Down on the farm: US Cyclocross National Championships

Rapha at the races

Throughout the US Cyclocross National Championships, the Rapha Mobile Cycle Club North America will be serving espresso in the team parking area next to Jeremy Powers from Thursday 7th to Sunday 10th January. If you’re spectating or racing, come and visit us for a warming shot of the finest coffee. We’ll also have limited edition Cyclocross Nationals Caps for sale, as well as selected products from our Cross collection to browse and buy.

When the racing is over, we’ll be hosting a ride with Jeremy Powers on Monday 11th at 10am. Starting from High Five Coffee, 190 Broadway #102, Asheville, NC 28801 [map], the ride will last for approximately two hours, and all are welcome. The route can be viewed here.
2016-01-08

Down on the farm
By Ryan Newill

When George Vanderbilt, the grandson of railroad and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, broke ground for his Asheville, North Carolina estate in 1889, the first official cyclocross world championships were still six decades off.

The 1947 Tour de France champion Jean Robic claimed the discipline’s first rainbow jersey in 1950 in the 12th Arrondissement of Paris, a city that was then the heart of the cyclocross world. Completed in 1895, Vanderbilt’s creation, dubbed the Biltmore, wouldn’t have looked out of place in the backdrop of Robic’s triumph. Originally set on 125,000 acres at the foot of the Smoky Mountains, the French Renaissance chateau features 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 fireplaces spread over four acres of floor space, surrounded by expansive gardens and decorated with works by Renoir, among others. Stylistically, and as a manifestation of wealth and power, the Biltmore was the equal of its inspirations in the Loire Valley and Bordeaux. As an American cyclocross venue, on the other hand, it’s a bit of an outlier.

In a sport more accustomed to tenuous relationships with city park officials, the Biltmore — private, carefully curated, and meticulously maintained — stands out as the setting for this year’s US Cyclocross National Championships, 5th – 10th January. A partnership between stalwarts of the North Carolina cyclocross community and the Asheville-Buncombe Regional Sports Commission helped open the Biltmore’s formidable doors, and venue and race organisers soon found mutual benefits. The estate’s sprawling grounds, terrain, and amenities made it a dream venue for cyclocross. The thousands of visitors to the championships would also help fill the yearly lull in the estate’s calendar that comes when visitors to the house’s lavish Christmas displays return to work and school.

Those envisioning thousands of low pressure tubulars carving ruts into the Biltmore’s sprawling front lawn and turning manicured terraces into off-camber nightmares needn’t worry, though. The championships will be held northwest of the house proper in the Antler Hill area of the estate, originally home to dairy facilities and farms. It remains the estate’s center of agriculture and outdoor activity. George Vanderbilt’s grandson, William Cecil Vanderbilt, planted the estate’s first grapes there in 1971, and a winery followed in 1983. Today, the estate grows Riesling, Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot varietals. Antler Hill Village, where the racing will be centered, also features a demonstration farm, museum, outdoor adventure center, and hotel.

Since February 2012, when the Biltmore was announced as the 2016 Nationals venue, organisers have run a series of test events at the Biltmore as part of the North Carolina Cyclocross Series. Compared to the first, relatively flat Biltmore courses, course director and longtime North Carolina race promoter Tim Hopkins says January’s Nationals layout is the best iteration yet.

Continued development at Antler Hill has significantly altered the venue since the 2012 bid, but rather than limiting the course, the change has been a boon to the course design. In light of the changes, the Biltmore has opened up additional grounds to the event, farther up into the farm, providing not only more options, but significant elevation changes as well.

Hopkins points to the massive Heckle Hill at the course’s east end as a likely signature feature, as well as the climb of Cemetery Hill at the opposite end. The compact, serpentine course will also include a flyover that the course will pass under twice, in opposing directions, and once above. A second flyover immediately followed by a tight left hand turn will deposit riders into the double-sided pit.

Where spectators congregate, however, could ultimately come down to weather, which can sometimes transform the most mundane sections into key selection points. Like many areas of the country, the East Coast is in the midst of a bizarre, El Nino-driven winter. High temperatures in Asheville during Christmas week hovered in the 70 degree range, a disarming 20 degrees above average, with steady rains throughout the week. Temperatures are predicted to descend toward average the week of nationals, but lingering periodic rains and little sun could lead to a boggy affair.

Even if the weather does turn foul, organisers have taken steps to avoid the sort of debacle that marred last year’s US Nationals, when locals concerned about the health of heritage trees in the Austin’s Zilker Park persuaded local officials to abruptly halt the racing, delaying the elite races by a day and hitting riders and teams hard in the pocketbook.

“I’m a parks and recreation director by trade,” says Hopkins. “I’ve been putting on races at the parks I work at for many years in all weather conditions, and I’ve been able to document the effects of a bike race. It’s always come back to its original beauty, of being grass, being green.”

By concentrating the racing in Antler Hill, Hopkins and USA Cycling are capitalising on the same advantages as many Belgian organisers do—namely, using durable agricultural land instead of civic green space.

“A lot of the course is on the farmland area, so the cows and other livestock kind of trample through it and make a mess of it, so what’s a couple thousand bikes racing through it? We were very clear about showing them the worst possible condition right from the very first meeting that we had with them, and they were receptive. They said, ‘yeah, we can manage that.’”

Hopes are high for a smoother-running nationals this year, one where the heritage of the venue and the sport will wash away memories of heritage trees, and a new crop of champions will be harvested on George Vanderbilt’s farm.

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