Words By Alexa Daugherty
Photographs by Alex Wallbaum and Samuel Copeland
Last weekend (plus Monday), the 2015 cyclocross National Championships were held in Austin, Texas. Specifically, they were held in Zilker Park, a 351-acre park which is also home to Barton Springs Pool and its eponymous salamander, Austin City Limits, and quite a few heritage trees.
During the first days of the championships, Tenspeed Hero spent a lot of time photographing in delightfully rainy and muddy conditions. We were delighted because gritty, difficult (and usually snowy) conditions make cyclocross the very tough and demanding sport that it is. In sum, it is a sport that deserves many rigorous adjectives. Furthermore, cyclocross is a sport that enables fans, brands, juniors, collegiates, adults, and masters to congregate around one location for Nationals. At this location, all aforementioned cycling-related people get to celebrate and participate in a sport they love or maybe sometimes hate, but generally love. It’s usually a pretty exciting time.
What was new about these Nats, though, was the potential for some sun and maybe even some swimming in a park that had never before hosted a cycling event of this scale. As with any race, many factors went into the selected venue of “Austin’s-most-loved-park” and all related planning logistics. And yet, all spaces are not the same spaces. Think about your house versus hero headquarters. Your workspace versus your favorite restaurant. The Metro/El/T/Subway versus a friend’s car. In maybe three of these mentioned locales you might hold a party, in two of them you might like to work, in one you might sweat, in another you might enjoy watching Seinfeld. Ok, maybe in a few you like to watch Seinfeld. The point is, the various spaces our our lives (or some days) have specific uses and potentials, which we must think about before entering into a given setting. Even what kind of headspace you’re in will impact what you do and how you act throughout any day. And so, we need to pose the question: What kind of space is Zilker Metropolitan park?
It is many things. It is part of Austin, Texas. A town that is growing bigger and more popular and more expensive in odd paradox to its attractive qualities: love of the local, care for the environment, and lets not forget Richard Linklater. Within this liminal space between tourist attraction and local community is Zilker’s green space of trails, hiking, and birds. Zilker also hosts Blues on the Green and has a miniature train. It has Barton Springs and boat rentals and salamanders. It is a space of trees, old trees, young trees, even the Zilker Holiday Tree on view annually from December 2 to December 13. And, as a great claim to fame, Zilker Park hosted The Rolling Stones during their only Austin appearance to date on October 22, 2006.
Most recently, the space became an area for cyclocross. For four days this went really well, we Tenspeed Heros think. But on Saturday, the fifth day, rain, mud and concern from The Austin Heritage Tree Foundation regarding the “condition of soil near tree roots” led officials to cancel races. And so five days had to become six days. Meaning, seven fields of riders, Elite Men, Elite Women, U23 Men, Junior Men 17-18, Junior Men 15-16, Junior Women 17-18, and Junior Women 15-16, needed to fit in races after the noon start time. With this came several difficult decisions for fans and riders, mainly the decision of whether or not they could afford to stay in Austin for another day. Thankfully, many older and Pro riders, including Lance Armstrong, offered up funding, meals, and open homes to support Junior riders who needed help staying in Texas long enough to race in the race that they had spent an entire season training for.
In addition to decisions by those racing in Nats came several difficult choices for those hosting the championships (a.k.a. USA Cycling/Cadence Sports). Mainly, they had to decide how to parcel out space and time amongst the seven remaining fields yet to ride, which could’ve gone many ways, but ended up going in a direction that has some fairly concerning ramifications on women’s space within cycling. In case you don’t know, the decision USA Cycling made was to give both Elite groups as well as Men 15-16 their own start times only to then group Men and Women 17-18 together with the Women 15-16. Here, the racing field became not a space for fierce determination and valid competition, but one in which Women 15-16s were made to bike in a field with those up to three years older than them – meaning 100% of 15-16 riders were lapped and pulled out of the race, even if they won. Here, space became not one of comfort and validation, but one of discomfort in a sport that is heavily dominated by male riders. Yes, the space of Zilker Park as environmental sanctuary matters, but so too does the broader space of young women riders as confident and competitive. In short, there is no situation in which women should be placed within a framework that situates them as less than men.
