It was less of a storm than it was an unending leak. For five days a cloud ambled over the Lone Star State, dropping temperatures and a persistent, cold rain on everything below.
This wasn’t what was supposed to happen in Austin, Texas. The normal script had the United States’ national cyclocross championships held in a sunny city park while revelers and racers alike hopped into the nearby pools and drank cans of cold beer.
The local outdoor store wasn’t supposed to sell out of long underwear. It wasn’t supposed to be a traditional course in Texas but more of the “grass criterium” American cyclocross is often knocked for. But winter and racing don’t care for scripts on their own, never mind the tempestuous pairing of the two.
After days of masters and age-group racing, the Austin course was so muddy it caused organizers to move the pro race, slated for Sunday, to a Monday. For a frantic, lengthy hour on Sunday morning it appeared the race would be cancelled outright and moved to another weekend at another venue.
A cyclocross race cancelled because of mud?
It was more complicated than that, but that’s what it boiled down to in the vacuum of social media, which cares little for nuance when nuance is usually what matters. In truth, the incessant rain and racing had torn into the flesh of the park and at the veins of the spectacular live oak trees, some of them 300 years old, which enjoy special protections. The parks department at the city fell under pressure to limit the damage and thus, where there were supposed to be racers, there were now police. They enforced the closure of Zilker Park — Austin’s crown jewel, which plays host to music and film festivals — immediately. To most, the irony of cancelling a cross race on account of weather was as thick as the Texas mud below their feet.
The script kept changing. It should have been no wonder — this is cyclocross, this is winter — but so many had expected something different. Something they thought would be, plainly, better.
The skeletal branches of the trees cut the only shapes into the flat grey sky, and decision makers talked into microphones. Many called for the job of the woman tasked with protecting the parks.
Jeremy Powers, the defending national champion, remained calm. “Everything is going to be fine,” he texted when asked about what came to mind when the race was in jeopardy. He mostly believed it.
“We’re going to have a race,” Powers thought to himself. “We’re not going to let a national championship go…. We’re going to have a bike race and I’ll be ready for it and it’s going to be fine.”
It was more than fine for Powers who, along with Katie Compton, restored order to American cross a day later on a revised course. The cold and wind and dampness stayed a day later, too, and the crowd was thinned by the change to Monday or the cold or both. By the time the elite races began, though, the show was on regardless; competition suspends the things around it. There were still Stars and Stripes jerseys on the line.
For Powers it was a coronation. The defending American champion trailed for only seconds of his title defense, and that was early on. From there, Powers exploited the fast sections and boxed his way through the peanut-butter mud.
He was challenged by the stalwart Jonathan Page on the heavy route early. Page spends most of his time racing in the inhospitable European climate and culture, and it shows. He sticks as close to the wheel as possible, lingering, hoping to force a mistake. Powers divides his laps between the States and Europe, and races, if this makes any sense, politely. For a moment it appeared Page was the man to unseat Powers, but he flatted outside the pit on lap one, and the elastic stretched and snapped between the two. Page was never able to recover.
“I was expecting a fistfight with Jonathan … just like a straight-up throw down,” Powers said after the race, hovering in a heated tent as his mechanic broke down the temporary fortress around him. “I tend to do better on the faster courses. He tends to do better on the mudders. He’s got that much experience.”
Midway through it was clear it was another day for Powers, and he was the only one left who could spoil it. The mud couldn’t do it. The cold or change to the schedule couldn’t do it. He didn’t allow himself to drift mentally. Not one moment.
“I did that one time, if you go back in the history book, to 2010. I did that one time … and I lost the race with a brake underneath the rim. That never happens again. You learn from those mistakes… I just try to blackboard. I don’t think about anything. The less I think, the better I go.” Powers, 31, has now won three national titles, and the last two consecutively.
On the women’s side, Compton remained undaunted and ruthless in her American dominance. The Trek rider took instant control of the women’s race and won an 11th straight national championship. It was never close.
“I’ve won 10 times. I do like to win a national championship. I do want to win another one,” she said calmly, phone in one hand, while robotically riding a set of
rollers before the race. “I know that someday it’s going to stop.”
That someday wasn’t Monday.
In spite of the confusion, Texas crowned two worthy champions. There may be a footnote on the result for some, but it soon will not matter what day the race was held on or how the course was routed. The sport has a short memory. Moments after Powers was crowned champion the breakdown in the parking lots began and hours later there were hardly any signs at all of what had transpired in Texas. The sounds of power washers were replaced by the sound of tires on concrete, rolling away.
The show goes on. It always does.