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Commentary: A nationals disaster

Something fell apart in Austin, Texas, over the past weekend. Somehow, somewhere, communication failed, planning failed; the stewards of the sport of cyclocross in the United States failed.

Does failure, however, go hand-in-hand with fault?

Just hours before the final day’s racing was set to commence in Austin’s Zilker Park, the U.S. national cyclocross championship was canceled, postponed, and then finally rescheduled for the following afternoon — a Monday.

Hundreds of racers, their families, their teams, and their fans were forced to scramble — changing flights, extending hotel stays, and taking another day off from work — or they were forced to simply go home, back to their real lives away from the mud.

The underpinnings of the failures are complicated. Blame is difficult to extract from the work of lady luck and difficult to pin down on any single party. But the foundation is clear: It all starts with the trees.


The Austin Heritage Tree Foundation serves to protect Austin’s trees. It fights for them, loudly. Last weekend, the people of the Austin Heritage Tree Foundation did their job.

On Saturday, after several days of amateur racing at Zilker Park and an overnight rain, the organization posted a “911 Tree Emergency” on its website. Within hours, emails and phone calls flooded the Austin Parks and Recreation offices, calling for the cancelation of cyclocross nationals and, frequently, for the resignation of parks department head Sara Hensley for allowing the “senseless damage to these heritage trees” in a park that already hosts the acclaimed Austin City Limits Musical Festival and the Zilker Park Kite Festival, as well as a number of other popular events.

Pressure mounted, and the Parks and Rec. Department caved. It does not appear that department head Sara Hensley made the final call; rather, it was someone beneath her, but with enough clout to get the job done. At 7:15 a.m. Sunday, the Austin Department of Parks and Recreation canceled the final day of the 2015 national cyclocross championships, shutting out several junior categories, as well as the elite men and women, the marquee events.

At 11:00 a.m., following negotiations with USA Cycling, pressure from City of Austin officials, pressure from fans, racers, and teams — even pressure from Austin local Lance Armstrong — an agreement was announced: The races would go on, but on Monday, on a revised course, a course that averted the tree’s apparently delicate root zones.

Crisis averted, thumbs pointed angrily downward quickly morphed into pointed fingers.

Can bikes kill trees?

Many questioned the legitimacy of the argument that a cyclocross race, even in the wettest conditions, could actually kill 300-year-old live oaks. However five certified arborists contacted by VeloNews confirmed that tire traffic, and even foot traffic, can kill trees under the right circumstances. Does a muddy cyclocross race fall under the category of “right circumstances?” That much is less certain.

“In two to three days, maybe four days of hard riding, I don’t think bikes could possibly have killed any of those trees,” said certified arborist Jeff Shoeny, who also races cyclocross.

Direct damage to roots is a problem, as is soil compaction. Much depends on soil type and composition and precisely where the track falls within what is called the Critical Root Zone, “the area measured by a foot outward from the trunk for every diameter inch of the tree,” explained Robert Brudenell, board certified master arborist in Denver.

The City of Austin is very protective of its trees. Any tree larger than 19 inches in diameter is classified as a Heritage Tree and garners extra protections.

Whether or not a cyclocross race could cause lasting damage to a Heritage Tree is, in the end, debatable. But it’s not actually a debate that has much relevance to the issues event owner USA Cycling, event manager Cadence Sports, and event host Austin Parks and Recreation Department ran into on Sunday. Those issues stem from miscommunication, misrepresentation, an angry lobbying group, and angry bike racers. It was possible to protect the trees to the Heritage Foundation’s liking while still holding bike races on Sunday.

So why didn’t that happen?

Blame: Parks and Rec

The timing of the Tree Foundation’s protest is unfortunate. It came at the eleventh hour; that’s part of what made it so effective. Can we blame an advocacy organization for being effective? Sure, but that blame is misguided.

There is danger in vilifying the opposition as stupid, or evil, in pretending that they are incapable of understanding the situation. It only stands in the way of identifying, analyzing, and fixing what are clearly serious problems within cycling. Pointing the finger at the Tree Foundation is an understandable reaction, but it’s misdirected.

It is easy to point the finger at Austin’s Parks Department, which agreed to host the U.S. nationals but then caved under pressure, at the worst possible moment.

USA Cycling and event manager, Cadence Sports, completed the park permit process as instructed. Potential problems with the trees on course were never brought up with race promoters. The city’s arborist, Angela Hansen, never raised any concerns. The city never asked USA Cycling or Cadence Sports to apply for a Tree Permit, which lays out the protection of the city’s Heritage Trees in great detail and would have required that the course met guidelines laid out by Austin’s Environmental Criteria Manual, which, in the end, it did not.

There were walkthroughs, many of them. The dream course was laid out in June 2014; Cadence Sport’s Gary Metcalf sat down with Austin Parks and Rec. following a walkthrough. Some changes were made.

The course was first staked out a week out before the event. There was another walkthrough, with Parks and Rec. staff in tow.

“They had a couple of people involved, I’m not exactly sure who it was, but we know it was someone from the Parks and there was someone from forestry,” said Micah Rice, USA Cycling’s vice president of national events. “At that point, they made any decisions to move stuff, manipulate spaces before the course was built, and the posts went in.”

There was a third walkthrough on Tuesday, again with Parks staff, as well as the city sports commissioner. Further tweaks were made. “There was some conversation about, ‘Let’s avoid that area, let’s avoid that tree over there,” Rice said.

There was a walkthrough with Parks staff prior to each day of racing once racing began. The Heritage Tree Foundation was never present, and it would have been the onus of the Parks Department to invite them.