We at TSH support and are inspired by the female riders who still managed to compete in a race and on a field that wasn’t organized with them in mind. We commend those who weren’t able to stay for Monday’s race, but who still devoted themselves to an entire season of hard work and exercise. We also know its not up to us to give these women a voice and encourage everyone reading this to read the women riders’ own commentary on what happened. In any case, we hope this site of contention and controversy doesn’t have to overwhelm dialogues on women riders. Nor do we hope it overwhelms conversation on the difficult task of The Austin Heritage Tree Foundation which is working to protect the environment in a burgeoning metropolis. All we can hope for is reasoned discussion and thoughtful action regarding those who are so often left out of the conversation. Both space and sport are having growing pains, just don’t let those affect young women riders.
Addendum to the original article, which was written early Wednesday.
On Wednesday and Thursday of this week USA Cycling shared their commentary, apologies, and explanations for what transpired in Austin. To start, USA Cycling took responsibility for the unexpected changes and has offered to refund riders who “were unable to race on Monday due to a change in schedule.” Yet, just after this taking of responsibility it becomes clear that the closing of the course also surprised the organizing body behind the event. Here, the difficulty of a developing Austin – where environmental concerns and local sensibilities are sometimes put into conflict with a desire to bring in National events, tourists, and spectators – becomes clear.
Next, Micah Rice, vice president of national events for USA Cycling, outlined the factors that went into the decision to place Women 15-16 with Men and Women 17-18. In the midst of a well reasoned and valid discussion on the length of the laps and lap times of Women 15-16, however, lie a few unexplained and perhaps underlying structural issues. You see, why were Men 15-16 given a solo ride? This is never fully explained and that lack of explanation points to one of two things: a desire to attempt to ignore an arguably sexist decision that preferred male riders over female riders or a pure lack of consideration of and contemplation on this very problematic exclusion. Furthermore, the letter refers to how “perfect circumstances” and
“ideal situations” might have improved the race for Women 15-16. Well, this referral to platonic, abstract “ideals” denies the very possibility USA Cycling had to make such ideals a reality. Yes, there were a lot of factors that went into this situation. Yes, it was difficult and unexpected for everyone. But still, we can’t deny that the youngest riders ended up with the least fair and least encouraging end of the bargain. For us Tenspeed Heros who love the hard work USA Cycling does to share and provide cycling opportunities for those of all ages, this letter is still not an answer to what happened in Austin. In an exchange we had with Micah Rice after emailing him a few of our remaining questions on what factors went into giving Men 15-16 the earlier start time we received this:
Micah Rice’s Response
It had to do with two things—numbers in each field (82 in the men’s field and 21 in the women’s field) and lap times for each. If we had started the women 15-16 behind the men, the women’s leaders would have had to run through traffic for their entire race. It is our goal at a National Championship to keep the integrity of the podium and it wouldn’t have been fair to these women if they were constantly having to battle through the men’s field to win their race. Since the course was so muddy and there was such a discrepancy in ability in these fields, lap times were long and the fields really spread out so combining anyone with a 82 person field would have been unfair.
I realize that isn’t a perfect answer and this was an impossible situation. I just sent an email to all 15-16 women offering up a free future entry fee into a National Championship of their choice in the future. Not going to make up for the mess, but trying to reach out.
This response does clear up a lot for us at TSH and we are ecstatic that USA Cycling is offering up a free future entry to Women 15-16, which will encourage young women to keep riding and help show them that they are not only wanted, but needed in the sport of cycling. Still, however, the issues in Austin point to a broader issue of the marginalization of women – in all sports, not only cycling – which we can’t depend on a big organization to fix. Its also up to us as fans to advocate for young riders of all genders and particularly women riders of all ages in support of them being able to do what they love on an as equal of a playing field as is accorded to anyone else. In the end, Austin leaves much to be desired in terms of who is taken into consideration when space is being (re)designed and (re)negotiated.