Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Two UCI Cyclocross World Cups within the span of less than a week

While race day in Fayetteville devolved into a sloppy mudfest ...

... Iowa City basked in sunshine and temps in the mid-70s
It was quite a tour de force, for the athletes, the officials, and especially the carnies who had to set up three different UCI Cyclocross World Cup venues within less than 10 days. The opening event of the 2021/2022 'cross series had been on October 10 in Waterloo, Wisconsin—a race that I had worked in the past but that was covered by my colleague Linda this year. I left Lubbock one day later, on Monday the 11th, and flew to Fayetteville, Arkansas, for the second stop of the campaign. The race date was Wednesday, an unusual but not unheard-of mid-week date for such an important international event. While the entire race entourage moved on from Arkansas to Iowa City (some flying, some driving), I flew home on Thursday, only to get back on a plane on Friday and fly to Iowa for the third stop of the series on American soil. A week after my initial departure from Lubbock I made it back home the following Monday, on October 18.
The day before the Fayetteville race, the sun shone during the official course inspection
This amazing bike wash area was later set up with almost
a dozen power washers that saw non-stop action
Who would have ever thought that we'd see banners for a
Belgian frites sauce manufacturer?
The entire Fayetteville race course had been built for this
event—and the 'cross World Championships at the end of January 2022
As many if not most of my readers know, Arkansas is home of Walmart, and Fayetteville is just a few miles away from Bentonville, where Walmart has its headquarters. Among my cycling friends it is common knowledge that two of the Sam Walton heirs, namely Tom and Steuart [sic] who are Sam's grandsons, are complete cycling aficionados. They now own boutique clothing manufacturer Rapha, and Allied Cycle Works, a high-end carbon bike manufacturer, is also majority owned by Wally-World money. Northwest Arkansas has become a mecca for mountain bikes, thanks to money from the Walton Foundation that has established trails and put this part of the world essentially dead center on the cycling map. Attracting the World Cup was the last stepping stone to Fayetteville's hosting the UCI Cyclocross World Championships at the end of January 2022.
It's amazing what money can do. To see this brand-new venue, created in a relatively flat park that is tied into surrounding mountain bike trails (do I think there may be a mountain bike World Cup in Fayetteville's future? You bet!), attract dozens of European riders and teams is simply astonishing. The flyovers, the tunnels, the earth-moving work and stone embellishments are shear amazing. One of my old friends, Hogan—who used to run the Angel Fire, NM, bike park—had much input into the design and execution of this venue. He is now living with his family in Fayetteville and is the soft surface designer at NWA Trailblazers, with close ties to OzTrails. It was one of many highlights to reconnect during the course inspection with Hogan, after all those years.
In preparation for the upcoming UCI 'Cross World Championships a brand new
Welcome Center is being built in what is still a large construction zone
A Dutch newspaper is one of the various European sponsors of the series
Representatives from the UCI, USA Cycling, and Medalist Sports
all participated in the course inspection on Tuesday
Twenty-four hours later the Finish Line area was all decked out,
with beer tent, VIP area, and media stalls
For the Fayetteville race, Medalist Sports was the company that provided all the race infrastructure in the form of trusses, barricades, tents, and everything else that such an event requires. I had worked with Medalist on various occasions before (AMGEN Tour of California, Tour of Utah, Tour of Alberta, Colorado Classic, etc.), and they are a class outfit that is professional to the last detail. Before such races I contact the organizer and we discuss my transportation and housing needs as well as the details of my work. I know Medalist, Medalist knows me, and there are never surprises. Wwhen I arrived at XNA (Northwest Arkansas), an Avis rental car in the form of a sweet Land Rover was waiting for me, and I had a room on the 10th floor of the Fayetteville Graduate, a quirky, college-themed hotel where most of the entourage was housed. Being in downtown Fayetteville meant that outside of my work hours it was easy to stroll to one of the various micro-breweries without having to use the car. You see why I like these races?

