This fourth of five interviews with top U.S. cyclocross course builders features the man behind the Devou Park course at this weekend’s Cincinnati Cyclocross Festival — a track previously used for the Pan-American Continental Cyclocross Championship, and now a UCI Class 1 race and part of the US Cup-CX. Mitch Graham is a Cincinnati resident and bike shop owner, and when it came to creating a championship-worthy parcours, he sought out features that would scare even the elite men and women. He spoke with now Belgium-based professional cross racer Andrew Juiliano for this feature, which first appeared in abridged form in ROAD Magazine.
Lead photo © 2015 Scott Dedenbach.
Currently Resides: Cincinnati, Ohio
Day Job: Owner, BioWheels bicycle shop
Pan-American Cyclocross Championships (2016)
UCI Continental Championship
What’s your background in cycling, ’cross and course design?
I picked up cycling in college when I ran cross-country and track. I was getting injured pretty regularly towards the end of college and ended up buying a mountain bike. I ended up racing said mountain bike and getting addicted. I got onto a team with the shop here [in Ohio] and then eventually got into all kinds of different racing. The shop here [BioWheels Bike Shop] had put on a ’cross race every year starting in the late ’90s. At some point, the previous owner of this place moved to Asheville, N.C., to open up another shop, and he left me up here to run the shop. He left behind all these events that he used to put on. I used to race them, but I didn’t know anything about what he used to do.
One day he was like, “You know all those races we do? Do you want to put them on?” I ended up just doing the ’cross events since that was in the off-season for retail. That was in 2000, up at Harbin Park, which is in the northern suburbs here. That race became the first UCI C1 event in the U.S. We no longer put on UCI events there due to lack of infrastructure [ed.: since original press time, a UCI C2 race was approved for Harbin Park this weekend], but that’s where I kind of learned the ropes. I’ll admit that I actually sucked pretty badly. The morning of my first race, I just got there at like 6:30 in the morning and the first race was at 9. I thought that I’d be able to set up the entire course before the first race went off. This was a long time ago when we used to use pin flags and stuff like that so I’ve learned a lot since then. It was definitely a rough start. But I’ve been putting on cyclocross events since then. I’ve also put on road crits and mountain bike races.
How many ’cross courses do you think you’ve designed and built over the years?
About 20. I designed the Devou course in 2014. That was after about two dozen site visits and endless hours of looking at maps and getting inspiration from other courses here in the U.S. and watching races in Europe. I went through a few variations before I settled on the current course, which has multiple race laps that get harder as the day goes on. When you have your beginners going off [in the] morning, they do an abbreviated and shorter loop that cuts out a lot of the prominent harder features. Those [features] get introduced at different points of time for the more advanced races. It adds some complexity, but it allows us to put on a really hard course for the elites to mimic some of the features they see when they go overseas, which is kind of the whole goal. There’s no way I’d run beginners or intermediates down some of the stuff the elites do.
You’re a proponent of pro-only lines and pro-only sections of the course?
If you’re going to make them hard, then yeah. Even though we withhold some of the harder features to the end of the day, we still have like a dozen EMT visits even on the easy course. Even the easy course is pretty hard, so making it harder would be like death. You don’t want a death or a broken spine. Some of those Cat 5 bikes and skills you see are deadly on a course like the pros ride.
What are some of the defining features of the Devou course?
To get the really hard stuff, we had to go into the woods. We kind of scattered out where the terrain was most difficult. There is a section of the park that was overgrown because it was so steep that they didn’t mow it, and it was wooded. It was perfect for what we were trying to do. In the middle of one hill, there is a rock wall that used to be a little quarry. It drops straight down. As you go away from the middle it goes from steep to medium-steep so we can run down the hill and get the grade we want. We built three sections along that rock wall. The first is a downhill that is a 20 percent off-camber: It’s all dirt and there’s no grass to get a grip on. When it’s dry, the ground is really loose, and when it’s wet the ground is really slick. It’s really scary.
When I designed it, I wanted to scare myself because I knew if I scared myself, it would scare the pros and that’s what I wanted. I heard that when they are in Europe, they ride stuff that they are literally scared to go down. I figured if we wanted to give what they were asking for and give the pros practice for the World Cups, I needed to create sections that scared me. So after the off-camber it cuts to the right and then goes down a couple of drops. The pros can rail it, and it’s beautiful to watch. It’s amazing what they can do. When it’s wet, like it was last year, it’s pretty cool. Pretty crazy. That’s called the “Pan-Am Plunge,” which the announcers came up with the first year.
