A relatively new sport that’s exploding in popularity in the U.S. is giving visitors yet another reason to come to Asheville. In January, the city will host the 2016 Cyclocross National Championships. Organizers expect the five-day event, scheduled for Jan. 6-10, to draw spectators and elite racers from across the country, including such cyclocross-heavy areas as New England, Portland, Oregon, Boulder, Colorado, and Louisville, Kentucky.
“I just started researching unique and a little bit off-the-mainstream style of sporting events,” says Ben VanCamp, who was hired in 2010 as executive director of the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission. “At the time, cyclocross was a brand-new concept to me; I found a video online of this kind of wacky sport, completely different from anything I’d seen before in cycling.”
Racers compete on a 1.2- to 2-mile course that includes tight turns, long straightaways, wooden barriers and exceptionally muddy sections or steep hill climbs that force racers to dismount and remount their bikes at speed.
Intrigued, VanCamp says he “reached out to Tim Hopkin in Hendersonville, who organizes the North Carolina Cyclocross Series and the North Carolina Grand Prix at Jackson Park” to discuss the possibility of hosting championships in Asheville.
In 2005, notes a February 2014 Associated Press story, “About 32,000 riders started one of USA Cycling’s cyclocross events; that number rose to more than 110,000 by 2012. And the number of participants at the national championships in Boulder earlier this month was up nearly 30 percent over a year ago.”
But the sport, notes Hopkin, who’s the director of Henderson County’s Parks and Recreation Department, is also “very spectator-friendly. It’s a multilap race, so the athletes will pass multiple sections multiple times, which makes it far more appealing and interesting to spectators and the racers themselves. It’s exciting to watch and exciting to participate in.”
N.C.’s cyclocross culture
Cyclocross isn’t the only kind of cycling that’s shining a spotlight on Asheville. Western North Carolina is one of the best places in the nation to ride a bike, and in May, the city hosted the Collegiate Road National Championships, which brought in Division I and II men’s and women’s teams from as far away as Oregon, Colorado and New England to duke it out here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. VanCamp was also behind that event, which will be returning to Asheville in 2016.
Hopkin, meanwhile, was the promoter for the N.C. Cyclocross Series. Now in its 19th year, the NCCX series holds races from Hendersonville to as far east as Raleigh and Southern Pines. The cyclocross season begins in the autumn and concludes with the world championships in February. In 2013, Louisville became the first U.S. city to host the Cyclocross World Championships. Next year’s edition will be held in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium.
In the summer of 2011, Hopkin and VanCamp got together with others in the local cycling community, including members of Asheville Cyclocross (a bike-racing group) and Hugh Moran, the head coach of Mars Hill University’s cycling program, to discuss bringing the 2016 nationals to Asheville. Seeing real potential for landing the cyclocross nationals, VacCamp began focusing his attention on ’cross.
He consulted with a number of potential host sites, including Biltmore Estate, and that fall, the Asheville Sports Commission officially submitted a bid. After considering proposals from a number of cities across the nation, USA Cycling, the sport’s national governing body, decided in March 2012 to award the 2014 nationals to Boulder, this year’s edition to Austin, and next year’s event to Asheville.
“Our ability to show that we have a cyclocross culture in N.C., that we have hosted world-class events such as the North Carolina Grand Prix, I’m sure helped [USA Cycling] feel confident that the athletes and the people here understand and know what cyclocross is,” notes Hopkin, adding, “Their enthusiasm for having the nationals will definitely be a benefit to the event.”
In the early 1900s, road racers seeking a way to stay fit until the weather had improved enough for road competition to resume began racing bikes across fields, up hills and even through river crossings; by the 1950s, cyclocross had morphed into its own unique sport in Europe. It took another several decades for the sport to arrive in the U.S., where it didn’t find much popularity until the last 10 years.
In Europe, meanwhile, television ratings for ’cross now rival those of the NFL in America, the Associated Press reports. One key reason for this is the greater opportunities this hybrid sport offers viewers.