The decorations in my room in the graduate were definitely
unusual; former student ID replicas serve as room keys

Yep, this razorback was watching over my sleep
Tuesday's gorgeous fall weather was pushed out of the area during the night, and the forecast promised rain chances at 100% by the time the two races, the 50-minute Elite Women and the 60-minute Elite Men, were going to start around midday. Why midday? Simple: That's prime time for TV viewing of cyclocross races in Belgium and the Netherlands!
Forget the sunshine and bring out the rubber boots. The freshly sodded grass soon disintegrated and the park became a muddy quagmire. But that's what cyclocross is all about of course: the muddier and the nastier, the better! And that's also the reason why those races are so relatively short. It is a cycling discipline that originated in Europe as a way to continue racing in the winter, by setting up a short course in a park and racing for an hour before the toes and fingers froze off. Cyclocross is still a relative newcomer to the US, and if you look at the results lists for these races 85% of the top ten riders will have their nationality listed as BEL or NED.

It was such a pleasure to run into my friend Rebecca from El Paso

The commissaires huddle before the first start
Because of the nature of my work I was able to take just a few pics during the race, and these photos do not reflect in any way the muddy conditions out on the course. I'd suggest you watch on YouTube a short summary of either the men's or women's races to get a true idea of how tough this profession is. I was stationed in an RV close to the finish line, staying dry and relatively mud-free; I wonder whether Medalist had to pay extra cleaning fees upon the return of the rental vehicle! I've never seen in person racers caked in mud like on that day.

So, that was the first part of my week. As I said, Thursday morning I flew back to Lubbock, got home in the afternoon, unpacked, repacked, ate, slept, and left for the airport the next morning. Just as an aside, of my eight flights, six were upgrade 100 hours before the flight—only the two flights from DFW back to Lubbock never cleared, for whatever reason. Oh well, no biggie. Flying in First makes things much nicer, though, even on these puddle jumpers that serve LBB, XNA, and CID, which is the airport for both Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Another rental car was waiting for me, and on the way to my hotel in North Liberty (a non-memorable Sleep Inn) I took in a bit of the local scenery and stopped for a pint at House Divided Brewery in Ely. Nope, it's not a religious reference but has something to do with football.
Back in pre-pandemic 2019 I had worked Jingle Cross the first time, an event that singlehandedly was built into a World Cup-worthy race by John Meehan, a local physician who loves cycling just as much as his community. While the Fayetteville event didn't have any other races than the two Elite UCI contests, Jingle Cross is a long weekend of cycling activities, with food vendors, a huge beer garden, and dozens of cycling industry exhibitors hawking their wares. There are USAC races for all categories of amateur racers, events for the kids, and even a separate UCI C1 and C2 events on Friday and Saturday (for which I had no responsibilities). In other words, this is a true festival, for the racers, for the spectators, and for the community. And all this is John's making. I have a lot of respect for this true gentleman.

John told me that since its inception in 2004 as a small one-day race in December (thus the name and certain allusions to Christmas time) the weather had never been as nice as it was this past weekend. It was perfect fall weather—certainly not Belgian 'cross weather! The course was dry and fast, people drank beer as if there was no tomorrow, and all those who had come out to the Johnson County Fairgrounds had a smile on their faces. 

My Saturday was relatively open after I had checked out my work area and supplies, and so I was able to go on a little sightseeing trip in Iowa City's vicinity. I drove out to Kalona, a small Mennonite town maybe 20 miles away. There are quaint stores featuring local products, there's a Mennonite-run dairy, and there's even a nice micro-brewery. The sweeping cornfields and grain silos make it amply clear that this is the Midwest, and the horse-drawn buggies and coaches are another sign that this is a special part of rural America. I made good use of Saturday afternoon before getting to work on Sunday for the two Elite races, which once again were dominated by the European riders.
Kalona Brewing Company

Backpocket Brewing In Coralville
Both races were wickedly fast, and the riders were fairly dehydrated. I talked to some of them about their travel plans, and let me tell you, it's not easy to be a Pro. Some of them were going to drive with their teams four hours that evening to Chicago to catch a flight to Europe the next day, with another race scheduled for Wednesday, just a day after getting back to Europe. Others were going to fly out the next morning and try to connect to their home bases; the organizer had arranged for COVID tests for all those who needed them to return to Europe. Some of the US riders were also going to leave for Europe; after all, these had been just the first three races of the 16 that comprise the entire series. Man, that's rough! When do they actually get a chance to train with all that travel?

Martijn Swinkles, the Dutch UCI PCP of all three
Cyclocross World Cups on US soil this year
My way home was way less complicated and simply involved another night in the Sleep Inn, a short drive to the CID airport, and then two relatively short flights home. In DFW, while in the Admiral's Club, I experienced some pangs of good old Fernweh when I saw the jets ready to depart for Europe, but it's just a question of time until that part of my life starts being revived again.
My next trip is less than a week away, and even if it doesn't take me to Europe it will take me out of the country. Until then I have a few days of home cooking, four or five 35-mile bike rides, and maybe even a Moderna booster shot to look forward to.


