. “I don’t think anyone walked away from there feeling good about it.”

Eyes immediately turned to Asheville in the mountains of Western North Carolina, and the question changed from “How did this happen?” to “Is this going to happen again?”

Not likely, city and race officials say.

There are key differences in circumstance and planning that organizers say will drastically reduce the likelihood of such a scramble next year. Most important, it would appear, is location.

In Austin, the venue was a public park subject to bureaucratic red tape and watchdog groups, vulnerable to the sway of public opinion regarding its potential misuse. The venue in Asheville will be the private Biltmore Estate, the historic 19th-century home of George Vanderbilt, an 8,000-acre venue that regularly hosts concerts and outdoors events.

The estate has already hosted two cyclocross test events in preparation for the nationals, including the two-day North Carolina Cyclocross Series Finale that concluded Sunday, Jan. 18.

“The Biltmore is a beautiful and unique venue with great features that we’ll be able to incorporate into our national championship course,” said Tara McCarthy, national events manager for USA Cycling, the national governing body for the cycling community. “The Biltmore staff is also excited to have us and even included information about the event in their tours.”

The private status of the land means that the owners have sole discretion over what it can be used for, and there are no public groups with a stake in whether the event is appropriate for the land.

A rider toughs it out in the much on Jan. 10, 2015, at Zilker Park in Austin, Texas during the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships.
A rider toughs it out in the much on Jan. 10, 2015, at Zilker Park in Austin, Texas during the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships. Charlie L. Harper III

“It’s a different mindset going into it,” VanCamp said.

Also, organizers said the terrain is more amenable to rough usage and less risky than a park with hundred-year-old trees might be.

“The Biltmore land we’ll be utilizing for our event is primarily farmland with less constraints and concerns than other venues may have,” McCarthy said.

After Austin, VanCamp met with both Biltmore and USA Cycling to discuss how to avoid such an occurrence next year. That included making sure that contingency plans were being discussed and brainstorming ways to avoid having to use a Plan B at all.

“We’ve talked about course variations depending on the weather and rider ability,” he said. “We talked about having sections that we only put in for pros, that we might take out and reroute for juniors. We’ve talked about some areas that we are going to use that we know, if it’s muddy, it’s just going to be really, really disgusting. So maybe we plan to avoid those sections in those conditions.”

It also means identifying worst-case scenarios and finding out where Biltmore staff might draw the line altogether, given that Mother Nature can be unpredictable.

“We asked Biltmore, ‘What, if anything, would cause you to be put in a  similar situation?’” VanCamp said, referring to a delay or cancellation. “Their only concern was safety. If it ever came to be a safety concern that was more from extreme weather conditions—lighting, hurricane, blizzard."

When next years’ nationals come around, three years of planning is expected to help thwart any last-minute problems, McCarthy said.

“We’ve been working with the Biltmore staff for two years and for the next 12 months on our upcoming event, and feel confident we will be able to have our event in all conditions,” she said.

To be sure, Austin remains a great place for cyclocross. Lots of Austinites and visitors will continue to enjoy the sport here in this fine, bike-friendly city. We just probably won't host another national competition of pros riding ruts through Zilker Park anytime soon. We'll let Asheville handle that next time.

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