What should have been the winter highlight for cyclists in the U.S. turned out to be the biggest debacle for USA Cycling since … the USADA Reasoned Decision. Okay, so not very long since their last debacle. But still. The Cyclocross National Championships are—short of the world championships—the most anticipated event of the winter, the best spectated of all the cycling national championships here in the U.S.
So you’d think that USAC would actually vet the promoter and the venue. What ensued was a goat parade of litigious proportion. And for the record, a goat parade is a silly event that so misses the point of festivity that everyone goes home before it’s over. It’s the sort of thing you don’t want to watch.
For those who missed it, the marquee events of the Cyclocross National Championships—the 15-16 junior men and women, the 17-18 junior men and women, the U23 men and women and the elite men and women—were postponed a day because some (I’m sorry, but there’s really no other way to put this) tree huggers thought bike racing would kill trees.
That’s right, eight races were postponed because a fringe group feared some of the skinniest athletes on the planet were going to destroy oak trees bigger around than your average NFL lineman. Folks, you can’t make this stuff up.
Much has already been written about how the Heritage Tree Foundation punked a bunch of Lycra-wearing sissy boys. This was Texas after all. PR impresario Jasen Thorpe wrote what was arguably the most thorough analysis of how USAC and the promoter got it wrong. Ultimately, bike racing got pwned because the promoter failed to communicate effectively and set expectations accordingly when dealing with Austin Parks and Recreation. People worried that the Austin course would be a grass crit, but the reality is that following any rain, all tracks turn into muddy slogs. Cyclocross without mud is an aberration, like an eclipse.
USAC and the promoter aren’t the only black-hat-wearing villains, though. Austin Parks and Recreation had a signed contract and should have abided by it.
The Twitterati and Facebook throngs have decried the injustices done in terms of those who missed their window to race because they had to be at work or school on Monday. Plenty of people who chose to stay lost support staff. And those ringing crowds? Yeah, they were at work, too. It was easy to tell who among my friends had returned home because of all the questions on social media about who had the best live feed of the racing.
My very rough math on the costs accrued by all those who chose to stay behind and incur flight changes, hotel nights and extra meals is beyond $200,000. Some 91 competitors didn’t wait the extra day to take their start, include 32 of the U23 men, more than 40 percent of their field. The thing is, that’s not the worst of what happened.
Of course, while USAC and the promoter reported that all would be well and no one should panic, the reality was that the eight postponed races would have to be run in the span of five. What happened next has been documented rather nicely at Colin Reuter’s blog Until the Snow Ends, which is a New Englander phrase if ever there was one.
The decision was made to give the elite men, the elite women and the U23 men’s race each their own start. That left two more starts for four more races. The call was made by population. The 15-16 men had the largest field at 84 starters (on paper, anyway; some had returned home because of school), so they were given one race and then the 17-18 men, 15-16 and 17-18 women were given the other start, some 96 riders on paper.
What happened next was criminal. The 15-16 girls were put in the mission impossible of trying to avoid being lapped by the 17-18 junior men on the opening lap. The men would turn 10-minute laps to the women’s 14-minute laps. Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that the junior men had a two-minute head start.
In a bit of rule-abiding improbability, Turner Ramsey, the eventual winner of the 15-16 women’s race didn’t actually complete her second lap. So how do you win a race you didn’t finish? That’s easy. Just be first to be pulled from your NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE. That whole adulation of crowds, the satisfaction of holding off your nearest rival, rolling across the finish line with your arms held high—no, that’s not for you. You don’t rate.
The women’s 17-18 race went marginally better in that they only started a minute behind the 17-18 men and five women rather miraculously managed to race three full laps and contest an actual finish. The other 15 starters? All pulled.
USAC claims to be a grassroots racing organization. What, dear reader, is more grass roots than juniors? How is it that USAC could be so clueless about their central mission. Please, don’t even answer that as we know they’ve struggled to follow the plot for decades. Just ask George Mount.
The tree thing aside, there are two fundamental issues here. The first is that racers ought to vote with their entry fees and turn their attention to the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. High school kids are the point, rather than beside it. If we want kids to take up racing, we need to give them a rewarding experience rather than treating them as if they’re in the way.
The other significant point is that pulling riders is inexcusable. There are two reasons to pull riders. The first is that it makes officiating difficult for USAC because apparently some officials can’t count. The other reason is that racers don’t want to have to deal with lapped traffic. While a case can be made for the confusion of lapping riders in your own field, there was no chance the junior men were going to confuse the junior women for their competition. And there was no chance the 15-16 women were going to catch the 17-18 women. So pulling riders is an implicit statement that their race doesn’t matter.
All I’ve done is point out how lapped riders weren’t going to confuse the competitors. There’s still the issue of USAC officials who can’t count. There are these things called RFID chips that work with timing systems. They do the counting that any USAC officials can’t seem to manage. Which brings me to the real question:
How is it that USAC, with their considerable resources, could allow a national championship race to take place without the aid of a real timing system?
It’s a given that cyclocross is a terrific sport and a dynamic race to watch. However, if we want kids to enter cycling and stick with it, they need to be treated as if their race matters—as if they matter—which is why NICA presents a better solution. There, the kids are the whole point, not an afterthought. And while I appreciate that USAC did award medals to the 15-16 women who weren’t allowed to finish their races, those medals can’t make up for the thrill that would come with actually finishing their race.
So what should roll? Heads should.