Leaving a Mark at Zilker Park

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The national pastime of the country of Belgium looks very different when brought to the United States. Instead of thousands of roaring fans packed into stadiums with body armor, and big hits happening, it involves thousands of roaring fans leaning into muddy course tape, bicycles being mounted over big obstacles, and incredible feats of endurance. The sport is called cyclocross, and it holds more similarities to the sport of football than you might think. 

In Belgium, the top cyclocross riders make seven-figure livings, and loyal fans enjoy beer and fried food while raucously cheering on their favorite gladiators. Despite enjoying celebrity status, being a top-level Belgian cross racer is an incredibly blue-collar profession. The season takes place during the winter, no matter the weather. Actually, the season is held in winter because of the weather. Racers must ride, run, and jump their bikes over whatever is thrown at them—from long staircases and mud pits to man-made barriers, sand pits, and incredibly steep climbs and descents. Condensed into a one-hour race consisting of 6–10 laps on a different course every weekend, participating in (and watching) a cyclocross competition is exhilarating.

In the last several decades, the sport of ‘cross has moved across the pond and is now seeing increasingly popular growth around the world—in the United States particularly. Some of the world’s best racers in the sport now come from America, and individuals of all ages are giving it a try in the amateur categories. 

As a mountain bike racer, I’ve always been tempted to give it a shot myself. After just coming off of a long seven months on the pro mountain bike circuit though, by the time winter rolls around, I’m usually ready for a break. Upon learning the news that the 2015 USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships were going to take place in my hometown this year, on the grounds of Zilker Park no less, I finally decided to join my friends in the mud.

Without a pro cyclocross team or sponsor, I purchased my first bike rather quickly and started to prepare for a new offseason hobby. I practiced the mount, dismount, and bike-shouldering techniques required for the race. I did some shorter, more intense workouts to mimic the type of racing environment I would encounter. In November and December, I found success in some of the regional races around Durango, Colorado—getting a feel for just how diverse weather can shape the sport: it was dusty and warm one weekend, fast and grassy the next, and eventually the course was all snow and ice! 

The weekend before the National Championships at Zilker, I competed in my first international-level race weekend. Despite starting many rows back in the grid, I finished in the top 15 both days. The prospect of being in the running for a stars and stripes jersey the following weekend, in front of a home crowd no less, was incredibly exciting. 

Cyclocross might just be the only sport where athletes and spectators alike actually wish for bad weather. And Austin didn’t disappoint. The weekend weather brought steady rain and temperatures hovering in the low 30s. The course in Zilker Park was a very challenging setup: steep, sharp climbs punctuated three long-running sections along the twisty lap. As more rain fell, the track became increasingly difficult, requiring racers to spend much of their time running. All riders rejoiced at the prospect of having a truly Belgian-style weekend of racing.

During the collegiate race on Saturday, I had a great start—trading the lead with a rider from Marian University and one from the University of Colorado. Near the beginning of the of the second lap, however, the ratchet system on one of my shoes broke. As you can imagine, running in ankle-deep mud with a loose shoe was a recipe for disaster and resulted in more than a few embarrassing moments. From that point on, the race didn’t go according to plan, but with family members as well as childhood and high school friends lining the course urging me on, it was an experience I’ll always remember. And after all, I reminded myself, I’d get another shot on Sunday in the U23 race! Or so I thought…

Around 8:30 a.m. on Sunday morning I checked the weather to verify that the terribly perfect ‘cross weather would continue for the final day of racing. It would. Good. Next I checked social media, but this time my heart sank. Over the next few hours, my family and I stayed glued to our screens as we watched the National Championships get cancelled, postponed, and then rescheduled the following day. All due to… excessive mud? As of press time, the controversy was a still-unfolding fiasco of miscommunication and misunderstanding that left a bad impression in the minds of many racers. 

For someone like me, who had family in Austin, the change was of little issue—in fact it gave me another day of rest following the collegiate races! However, for the vast majority of others, it was a massive headache costing thousands of dollars in hotel and flight changes. For about 30 percent of the racers, it meant having to miss the marquee event of their entire race season.  

While much has been said about the way things were handled, and how United States ‘cross racing became the laughing stock of the mud-loving bike racing world for a day, I was amazed at the outpouring of support from the community. Within minutes of the news, Twitter and Facebook became inundated by locals offering up their homes for the night. A few wealthier racers even offered up financial assistance to others. 

Although Sunday’s cancellation was an unfortunate situation, everyone seemed to come together in the moment to help each other surmount the barriers. While the entire debacle underscored how far ‘cross is from being a mainstream sport here in the U.S., the 2,500 Belgian-inspired riders that attended the National Championships, and took on the mud, proved that little can get in the way of them enjoying this unique sport. 

I can’t wait for September—and the bad weather months—to roll back around.

 

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