January may not strike your average Wisconsinite as the best time of year to host an outdoor cycling event in the state. In fact, if you expressed a desire to do such a thing you'd likely be met with more than a few raised eyebrows and accusations of mental infirmity.
Cyclo-cross racers may cop to being a little nuts, but they'll be the first to tell you that the fall and winter months of the cyclo-cross season are just right.
On Jan. 4-8, the Madison area will play host to the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships, where the best riders in the country will compete in whatever conditions Mother Nature throws at them for a chance at the top spot and some serious cold-weather bragging rights.
Cyclo-cross has been around since the beginning of the 20th century in countries like France and Belgium, though it only started catching on in America in the 1970s and '80s. The sport combines elements of both road and mountain bike racing, and adds obstacles that require riders to dismount and carry their bikes. The course is typically fairly short - around 1.5 to 2 miles - but requires racers to complete as many laps as possible during a 30- to 60-minute period.
Courses combine sections of pavement, grass, dirt (often mud) trails, small hills, and obstacles. To that end, the course chosen for the upcoming championships is at Badger Prairie Park in Verona, which boasts each of those features.
The five-day-long event will see separate races for men and women at the juniors, collegiate, master and elite levels, as well as men's and women's single speed competitions. And, this being Wisconsin, the competition will be complemented with festivities involving polka bands, beer, bike art exhibitions, a winter bike clothing fashion show, and an "Ice Shanty Extravaganza" where spectators are encouraged to build their own unique warming huts from which to view the racers, with prizes for the best ones.
The event came to Madison after two successful years of hosting the USA Cycling Collegiate Road National Championships. Jamie Patrick, director of sports sales and program development with the Madison Area Sports Commission (MASC), says those previous events helped them establish a good relationship with USA Cycling and set the stage for the cyclo-cross championships.
"In discussing other USA Cycling events, we realized that Madison has a very strong cyclo-cross scene," explains Patrick. MASC, in partnership with Team Sports and some key local organizers, then went through a competitive bidding process and won the right to bring the Cyclo-cross Nationals to town.
Southern Wisconsin is familiar with cyclo-cross events, having played host to the Planet Bike Cup in Sun Prairie at Angell Park Speedway for several years now, as well as a series of state races.
In an interview with Cyclocross Magazine, race director Tom Schuler noted that "Madison has to be one of the busiest bike scenes around…we have a great partner with the Dane County park group. The city of Verona has really stepped up to work with us and help use their facilities."
Badger Prairie has been the scene of cyclo-cross races for the past 15 years and has mountain bike trails as well. In fact, the parks system recently approved Badger Prairie as a permanent cyclo-cross venue, with new features to be added in the coming years.
For those worried about the cold conditions, plenty of warm shelters will be provided, as well as bonfires and the aforementioned ice shanties. Easy access to good beer will help, too. The course will, if necessary, be plowed of snow so riders won't contend with conditions like those found in the more lighthearted Cyclo Frost race at the annual Madison Winter Festival.
Still, the course and conditions should provide an interesting challenge to the hearty athletes taking part in the competition. Schuler is optimistic about participation and community support, though.
"Madison is so cycling-friendly, and the people around here are so knowledgeable and interested, so this should be a great event," he explained in the Cyclocross interview. "If there is any place that can pull in a good crowd, for both racers and for spectators, Madison is it. We're looking forward to hosting the event and to showing off our city."
Patrick agrees, citing the many events and parties that have been planned to coincide with the races. "The event should be an all-out fun time, combining high-caliber athletes going for the stars and stripes with the organic excitement and atmosphere of Madison," he says.
See madisonsports.org/Cyclocross for the full schedule of events.