“We did not know of this tree group,” Rice said. “That group was never presented to us as a group we were supposed to liaison with. We always understood that if there was a change that needed to be made, per our permit that we had with the city, that that information would come from the person we liaison with [at the Parks Department].”

Never was cancelation mentioned. Not once. Not even when USA Cycling staff met with Parks and Rec staff once again on Saturday night to discuss the effect of the bad weather.

Some damage was expected, of course. Approval of expected damage was part of the initial permitting process. Funds to reconstruct the park were budgeted. “We have money set aside to bring Zilker Park back to good condition,” said Rice. “That’s money that’s been in the budget for two years. Just like we did in Boulder, we had thousands of dollars set aside to help rebuild Valmont.”

A representative from Cadence Sports made it clear that the city never brought up the tree issue. It was never a problem until, suddenly, it was an insurmountable one.

All of this suggests that the blame lies squarely at the feet of the Parks Department, that USA Cycling and Cadence were simply the unlucky targets of city officials who ruled in favor of a powerful local lobbying group and against and out-of-town group destined to leave Austin within a week.

Blame: USA Cycling

Rice, for one, doesn’t blame the Parks Department, at least not publicly. VeloNews managing editor Chris Case, reporting from Austin, asked Rice if he was upset with Hensley.

“I’m not upset. I’m happy that we found a solution, and we’re going to let everyone race,” he said. “I’m glad that we do have a solution, and we don’t go without a national championship in the elite categories. I don’t think I’m angry at anyone, necessarily, there are a lot of pieces that happened to get us to where we are now, there’s not just one group that you can just blame for screwing this up. One of those things is Mother Nature and it’s hard to blame her for anything.”

But the buck must stop somewhere.

“In the end, it’s on us. I get that,” Rice said. “But I’ve been wracking my brain on what I could have done differently to avoid the cancelation, and I can come up with nothing.”

Perhaps no amount of communication could have prevented an overnight, clearly political decision from being made by a member of the Parks Department staff who was not a direct liaison with USA Cycling or Cadence.

But regardless of the perceived failures of the Parks Department, as the owner of the event, USA Cycling is responsible for executing due diligence in venue selection, organization, and issue mitigation of any event it promotes. These were USA Cycling’s national championships; they weren’t Zilker Park’s national championships, or Sara Hensley’s national championships.

An event of this scale is a partnership. USA Cycling needed to not only vet the venue, but also to vet its partner, Austin’s Parks Department.

USA Cycling had contingency plans. In fact, an entire separate venue was prepared in case of emergency. But with the call coming less than five hours before racing was set to begin, swapping venues was not an option.

“If we needed to make a decision to completely move the course, we did have a plan B to do that,” Rice said. “That was in the plan from the very beginning, when we started talking about the bid package. In this situation, the logistics, there was not a discussion even [Saturday] about canceling the event. Even [Saturday], cancelation was not on the table as a discussion point. We were not told until 7:15 [Sunday] morning. You can understand, you don’t pick up and move this at 7:15 a.m. and have any sort of contingency plan that works outside of running a [criterium] outside of town on ’cross bikes.”

Wouldn’t a test event have helped foresee such problems? Rice doesn’t think so, unless the test event also saw the heavy rains that fell on Austin last week. But even a dry cyclocross race rips up a park’s surface, and a dry race would have run just as close to the Heritage Trees. It’s very possible that a test event would have seen similar backlash from the Tree Foundation. The course could have been altered for nationals, and the crisis potentially averted.

“I’d rather have the test prove that the venue can’t be used, than having something like this happen. This is worse,” said Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com manager Stu Thorne on Sunday afternoon.

It’s unlikely that a stronger contract could have helped. Cities retain the right to revoke permits at their discretion.

Frustratingly, had Park officials made USA Cycling aware of the potential issues, a simple course re-route could have prevented the entire polemic. “It appears the city only protects half the Critical Root Zone, so on a 30-inch diameter tree that is only 15 feet from the trunk, it should have been easy to do and would have prevented all this mess,” said Brudenell, the Denver arborist. “The Austin Heritage Tree Foundation wants the full Critical Root Zone protection, but even still, that would be just 30 feet away from a large 30-inch tree, it could have been done without drastically altering the course, as I see it.”

The takeaway

To paint the events on Sunday as anything less than a disaster for USA Cycling and for the national championship is insincere.

Yes, the event did go off on Monday with just a few minor hitches. Yes, there were still crowds. Yes, the winners were still every bit as worthy, particularly in the elite races, which saw few riders fail to start. These are all important victories, and a testament to the people on the ground, their work, and their dedication.

But the thousands of dollars spent by racers, families, teams, vendors, and sponsors, not to mention all the racers who had to head home, all the fans who were not able to line the tape to cheer on their favorite riders, should not be trivialized.

A survey conducted by Matthew Montesano, an amateur racer in Minnesota, and responded to by 38 percent of Monday’s racers, suggests that the average total cost per rider to stay an extra day fell north of $900, with a total cost of almost $350,000, even without taking into account vendors, media, and spectators.

Montesano warns that these are preliminary figures; he’ll publish final results next week. That same analysis shows that the DNS (Did Not Start) rate increased from 4.2 percent earlier in the week to 22 percent on Monday.

That all of this came about due to a lack of communication is heartbreaking, regardless of where the fault for that absence lies. That it could have been avoided with a different venue, or a course that was informed by the city’s Heritage Tree Code, or perhaps by a test event, or simply a phone call to the right person at the right time, is upsetting.

The blame game is easy to play and impossible to win. But the governing body needs a long moment of introspection, to look deeply at its practices and determine if any of the events that occurred last weekend are avoidable. The cyclocross community, which invested so much of its own dollars and sweat into Austin nationals, deserves that much.

Chris Case contributed reporting from Austin.