Is ‘Cross Canceled With Less Racing This Fall?

molly hurford­­
·10 mins read
Photo credit: Alan Crowhurst - Getty Images
Photo credit: Alan Crowhurst - Getty Images

From Bicycling

Cyclocross season is looking different this year, that much is obvious. Even back in July, UCI races in the U.S. were beginning to be called off, and the hashtag #CrossIsCanceled started popping up. And yes, on the macro level, it does seem like cyclocross season is not happening in the States. But on a micro level, the love of ’cross is alive and well.

“We have seen local events across all of our disciplines come back with new and different formats,” said Tara McCarthy, director of national events at USA Cycling. “These have generally been very local events that have incorporated new formats such as wave starts and social distancing. As an example, organizers in Colorado and Arizona have worked closely with their local communities to meet guidelines and create events that mitigate risk while also allowing racing.”

Here, we’re taking a look at what cyclocross communities around the country are doing to keep the cyclocross stoke going.

Less Racing Overall

“We have had 24 races take place since August—about 14 percent of what we have in a normal year,” said Stuart Lamp, director of event services at USA Cycling. “We are seeing more events permit closer to the event date than ever before because of the need to ensure that local permits and permissions are in place to proceed.

“That has made forecasting events tough, but we have seen a slight increase in permits and planned events in October and November over the past two weeks.” Excluding virtual challenges in the U.S. this year, Lamp estimated that there will be 75 CX events by end of year.

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And USA Cycling’s COVId-19 Rider Survey has proven to be a bit optimistic: 72 percent of men and 59 percent of women surveyed said that they would participate if races happened, but events like the UTCX, Arctic Cross, and the Shimano GRX Series all report that participation is down to somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of their normal ridership.

Still, promoters are eager to bring racing back.

“The cyclocross events we have seen proceed have been in areas with lower caseloads and the organizers have met all local permitting requirements to ensure they can proceed,” Lamp said.

Small Fields, Local Riders

“The racing itself is pretty standard, but the protocols and steps leading up to the race are quite a bit different,” said T.J. Stone, UTCX owner. Their local series has run two races already, one in September and one in October, and roughly 125 racers took to the start lines, spread out over 17 fields and four staggered sets of starts.

USA Cycling provides promoters with a lengthy risk assessment survey that takes into account their town’s current guidelines and forces promoters to consider emergency preparedness plans before they can sanction a race, as well as a 39-page “return to racing” handbook for promoters with mitigation strategies outlined, like recommendations for heat-based racing rather than mass starts. There’s also a handy PDF of safety recommendations for riders, with reminders about hand washing, temperature checks, and social distancing.

“Everybody has been super patient and understanding,” Stone said. Registration and payouts are done online, there are two waivers—one standard, one COVID-19-related—that need to be submitted, and then on race day, volunteers scan temperatures at check-in and have all cyclists verbally verify that they have no symptoms of COVID-19. Racers only remove their masks with one minute to go before the start, but otherwise are wearing them in the start corral.

For Stone, this year wasn’t about making a profit, it was about providing a sense of community in a tough time. “We wanted to do as much as we could to give people something to look forward to and make a safe environment for cyclocross,” he said. “So even though it is a bit different, it is still a ton of fun to get outside and ride bikes with friends.”

In Boulder, Colorado, home of the Valmont Bike Park, Lance Panigutti has begun hosting a race series as well, sanctioned by USA Cycling. The CYCLOC X series, run by Without Limits, made a lot of changes to stay in line with local regulations while meeting the demand for racing in the cyclocross-loving state. The six-race series has run two successful events thus far, one at Valmont and another in Parker, Colorado, home of past state championships. Thankfully, the events have gone smoothly based on racer and community reactions.

“In today’s climate, you don’t really know what to expect,” Panigutti said. “You don’t know how the racers are going to react: Are people going to register? Or are people just going to stay at home and do their own thing by themselves?”

Panigutti is dealing with five different health departments in five different counties, each with slightly different rules and regulations. The biggest challenge is ensuring that the race site never goes over a maximum occupancy of 175 people, as per the state-wide regulations.

“The other restriction in Colorado is you’re not allowed more than 25 on the start line or the finish line in a given time, so what we did was stagger the starts in the bigger fields, using chip timers for results,” he said. “We have a heat system based on USA Cycling rankings to separate racers.”

They wear masks when they arrive and socially distance. There are no vendors and no results on site. It’s complicated, but the racers who’ve showed up each weekend don’t seem to mind. It’s proof the work behind the scenes can lead to a somewhat normal event.

In Alaska, the small-but-mighty Arctic Cross series is running strong with four weeks of racing already completed, though promoter Dante Petri has had to change the way the races look. It’s now much more similar to when it first began in 2004, when most races only brought in 30 riders. Last year, a typical turnout was 150 dedicated racers. “It’s a real family affair,” Petri said. “That’s our big appeal. This time of year, it’s cold, it’s wet, it’s dark, it’s definitely perfect cyclocross weather!”