Friday, September 24, 2021

2021 Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup Finals in Snowshoe, WV

One of more than half a dozen current UCI World Champions
in the DHI, XCO, and XCC present
For the past three nights, my brain has been dumping amazing amounts of data files that I accumulated over the past 10 days, which I mostly spent in Snowshoe, WV. My theory is that after a time of "stress" (good or bad) the brain tries to process all of the input and has to get rid of anything that is going to clutter the little grey cells. Think of a defrag of the hard drive. I'm finally getting to the point where my brain seems to work in the green realm—no more yellow and red sectors.

Morning view in Snowshoe, above the fog in the valleys below
Don't get me wrong: I love the challenge that a race presents, even if it is not just "a" race but the final round of the 2021 Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup. This challenge is the reason why I love what I do for USA Cycling when I go to National Championships and for the ITA to help keep cycling clean. When I was still an active commissaire for the UCI before the big juncture close to a decade ago, it was the same thing: A day, a week, ten days, or even almost a month (at the Rio Olympics) of constant high-pressure, under-the-Klieg-lights, non-stop decision making and the fear to fuck up. What I am doing on both fronts (officiating and doping control) can destroy careers, and so there is this weight on me while I am at a venue. Obviously I seek this out. I choose to do this (almost) volunteer job that commissaires and IDCOs do. And I can't even tell my closest friends much about the inner workings of my tasks and experiences.
Two of my very favorite International Commissaires,
Nathalie and Michael from Canada
But I think that after this most recent race I'm again back to normal, at a point where some of these challenges are receding into the background and the colorful, super-positive memories are going to push aside daily worries and fears of making a bad decision. I have to tell you, going back out to Snowshoe after 2017 and 2019 (as Chief Referee for our Collegiate National Championships first and then at the helm of Elite Nats) was a deeply satisfying experience.

At the start of the Downhill (DHI)
The original plan had been to work the three-day CDM (French for Coupe Du Monde, or World Cup) on September 17 to 19. But things sometimes change: The Downhill CDM in Ft. William, Scotland, in late May had been cancelled (or maybe the better word is postponed) because of COVID, and at the last minute the UCI decided to tack the event on to the race in Snowshoe. (The original Snowshoe event had included three disciplines, the DHI, or Downhill, the XCC, or Short Track, and the XCO, the Olympic Cross-Country). I know, it's all a bit confusing.

Images from the DHI. The center photo catches a racer in mid-air.
What I was not confused about was the time when I had to arrive in West Virginia, which was Monday of last week. After a three-flight, all-day trip (thankfully all upgraded) I arrived in late afternoon in Charleston, WV. I was met by Clay, a young employee of the Snowshoe resort who had been assigned to my team and who proved invaluable in the week ahead. Cool kid! He drove me to Snowshoe, a trip of almost three hours through the backwaters of West Virginia where settlements are few, deer are numerous, and the roads never flat or straight. At least we weren't accosted by any FLKs or their gun-toting parents.
Clay (left) helped me herd the cats, aka chaperones
If you read any of my Snowshoe-related posts from 2017/19, you may remember that this outpost is an upside-down ski resort. What that means is this: Instead of having a town at the bottom of the mountain (they call 4,848 feet a mountain here; Lubbock is at 3,000 feet, for reference), the resort is built at the top. Skiers ski down first thing in the morning and have to take a lift to get back up. Cyclists do the same, especially the downhillers. It's not really a unique setup as a quick Google search will yield various "inverted" resorts, but it is far from common. The set-up brings with it certain challenges, but it's also pretty cool: For one thing, you get to see amazing skies at sunrise and sunset. For another, there's no place to run off to in the evenings if you crave more bars or restaurants. You're stuck on the hill and won't get lost!

