What started as an idea six years ago, is now reality: The USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships got underday Tuesday in Asheville. The championships, being held Jan. 5 – 10 at the Biltmore Estate, promise to draw thousands of racers, spectators and media representatives from around the country. The races are open to the public. A $15 fee provides access to everything on the estate but access to the famed Biltmore house. And for those who want to tour the house, Biltmore is offering a small upgrade fee.
Hundreds of volunteers are required to bring off an event of this scope — in the weeks before, during and after the event. “There are people coming out [to volunteer] who are not cyclists. We have people coming in from out of town to volunteer. We’ve got folks that are Biltmore-pass holders that want to help make sure this is a really solid event,” said Micah Pulleyn, a Buncombe County Sports Commission member who’s been helping organize the massive effort. “When it comes time, all these people are showing up — a lot of the leaders in the cycling community have been showing up,” she said.
Back in 2010, Buncombe County Sports Commissioner Ben VanCamp had the idea of holding nationals in Asheville, which he took to Tim Hopkin, director of Henderson County’s Parks and Recreation Department and director of the North Carolina Cyclocross series, and to Hugh Moran. A local organizing committee was formed with about 20 members. Cameron Brantley from Asheville Cyclocross is credited with helping promote Asheville’s successful bid in 2011 to host the nationals. Laura Rice has been acting as the Communications Director for nationals and works under Hopkin at Henderson County Parks and Rec.
Many workers and volunteers have worked onsite daily constructing the course, leading up to this week’s races. “It’s good to see disparate parts of the cycling community come together, from downhillers to roadies to cyclocrossers, getting out there and getting it done. It’s a lot, laying out that course. I think that course is impressive,” Moran explained. “I think people are going to be blown away,” he added.
Cyclocross pro, Adam Meyerson posted on social media that he thought Asheville’s nationals course was one of the best of all the cyclocross courses across the country — high praise coming from a rider who has been involved with the sport for more than 30 years. Aside from blue skies, the volunteers have had to deal with torrential rain and snow flurries and cold, windy days.
“We wanted to try and use some of the interesting features, which is the elevation on this course,” Hopkin explained. The course is balanced between long grass straights and steep climbs and technical descents which test a riders bike handling ability.
Moran has been part of the project since its inception about six years ago. He is currently heading up racer safety: managing volunteer course marshals and course fluffers, two necessary roles that help keep the races safe and the course in good condition. When thousands of racers are rolling through the race course each day that adds up to a tremendous amount of wear on the course. Moran has been the cycling coach at Mars Hill University since 2009 and has attended numerous championship-level events. He has since retired from coaching collegiate, but brought a lot of experience to making a successful event.
Cyclocross Nationals in Asheville wouldn’t be complete without beer. “Sierra Nevada has been very involved in partnering with the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy. CMLC did their own volunteer recruitment to oversee all the beer sales [at nationals],” Pulleyn noted. All the money raised will go straight to the conservancy. “We wanted to partner with them because of their commitment to sustainability,” Pulleyn explained.
VanCamp says the first day went well. “We got a lot of good feedback on the course today,” he noted. “Hopkin has worked super hard on this. We had a clear expectation that we wanted it to be something special and really challenging and very true to the European roots of the sport and I think that’s something we’ve been able to deliver,” he said. “We’re going to work with Biltmore and create some better pedestrian paths to get to some better [viewing] spots.”
Hopkin is understandably excited to see all the parts come together and the large number of registrants, noting that the single-speed field is completely full at 151 riders. Bad weather, he hopes, will really help the turnout. “If the weather goes bad, the people will come out because that’s what they want to see.” Racing bicycles in bad weather is like watching NASCAR when the cars crash and crowds erupt with cheers, support and heckles for the racers braving obstacles.
Keeping it local
Brantley has been on hand at the course nearly every day helping with course construction, clearing trees, organizing volunteers, shoveling cow poop and helping with course design. He is a key member of Asheville Cyclocross, a five-year-old organization that promotes cyclocross races in WNC. Their races are unsanctioned, meaning they are not USA Cycling events, which allows anyone to race without needing a license to compete. Each season through August and September, Brantley and others at Asheville Cyclocross teach free cyclocross clinics at Bent Creek Community Park. “I think [cyclocross] is one of the most open cycling communities, especially for beginners,” Brantley said. “The pros that are there are more than happy to stop and help new riders and say ‘try this’.”
With cyclocross, Brantley explains, you are always racing somebody, even if you are in last place, which is different from road racing, where if you get dropped [are unable to stay in the main group] the peloton is down the road and you are riding alone for the rest of the race.
Asheville Cyclocross gives back a portion of its proceeds at the end of the year to Trips For Kids which is a youth bike group that helps to provide equipment, support and inspiration to help disadvantaged kids get on bikes.
Cross getting controversial
The nationals in Asheville are taking place in the shadow of last year’s calamitous cyclocross nationals event in Austin, Texas, when the Sunday finale, in which the pros were scheduled to race, had to be cancelled due to complaints about potential damage to adjacent heritage trees after heavy rainfall impacted the course. Rain is a normal and oftentimes welcome element of any cyclocross race, however the situation in Austin was complicated by the range and number of parties involved, which included the Austin Heritage Tree Foundation, the City of Austin, USA Cycling, as well as park officials including arborists and rangers. Spectators were greeted that Sunday morning by police ensuring that the course not be used for racing.
Race organizers in Austin, including USA Cycling, were caught completely unaware and apparently weren’t notified by the city that racing would not be allowed to proceed. After some hours of negotiating, racing was allowed to continue on Monday, but the delay caused a logistical nightmare: Spectators, racers and media representatives had either departed or had to change their plans and stay an extra day.
A welcome partnership
The Biltmore Estate has been a welcome partner, say both Hopkin and VanCamp. And the estate has made numerous modifications to the site, including clearing trees and brush, as well as providing a deep discount to the event guests, Pulleyn noted.
Some spectators and racers have criticized the venue’s limited parking. Both estate visitors and racers alike must compete for parking spaces. The estate wanted to ensure its guests can park near Antler Village and that the event wouldn’t impact its normal business, and so developed a solution: a drop-off point for races at the course and parking a few miles away for racers who can use Biltmore’s shuttle system to get to the course.
The first day of racing on Tuesday didn’t have any particular parking problems, but parking strains are likely to be felt more strongly as the week progresses, with attendance projected between one and two thousand, and certainly during the weekend, when the highlight races occur, for which Hopkin estimates there may be upwards of 6,000 people at the venue.
Races will continue throughout the week starting in the cold of the morning and finishing in the late afternoon. The final day of racing will take place Sunday with the juniors racing at 9:45 a.m. and finishing with the men’s elite race at 3:40 p.m.
To follow the week’s racing you can track results here.
For updates on the racing check out Twitter with this hashtag: #AshevilleCX16
Their facebook page can be found here.