At 10:30 on Sunday morning, the pack of junior boys 15-16 years old took off from the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championship start line, but rather than head out onto the Zilker Park course and battle in the mud for the stars and stripes jersey, they rode, looking bewildered, disappointed and confused, to their team camps to pack up their bikes and clear out of the park under the orders of Austin city park officials. USA Cycling was able to negotiate a rescheduled race for Monday rather than a total cancellation, but the costs of the change will be borne the hardest by the junior and under-23 riders.
Pete Webber, head coach of Boulder Junior Cycling and co-designer of the Zilker Park course gathered his young riders together at the team tent to break the news to them and their parents, most of whom decided to stay.
"It's a big impact. I think because we're from Colorado and it's about a 15 hour drive, it's a little easier for us to manage," Webber told Cyclingnews. "We have some families who drove here, and our team drove, so we don't have to deal with plane tickets. But I know it's going to be a major expense for all of the families and riders who are here - between the extra hotel and plane tickets. That's unfortunate. You don't want money to be a factor."
The cyclo-cross community was reeling from the decision which came at the hands of the Austin City Parks and Recreation department, who stepped in early this morning to call a halt to the race after claiming that more than an inch of rain had soaked the course overnight and forced them to stop the event in order to protect the health of a grove of "heritage trees", some of which are more than 100 years old.
Yet observations by the national and local weather services put the rainfall at just one tenth of an inch, and it is difficult to not suspect there is more to the attempted cancellation than just trees and mud.
Austin Parks and Recreation director Sara Hensley told the media during a press conference that she has been getting emails and calls from residents who are upset with the city for allowing the race to be held. Residents are afraid the park and its ancient trees are being damaged beyond repair. A local tree preservation group was particularly outspoken in their objections. "People are calling for me to resign or be fired," Hensley said. "But we've also been getting messages of support. This is what happens when you live in a city where everyone wants to give their two cents, so we have to try to balance that."
USA Cycling has already planned to pay to have the surface repaired, even before the unexpected foul weather turned the course to a sloppy mess. Park grounds manager Joe Diaz said the costs could amount to almost $100,000, as a worst-case scenario, if the track needs to be completely re-sodded. The park workers will put down additional mulch on the muddiest areas to keep spectators and racers "safe".
Donations pouring in for racers
The juniors were already awake and having breakfast, preparing for their early morning race, where the juniors 15-16 were set to race first, followed by the 17-18 and U23 fields which preceded the elite women and men. These groggy-eyed kids had no idea until they arrived at the course to a squadron of police vehicles assembled at the entrance to the park that the officials had decided, upon examining the course at 7AM, to stop the race.
Webber said that the city had been doing walk-throughs of the course on a daily basis during the masters and previous junior race days, asking for minor issues to be addressed here and there, and gave no hint that the race was in danger. "Even yesterday, the walk through was reasonable. There were no major requests to make changes to the course or venue," Webber said.
USA Cycling and local promoters negotiated the race to go forward on a condensed schedule - Junior boys 15-16 will race at 12:30, followed by the 17-18 UCI Junior boys, and 15-6 and 17-18 girls on the course at the same time at 1:15, with U23s at 2:15 and elite women and men at 3:20 and 4:25, respectively.
"It sounds like the majority of our riders are staying. Luckily, many of our riders have already completed their events. For the ones that are left behind, it's going to be a big price tag for their families."
Local individuals have offered to open their homes to racers who need to stay an extra night, and Peter Wilborn of BikeLaw.com offered to donate $1000 to help young riders hit with additional travel costs. A local store, the Bicycle Sport Shop, pitched in another $1000, and with more offers coming in, Wilborn set up a PayPal account to gather donations. They've collected over $3000 so far.
The generous offers of support come as no surprise to those who are entrenched in this close-knit community, and Webber expects the young riders to take the schedule change in their stride.
"Our team and riders love the sport, and they understand sacrifice. They'll do what's necessary. Theve been working hard for this all season, and they can probably handle a one day delay."
As someone who was involved in designing the course, which has been called one of the best national championship courses in history, Webber is disappointed, but is keeping the challenges in perspective as he prepares to re-route sections of the course to satisfy the city officials.
"I've been doing this kind of work for almost 20 years, and I have seen a lot happen. I may have a wider perspective than most. I'm willing to roll with it and learn from it. I think people have to step back, have some perspective and understand that there are a lot of factors that go into big events and decisions like this. It's hard to second guess, you just have to trust people are doing the right thing and see what you can contribute yourself."