This year, the potlucks that took place at most races have been nixed, the end-of-series banquet has been canceled, and only the large venues like the Hilltop Ski Area that make social distancing simple have been used. Petri took his mask policy a step further than many races, requiring riders to start with a face covering that could be shed at a designated spot on course.

Ridership is down, but Petri said those who are racing are thankful to have the option. “I don’t want to make it sound like cyclocross is going to save lives, but this is tough time of year up here for a lot of people,” he said. “I know that people really look forward to cyclocross. And I think we can do this in a safe way. Having something to look forward to, something that feels even sort of normal, is important right now.”

#CrossIsCanceled for the Pros

In some areas, there are simply no clear ways forward for promoters as races and full season-long series have simply opted to cancel rather than push dates back in hopes of the situation changing. There were 32 UCI cyclocross race days on the schedule for the season, and every single one has been canceled in the U.S. This includes Pan-American Championships and a World Cup, races that typically brought a large international field.

And smaller—but much loved—races like Cooper River CX have announced cancellations. “At this point we have all come to the realization the U.S. cyclocross season has been put on hold for now,” the race’s cancellation statement read. “In the meantime, keep riding, keep those cross skills sharp, keep yourself and others safe.”

Perhaps the biggest blow to professional and amateur riders came when, on September 28, USA Cycling announced the cancellation of Cyclocross Nationals in December. The move wasn’t a surprise, as it had already shifted venues in recent months and the idea of safely being able to bring together roughly 1,400 racers from all over the country seemed unrealistic at best.

“We felt it was important to give the cyclocross community notice approximately 60 days prior to the event,” McCarthy said. “We understand riders and teams need to make logistical decisions related to Nationals as well as to their training and racing schedules.”

If you’re a fan of professional cyclocross racing, this isn’t going to be a great year for American riders. “The lack of points from the Championships as well as the cancellation of most U.S.-based UCI events this season is certainly of concern to USA Cycling, our riders, and the teams,” McCarthy said. “Our Athletics team at USA Cycling is working hard alongside our elite athletes and teams to make sure they have the ability to maintain competitive ranking positions while also considering their safety and wellbeing.”

American pros will need to spend time in Europe to score UCI points, but there is still a large question mark around how many of the racers, especially those on solo or semi-professional teams, will be able to get over to Europe given the travel bans still in place for Americans. Reigning National Champion Clara Honsinger made the move from her domestic team last season to the behemoth Cannondale-CXWorld team for 2020. She started her season in Valmont Bike Park in Boulder, Colorado, but plans to quickly head to Europe to hit the November and December World Cup races.

The World Cup season is slated to start in November, but as races continue to get canceled (most recently, the Amstel Gold Race in The Netherlands), the season is becoming even more abbreviated. Recently, five more World Cups, including the famous sandpit that is Koksijde in Belgium, have canceled. That means pro racers will head to Europe with only six World Cups left on the schedule in addition to World Championships, making the season a tough sell for teams on tight budgets.

Virtual Cyclocross May Become a Thing

USA Cycling is working with promoters around the country to try creating a virtual option for racing. “We are working to finalize details on a program that will allow local event organizers who cannot hold mass start racing to provide a fun and safe experience for their local riders, while also providing a framework for some national exposure,” McCarthy said. “Feedback from those in the community we spoken with has been very positive, and we are working hard to finalize the technology and logistics components, we hope to have more details this week.”

There are also small pockets of semi-virtual racing around the U.S., including formerly weekly races like Fifth Street Cross in Pennsylvania, which has created an “open course” that can be ridden anytime, but no formal virtual winners or leaderboards.

Unfortunately, virtual cyclocross is a hard pill to swallow: Course creation takes time and often courses are created on private property, and setting up barriers, tape, and fencing for a virtual event would be a difficult logistical dilemma. And cyclocross, as Panigutti pointed out, is a community-based sport that, at its heart, is about cyclists coming together to race, get muddy, share a beer or two, and heckle other racers.

“The biggest challenge, or change has been how to keep the vibe of cyclocross racing and provide a format that stays within guidelines,” Lamp said. “Most organizers have been in a position where you have to take away the social element and component to stay within local permitting requirements. This, combined with the other factors that impact organizing an event during a pandemic, is a big part of the reason why so many series have decided to cancel for 2020.”

But the future is arguably bright for cyclocross, Panigutti said: “I think you're going to see a big resurgence in grassroots racing, the same way we saw a renewed enthusiasm for biking since the pandemic started. We’ll get through 2020, and in 2021, we’ll see the next wave of the sport grow from grassroots racing around the country.”

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