The Austin Chronicle

Bikes in the Mud

Parks & Rec in the barrel

By Richard Whittaker, January 16, 2015, News

"Cyclo-cross" – all-terrain bike-racing – is a competition that thrives on bad weather, including mud, sleet, and snow. So there was little surprise that participants were angry when last Sunday's 2015 USA Cycling Cyclo-Cross National Championships event in Zilker Park was canceled (then rescheduled) because of rain. Now the bigger question seems to be: Should it have been held there in the first place? This was the first time the event had visited Austin since 1978, and the first three days went off without a hitch. Then on the fourth day, Saturday, Jan. 10, the city suddenly announced that the last day, including all finals in all age categories, was off.

The point of concern was the proximity of the race to 20 heritage trees. The meet had been approved by both the Zilker Neigh­borhood Association and a city forester, and the race route was agreed upon between the city and event organizers USA Cycling, the sporting nonprofit recognized by the International Olympic Committee as the official representation of bicycle sports in America. However, there had been criticism from the Austin Heritage Tree Foundation that the route was too close to sensitive oaks, and should instead have been held on existing trails at Walnut Creek Metro Park. City Parks and Recreation Department spokesperson Shelley Parks said the decision to cancel was actually a joint decision between the city and USA Cyc­ling. Represent­atives of both groups had walked the track every day, and, Parks said, "On Sunday morning it was seen that there was quite a bit of irrigation channel and tree root exposed."

The city quickly closed the park and turned away visitors. Many among the thousands of competitors and spectators were furious – particularly as they were not allowed on the site to retrieve personal possessions. They quickly took to social media to lampoon Austin for canceling the all-weather event. After several hours, USA Cycling – after discussions with Austin PARD Director Sara Hensley, and with the unexpected intervention of discredited cycling legend Lance Armstrong – made an announcement. The city would alter the track configuration, put down a ton of mulch, and reschedule the event for the next day, Monday, Jan. 12.

This is the second time in two weeks that the city seems to have been caught flatfooted by weather, having canceled the Austin New Year's Eve celebration over fears of ice – ice that never actually materialized. Moreover, the inch or so of rain on Saturday night was nowhere near the deluge that caused the cancellation of the third day of the ACL Festival in 2013 (see "ACL Fest Cancels Sun­day," Oct. 13, 2013). The end result seemed to make no one happy: Local opponents remained frustrated the race was only delayed, not relocated; meanwhile, visitors had either to extend their stays or miss the final races. Moreover, the race conditions were actually worse and muddier on Monday. "The postponement was not an ideal situation, and we regret that," Parks said.

Long-term, Parks said there will be discussions about using Zilker for such events. As for the rescheduled New Year's, staff with the city's Economic Development Department say there was a planning meeting held last week, and they hope to make an announcement of a replacement event within the week.

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