As I said, plans sometimes change. I was to be joined by my colleague and friend Linda from Oregon, who had been assigned as the leader of our two-person team but who for job-related reasons had not been able to work the Ft. William replacement World Cup on Wednesday. She was supposed to arrive in time to for Friday's races, but as it turned out she didn't get to the mountain until that night because of a medical emergency, so I once again was on my own. Once in a while we have to be pretty flexible in this métier. She arrived in time for us to cover together the DHI on Saturday and the XCO on Sunday.
As you know, I can't talk about my work, which is mostly done inside of a building. But I still get a chance to occasionally come out and see a little bit of the race action, and I tell you, it was exciting racing! Word was that approximately 12,000 people had paid an entry fee of up to $85 (for the entire race week) to watch and cheer. There were the vuvuzelas and chainsaws, and fans were dressed up in all kinds of weird and outrageous costumes. American flags of course dominated, but it was not as if there weren't lots of foreign fans as well. How they came into the US with the current COVID restrictions for most European countries still in effect, I do not know. But they were noticeably present!

There's something extremely uplifting seeing all those athletes in their colorful kits, and spotting the rainbow stripes of a current World Champion is even more so. Since we had three different disciplines (DHI, XCC, and XCO) and three age categories (Elite, U-23, and Juniors) times two genders the potential of 18 World Champion jerseys existed. Add to that all the various National and Continental champions, and you can imagine how exiting such an event is. No, I longer get star-struck, but I full-heartedly embrace this display of youth, talent, and professionalism.

The lure of the Pot of Gold at the end of the rainbow...
One of the week's most moving moments must have been the totally unexpected XCO win by US rider Christopher Blevins. The last time a US male had won a cross-country World Cup race was back in 1994, when Tinker Juarez took a win. Blevins hadn't even been born yet! Man, you should have heard and seen the crowds erupt when Blevins came out of the single track by himself, with enough of a lead that he could start celebrating by high-fiving the spectators with 300 meters to go. It gave me goosebumps.

Christopher Blevins less than 300 meters before his historic XCO World Cup win
Going to a World Cup (especially in a discipline that I worked as a commissaire at this very level) also means that one runs into a whole bunch of old friends and acquaintances. UCI commissaires Michael and Nathalie from Canada were there, as well as Justin, Pamala, Judy, Gal, and Amy from USAC. I knew numerous of the UCI technical personnel, and of course there was enough socializing to make new friends. (Hey Spook, I really meant it when I said I'll show up at your door in South Africa!) Seeing my old friend Andy from Snowshoe and catching up with his life story was another highlight, as were racer encounters (I was so proud to see Alexis having graduated from NICA all the way to the U-23 women at a World Cup). Communal breakfasts and dinners as well as time spent in the pub, at our condo's firepit, and of course at the rambunctious post-event party helped consolidate old and new relationships.
Gal, Justin, and Nathalie at the 80% line

Spook from South Africa wondering whether he should have any more moonshine

Mikey, local moonshine liaison and so much more, after
the first jar is almost empty

Michael and I at the big party Sunday night

Caroline, at the center of the organizing committee, kept her cool the entire time

My old friend Andy now works for Old Spruce Brewery instead of the resort

At the end of the day, Gal and even Justin can smile

Max (center) and Brad (right) provide some of the
best voices (and commentary) in the business

Quiet time around the firepit 

With lovely servers like Alec it's impossible to turn down yet another beverage....
Just as at almost every race I go to, I did have some time to enjoy the beautiful setting that Snowshoe enjoys. Of course, as usual I got to ride the ski lifts multiple times (well, at least once a day), but I also went for a beautiful hike around Shaver Lake on Thursday, a non-competition day. On this easy two-mile hike I felt the oncoming autumn for the first time: a hint of color change in the forest canopy, visible from the lift, a few yellow and red leaves floating in the crystal clear waters of a tiny brook, the last berries on the brambles. Give Snowshoe another two weeks and the place will be painted in the exuberant reds and yellows of fall. As I wrote on Facebook: Really, they pay me for this?

The lift ride down to Shaver Lake
The probably most lasting memory for me of this trip, however, will quite likely be the beautiful sunrises and sunsets, with ever-changing vistas of mountains and clouds and colors that seemed fake. Even if buildings and street lights usually got a bit in the way, the views were spectacular. Snowshoe is going to host another round of the UCI World Cup next year in late July, and if you've never been to such an event, this will be your best chance to witness the grand show firsthand. It's not easy to get to Snowshoe, but it sure is worth it. I'm so glad that I was assigned!

My next trip is a few weeks away, and it will be cycling related. By then fall will be upon us in full force and I'm already wondering what interesting times may await me. Stay tuned!