Then we went and built a section up the rock wall–kind of a mountain-bike-inspired off-camber up-and-down–and then there are two really steep climbs. There are maybe seven guys in the elite men that can ride up the steep one. Cody Kaiser, Jeremy Powers, and a few others can ride it, but everyone else has to run up, and then when it’s wet they slide back down sometimes if they don’t have good grip.
It sounds like you used to race? How does that influence your course design?
I listen to the racers, and I’ve been getting advice from them, so that’s how the courses have been getting better. It’s important that they do that. When you go through that much work to put on an event, and then have the elites that are racing UCI events all around the country give you feedback, that’s pretty invaluable. I’ve been getting that feedback since the first year we started putting on a UCI event.
Then my own experience racing—I appreciate events that go out of their way to be good rather than half-assed. The whole experience of being there and the atmosphere and food and music—just the whole experience as a racer, I appreciate the work that goes into that. I want to do it as best as I can do it, and make it as fun of a day as possible. I loved racing [100 mile mountain bike races], and there were some that always stood out in my mind as being ones that I wanted to emulate. It was an experience being there and then everyone hung out afterwards. I loved that.
What is your philosophy or goal when building a ’cross course? What are you trying to achieve?
I want it to be fun but hard. You have to remember your customers come from different backgrounds, so one rider may consider something hard while another thinks it’s easy. I’ve always tried to create balanced courses where the guys with road backgrounds could have fun and wouldn’t think it was so crazy and then have a little something for everyone, even the mountain bikers. That goes back to the days before there were ’cross specialists. Now it seems like people are a lot more experienced, so they can handle a lot more.
Do you think courses are challenging enough in the U.S.?
They have definitely gotten harder over the years, particularly lately. I think it’s hard to lump everyone into one description because there are so many different events. There are really easy weekends that the pros go to and then there are ones that are harder. Of course the weather conditions factor in since rain is a total game changer and takes a course that wouldn’t have been hard and makes it really difficult. I think the courses have gotten lot harder over the years, especially at the national events.
What do you think makes a good ’cross course?
It’s got to be fast, and flowy, but not the whole thing. There has to be half a dozen “oh shit” moments. Like [Devou] Park has plenty of places to create “oh shit” moments. There are plenty of places in that venue for steep drops and long climbs. In other parks there aren’t any steep sections, so it’s a lot harder to create those moments.
What’s your favorite course domestically?
I really like the  Nationals course in Asheville, N.C. I thought that was fantastic. Honestly, because of the bike shop I don’t get out and travel much. I’ve been to Derby City down in Louisville and Worlds there–I am very familiar with that course, and I really enjoy that. I’ve also been to Gloucester since my brother lives up [near] there in Connecticut. That course is really cool. The Austin course at 2015 Nationals, that looked like a lot of fun. We have a lot of really good courses.
What about internationally?
I like Zolder a lot. I like watching Zolder. If there is one place that I tried to emulate with Devou, it’s Zolder, because there’s a lot of hard pedaling but there’s also a lot of “oh shit” moments where riders have to compose themselves, coast into a section, hold on for dear life and cross fingers that they aren’t going to wipe out. Namur is also one of my favorite courses and is another one that I love to watch. It would just be a very cool place to be during a race. I’m not a big fan of those Belgium courses that are out in a field where they just put down a festival in the middle of cow pasture—that doesn’t excite me. But Namur, with that historical property with those quiet woods that are well maintained, it just looks really cool.
What’s unique about ’cross in Cincinnati?
Compared to the rest of the country, I think the fact that we actually have two different venues on our weekend is more reminiscent of how the UCI weekends used to be back in the early 2000s in the U.S. When you look at all the C1 weekends like, Wisconsin and Providence, most of them are kind of the same course Saturday and Sunday. We actually have two different venues — Saturday is Devou Park and Sunday is Kingswood Park [ed.: this refers to the 2016 weekend]. You’ve got two slightly different experiences and two types of courses. One’s more of a fitness course with a lot of heavy pedaling, and the other is more technical. I think that is unique. We’ve been putting on UCI events for a long time, since 2004, so the courses have been around for a while and are pretty dialed.
Are U.S. courses challenging enough?
That question always bugs me because some courses are really hard–there are more and more hard courses each year–and then a lot of courses are really easy. When when people generalize that all European courses are brutal and all American courses are weak, that just bugs me. We have a lot of really easy courses and then a lot of really hard ones too. Maybe seven or eight years ago, you could have generalized that U.S. courses were pretty tame, but nowadays it’s getting more and more difficult. We’re getting that from a lot of UCI promoters. Stuff like the sand chute at the KMC Cross Fest, you would not have seen something like that five years ago in the US. Now that’s becoming more of a regular thing.
This interview has been edited and slightly paraphrased for brevity and clarity.