As cyclo-cross continues to grow in North America, with more racers and bigger events, it has gained legitimacy in the eyes of cyclists, sponsors and the general public. But that growth is not without challenges.
“Cyclo-cross is kind of a victim of its own success,” says Ontario Cycling Association sport co-ordinator Greg Rawson. “It used to be 30 guys in a park. Thirty guys in a park is a lot different from 300 guys.”
After races damaged the grass in some of the City of Ottawa’s parks in the fall of 2010, it revoked permits for the final three races of the Ottawa Bicycle Club’s popular racing series that year. Organizers scrambled to find venues outside the municipality and, with the exception of two events on privately managed property, no events have been held within city limits since then.
There have been similar rumblings in Toronto, where it has become increasingly difficult to find venues for events, although some park managers still welcome the sport.
In wet weather, cyclo-cross tires quickly chew up grass, creating a muddy mess. While race organizers insist the grass grows back in the spring, municipalities faced with angry residents don’t always have the patience to wait that long. Fixing the damage quickly costs money most club organizers can’t afford.
The situation in Ottawa came as a surprise after 30 years of races without any major issues. The organizers continued to go to venues in neighbouring municipalities for the 2011-12 season. They hope the races can return to city parks as soon as this fall.
“Right now, my expectation is that we can hopefully get one or two events in this year,” says organizer Bob Woods. “The issue for us will be what conditions [the city] puts on us to hold the races. I’m certainly willing to do a lot of things to make it work. But until those are nailed down, it’ll be really up in the air.”
The positive reception from the events’ new hosts has been a pleasant surprise.
“We do small towns like Cornwall, Almonte, Perth, Renfrew and Brockville,” Woods says. “And we’ve had nothing but good relations; they’re happy to have us. You don’t want to fight with people to let you into their parks.”
The downside with going to these small towns is more driving-almost a 300-km round trip on some weekends, which puts a strain on volunteers and racers who might be reluctant to take the whole day away from family commitments.
Organizers in Ottawa and Toronto have had the hardest time with their local governments, but the problem isn’t unique to them. In some U.S. cities-including Louisville, Ky., which will host the 2013 world championships-the solution has been to set aside land for permanent cyclo-cross venues.
“It just was dumb luck I guess, that parcel of land was under utilized and it was there,” says Joan Hanscom, who is part of the organizing team for the worlds and for the U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclo-Cross series. The land she’s referring to was a neglected park about three kilometres from downtown Louisville. It now gets use year-round for mountain bike and cyclo-cross events. Something similar could happen in Ottawa. “The city does own or lease quite a bit of land across a vast territory,” says Ottawa parks manager Dan Chenier, who is expecting to meet with Woods before the 2012 season starts. “I think we need to sit and talk about what’s needed. Certainly, we have a lot of parks with a lot of area where this can be considered.”