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Anger, confusion reign as cyclocross nationals reschedule for Monday

They came bearing cowbells, faces painted, bundled against an unseasonably cold Texas morning. They came early, excited, gliding through slick mud on bikes hardly cleaned from the week’s amateur races. They came to cheer, to heckle, to scream themselves hoarse, to be part of the roar that would zigzag across Zilker Park on Sunday afternoon, following the nation’s best cyclocrossers on their quest for a national championship.

They were met by police cars, six of them, parked across the entrance to Zilker Park in the heart of Austin.

They were met by a cry: “’Cross nats is canceled!”

The tweets went out, the headlines were posted, the rage poured in. Riders and fans lined up under the star-spangled finish banner, thumbs down in protest. Angry.

Cyclocross canceled for mud? Surely not.

What happened?

Sometime Sunday morning, employees of the Austin Department of Parks and Recreation decided to bar USA Cycling and nationals promoter Cadence Sports from using Zilker Park for the purposes of cyclocross on that day. The concern was centered on a number of trees near the course; specifically, their roots, which the department feared would see irreparable damage from another day of hard racing.

Nearly two inches of rain fell on Zilker Park over Saturday night and into Sunday, according to the Parks department. The Nationals Weather Service indicates that about half an inch fell over Austin overnight.

“First and foremost we are here to offer recreation and park services, but many times we host events,” said Sara Hensley, head of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. “We are welcoming of those events, and we do welcome you here; we have to protect our park, and particularly our trees which we value so much in this city. One of the things we’re going to be doing working with USA Cycling over the next few hours today is to walk to the course and mitigate some areas that we know are sort of out of control with some deep ruts, and then a little bit better mitigation around some trees and some root zones. We’ve spent a large amount of money over the last few years, particularly in Zilker park, protecting some of these trees and we want to make sure we keep them viable and growing.”

Questions swirled Sunday morning, fed by a USA Cycling press release that described the event as merely “postponed.” It conflicted with news from the parks department, which clearly labeled the race as canceled.

Was the racing on? Should everyone just pack up and go home? What about flights? What about hotels? What about dinner? What about pit crews?

A decision was made around 11 a.m., following negotiation between USA Cycling and the parks department, announced by a terse voice over the PA system: “Canceled. Exit the park immediately.”

Details filtered in. The eight races scheduled for Sunday afternoon — the men’s and women’s junior 15-16 and 17-18 events, the men’s U23 race, the women’s U23 and elite races, and the men’s elite race — would not be run on Sunday. They would instead be rescheduled for Monday, beginning at noon, using a re-routed course at Zilker Park.

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Hensley summed it up succinctly in a mid-morning press conference: “There is no win here, I can say that with all sincerity: There is no win.”

Moving races back by 24 hours presents an array of logistical problems. Most racers, their families, their crews, were not planning to stay in Austin through Monday. Flights were booked, hotel rooms would need to be extended. Many schools go back into session on Monday; most of the elite racers are not full-time pros, and will need to show up at work this week.

Dave Hagen, head of the Fort Lewis College cycling team that earned silver in the collegiate team omnium, has eight riders who were planning to double up in the U23 or elite races after their collegiate efforts earlier in the week.

“We were going to pack up our trailer, which is a lot of infrastructure, go back, clean up the house, and leave at 6 a.m. tomorrow. The kids were going to miss school tomorrow, the first day of classes. If it comes down to there being racing tomorrow, we won’t race,” he said.

Caitlyn Vestal, who flew from Golden, Colorado, for the women’s elite race, also will head home.

“I took Friday off, and Monday is full of meetings, and all the normal obligations for work,” she said. “I can’t afford to take another day off and let my work team down.”

The top riders will mostly stay, though at least one big name will not. Elle Anderson flew back to the U.S. from Europe for nationals; she will return to Europe on Monday, as scheduled, and look toward the world championships. [Anderson chose to stay in Austin and race nationals -Ed.]

“So I’m officially skipping the race to head back to Belgium with my original itinerary,” she said.

Cyclocross is growing faster than any other discipline. Was this an inevitable growing pain, as the number of starters in the amateur events begin to run into the thousands, thrashing courses before the elites race? Tim Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) sees the reschedule as an operational problem.

“This is forcing USA Cycling and U.S. promoters in general to look at operations in a different way,” Johnson said. “When you’re running a high volume of racers on course, the damage is a lot different than a one-day or a two-day race plus practice session. This is more than 2,000 riders, practice laps, race laps, non-championship events. So while those races were really fun, great to watch, something that a lot of people look forward to, it’s coming at the cost of Sunday’s racing.”

There was no test event in Austin, a point of contention for Johnson’s team manager, Stu Thorne.

“It’s not a proven venue,” Thorne said. “If we had been to this venue last year as a test race, we probably would have found out … We may have found out. We learn more by having a test event.

“The argument is that if you have a test event, then they get pissed off, and we don’t have a nationals because they won’t let us use it. But I’d rather have the test event prove that the venue can’t be used than having something like this happen. This is worse.”

Micah Rice, USA Cycling’s vice president of national events, stands by the current format.

“I don’t necessarily know what doing a test event would have done to change our minds about coming to Austin. Unless the test event was right after two inches of rain we wouldn’t have had any clue what this was going to look like anyway,” he said.

Opinions differ, and solutions are as murky as the Austin mud. The only consistent refrain, across teams, organizers, and fans and racers: This can never happen again. There are enough asterisks on cycling’s results sheets without adding those that are clearly avoidable.

Logan VonBokel and Chris Case contributed to this report from Austin.