To be sure, classic road events such as the Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix attract large numbers of spectators. But once the surge of colorfully clad racers passes any given point, it’s difficult if not impossible for those folks to continue watching the race. Cyclocross, on the other hand, plays out on a short, closed course featuring a variety of challenges, including barriers to dismount and jump over, sandpits to ride through and, oftentimes, difficult conditions such as snow and mud.
The root of the problem
Next year’s Asheville nationals will come on the heels of a controversial 2015 event in Austin’s Zilker Park. In the wake of heavy rains and worse-than-expected soil drainage, the Austin Heritage Tree Foundation, which hadn’t been involved in planning the race, raised concerns that it posed a hazard to some old and precious trees along the route. Race organizers had conducted numerous walk-throughs with officials from the city and USA Cycling, park rangers and arborists during the planning stage, and twice-daily walk-throughs with Parks & Rec staff during the event. But due to a combination of miscommunication and disorganization, the Sunday races were abruptly canceled, and police were posted that morning to turn away racers and spectators alike.
Eventually, after long talks involving the organizers, the tree advocates and city officials, and a phone call from Texas native Lance Armstrong, the races were rescheduled for the next day. But in the meantime, the cancellation created logistical nightmares both for the elite racers contending for the various national titles and for anyone in attendance who’d bought plane tickets or booked hotel rooms and planned to return to work or fly home on Monday.
The organizers of the Asheville nationals believe they’ll be ready for whatever circumstances arise. Hopkin has already held January practice race weekends at Biltmore Estate the last two years, as finales to the 2014 and 2015 NCCX series.
“There are plans for all situations,” he notes. “We have slightly different terrain than Austin did. The majority of the course is on farmland, so it doesn’t have the same concerns, but there will be other unique things we’ve discussed and looked for.” The estate, says Hopkin, is aware that it could be facing a muddy week of cyclocross.
Both Hopkin and VanCamp say they appreciate Biltmore staffers’ professionalism and the diverse terrain available on the estate grounds. Meanwhile, the practice races have helped organizers identify and sort out things like parking, and the course design has been significantly improved each year. Particularly at the championship level, cyclocross events require straight stretches of pavement of a certain length, which were lacking during the first year of practice races. Construction around Antler Hill Village forced Hopkin to reroute the 2015 course, which now includes a desirable starting and finishing stretch.
Still, VanCamp concedes that logistics will probably be one of the event’s greatest challenges. Last January, Biltmore decided to extend its customary holiday celebrations into the new year, bringing additional guests to the estate and Antler Hill Village and exacerbating parking issues; this will be the case again next year. To insulate estate visitors from the sprawl of a national-level championship event, with its food and drink vendors, industry vendors and team tents, shuttles will ferry race spectators in from satellite parking, says VanCamp. Estate visitors, he notes, “are paying good money for an experience, and we don’t want to disrupt that experience for them. Really what we want is to expose them to cyclocross too. We’re excited about this opportunity, and we’re facilitating that as best we can.”
Breaking new ground
A one-time charge will admit racers and spectators alike to all five days of events, including access to the grounds and Antler Hill Village but not Biltmore House. There may also be special upgrade and lodging options, notes estate Public Relations Manager LeeAnn Donnelly, though prices haven’t been set yet.
“We’re hoping for a good turnout from the locals — as racers, spectators and volunteers,” says Hopkin. “It’s definitely a fun event to embrace and support, and hopefully the community, which has already embraced the sport, will support it with even more enthusiasm and really help showcase Asheville and WNC cyclocross.”
VanCamp agrees, saying, “I think the success of the event is largely going to fall to the cycling community and how well they support it. It’s going to be a large volunteer effort; it can’t be done with just ’cross racers volunteering. We’re going to need recreational riders to come out and support it; we’re going to need road riders to come out and support it, mountain bikers, everyone.”
Despite the many challenges, however, he anticipates a vibrant, lively event. “The nightlife is going to be huge. It’s going to be a crazy fun week for Asheville in January.”
To learn more about evolving plans for the 2016 nationals in Asheville, visit facebook.com/AshevilleCX16/timeline.