[Editor’s note: Wide Angle Podium host and contributor, Amanda Nauman, reached out to her colleagues in the pro ranks to gain a better understanding of where everyone’s at with the current state of the world and how cyclocross plays into that environment, if at all.]
On March 11, 2020, the Novel Coronavirus Disease, COVID-19, was deemed a pandemic by the World Health Organization and a couple days later a national emergency was declared in the United States concerning the outbreak. Ever since then, the world of bike racing and event participation has been put on hold. In the early weeks of these developments, the murky waters cleared enough for most of us to realize that gravel events, road racing, and mountain bike racing were essentially canceled through the end of summer.
By the end of May, USA Cycling had communicated several postponements to the fall for many of the national championship events, but by the beginning of July, all events through August had been canceled. There are five remaining championship events with Marathon Mountain Bike and Cyclocross National Championships being the final events in November and December that stand a chance of moving forward. USAC will present their next communication update regarding Cyclocross Nationals on July 31 and the final decision on the event taking place will be September 15. As the USAC Pro CX Calendar stands today, July 20, nearly half of the events are canceled. The resulting patchwork environment has led us to wonder what the collective feeling is amongst our North American contingency regarding travel, goals, points, and sponsorships for the upcoming season.
It doesn’t take much social media scrolling to reach a consensus on how a vocal audience felt in early July about high-profile racers like Colin Strickland and others choosing to race local criterium events. The cyclocross community is small compared to the grouping of gravel enthusiasts, road racers, and mountain bike racers. And within that small community, those hoping to find success at the UCI level are engaged in an “earn points or perish” reality.
We reached out to six elite men, eight elite women, four U23, two Junior 17-18, and two team directors for comments on the upcoming cyclocross season.
Out of the replies we received regarding racing UCI events at all this coming season, over 80% are still choosing to race at the UCI level if given the opportunity by race organizers. The general feeling amongst racers is that they absolutely want to race, but only if they feel it is safe enough to do so. The importance of safety is emphasized from each rider. Rebecca Fahringer admitted to being tempted to race, but her concern is echoed amongst her peers, “beyond the personal risk to myself and the communities, there will be a huge stigma attached to racing here in the US that may not be worth it.” Current cyclocross national champion, Gage Hecht, wants to race, but with the caveat that he does not want his racing to put others in danger.
Team Director, Adam Rachubinski, believes one of the greatest risks surrounding cyclocross is the potential exposure to getting sick on an airplane or in an airport. He said, “I have informed the riders that until they have a positive antibody test or there is a vaccine that we won’t be flying domestically.” Those riders optimistic about the remaining Pro CX races are in agreement that driving will likely be their only option. Junior and U23 riders are in a tough predicament given the time constraints and points race in their respective categories. Rachubinski gave the example of Lauren Zoerner and Ross Ellwood who are both in the final season of their category and have no other option but to be “100% ready regardless of what happens with the schedule.” Andrew Strohmeyer, a first-year U23, shared his hopes of making it to Europe this season, “Assuming the European restrictions are lifted, I’m hoping to get overseas in late November and stay through most of their CX season.” Bridget Tooley confirmed, “I would go to Europe if given the opportunity by USA Cycling.”
Those Americans who are most optimistic about racing, like Katie Compton, are looking towards the possibility of racing in Europe if the EU adds the U.S. to its list of countries recommended for easing of travel restrictions. As of July 1, the EU recommended that its member nations begin easing travel restrictions for 16 external nations; a list that included Canada but not the U.S. Under the current guidelines, American professional athletes would potentially qualify for an exemption for “Highly qualified third-country workers if their employment is necessary from an economic perspective and the work cannot be postponed or performed abroad.” But cyclocross riders may have a tougher time with this exemption than a professional road racer on a European contract, for example. Especially given the loss of start-money at Belgian races and the privateer status of many riders.
“Luckily we have everything set up in Belgium to race, so if we can get over there, it would be easiest for us to do that,” said Compton. Stu Thorne, team director in charge of a larger roster and staff, has also stated his desire to get his team to Europe as soon as possible rather than put more people at risk racing in the States. Canadian National Champions, Maghalie Rochette and Michael van den Ham, expressed concern about making it across the border to the races remaining on the Pro CX calendar, but since Canadians are on the EU list for eased travel restrictions, both are tentatively planning to race in Europe this season.
Among those choosing not to race are Sunny Gilbert, Stephen Hyde and Skylar Bovine, who have concluded that it is unsafe and unethical. Bovine, who will be racing age 18 for the upcoming season believes that bringing so many people from different areas of the country “doesn’t seem like the responsible thing to do at this time.” This is a sad reality for a junior at the top of their age group for this season. As for Hyde, he’s using this time to focus on reform, his new coaching business, and a new team. Additional announcements from Tyler Cloutier, the Richard Sachs Cyclocross Team, and the Squid Squad have echoed the decision not to race this upcoming season.
When asked about cyclocross nationals, a higher percentage are still keeping this race penciled in. Hyde and Gilbert both conceded that if nationals are able to be safely held, and perhaps without a jersey on the line, they would likely attend. However, most riders shared feelings of doubt around the possibility of Chicago being able to host such an event. Gilbert, who has a full-time job in the biotech industry, said, “My fear, and probably the reality, is that no rational decision, other than to cancel, can be made by September.” For the Canadians, there hasn’t been official word on their scheduled November nationals. However, general consensus is that an update will be provided soon, and riders are still planning for it unless they’re told otherwise.
Cyclocross fans will be happy to hear that all of the riders who responded are in good standing with their sponsorship deals. Tobin Ortenblad shared his take on the bike sale boom happening right now saying, “a lot of companies haven’t had to make a ton of hard budget cuts on the marketing front.” Thankfully, this does seem to be carrying over for most of the cyclocross racers and we’re happy to report that the companies who support this sport are still in it for the long haul. Van den Ham noted that racing will come back eventually, and his sponsors assured him they still want to be there. While the optimism is there, riders like Hecht and Lance Haidet have accepted the reality that it is hard for companies to make promises given the uncertainty of the season. Haidet’s sentiments are echoed across the board, “I am super lucky and grateful to have a lot of awesome people in my corner, so if we do get the chance to race I’m confident that I’ll be ready.”
With respect to goals, one reason why the uncertainty of this season is especially poignant for North Americans is the return to the US for the 2022 World Championships, which will take place in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Fahringer and Gilbert lamented the lost points that might occur this season and hopes it won’t affect their starting positioning in the future. On the flip side, Ortenblad, Haidet, and Rochette noted that such a goal for 2022 has helped them focus on the importance of training through this next season regardless of what happens.
Our read on the climate is that most riders will want to race if given the opportunity, but this will elicit a “crisis of conscience over whether it’s the right thing to do, or even want, in the big scheme of things,” as Jenn Jackson stated. “I mostly want to race, if it’s possible, because I don’t want to get left behind by missing opportunities.” Riders like Kerry Werner assured us he will be adventure riding and vlogging his way to ‘cross season, and regardless of what plays out, fans can look forward to content like this no matter how racing options transpire. Rochette emphasized wanting to be able to get her sponsors the visibility they deserve, and there’s no doubt most cyclocross racers will find a way to do this, be it through safe racing or other projects.
Tooley, wise beyond her years, offered up some suggestions to USA Cycling about how to rethink cyclocross in this country if we’re forced into a skipped year. “If we don’t make big, radical changes to U.S. ‘cross, we are doomed to be a third-rate cycling discipline, forever in the shadow of and beholden to European cyclocross and the UCI.” Perhaps taking a break can lead to developments of a different nature this year?
Closing this out with a look to the future, we’ve seen international events like the Tournament of Roses Parade on January 1, 2021 already canceled. With that perspective, the early season events of 2021 still look to be in a similar, uncertain situation like we’re in right now. Stu Thorne sums up our feelings on the expectation of cyclocross in the fall of 2021, “I’m hopeful that the situation with the global pandemic changes in a way we can get back to some semblance of normalcy on many levels.”