This past weekend, the Wisconsin Cycling Association in conjunction with local bike shop sponsor Crank Daddy’s brought us the Midwest Regional CX Championships. The racecourse provided an opportunity for everyone to get a firsthand view of what is ultimately the Nationals CX Championship course. There was a course preview floating around via YouTube that had the interwebs’ opinionated viewers chiming in on the lack of inspiration provided through the ill captured video. As the addage goes, unless you were there, you couldn’t possibly know.
The course is a decent cyclocross course. Admittedly, it is not as technical as many of the twisty and tight courses that utilize off camber features to strike fear in the hearts of roadies, but it is still a technically minded course. In fact, it is safe to say that compared to the entirety of the Chicago Cross Cup, it is a course that stands up to the series and even is better in racecourse features than a few of the races in the series. The course when previewed via YouTube is as deceptive as the course actually is when you race on it – while seemingly mundane at first glances, the notion is quickly stripped at the first jarring thuds your wheels take when hitting the bumpy grassy knolls robbing you of speed and reminding you to keep your wits about you.
The course is most definitely a European style cyclocross course, make no bones about it, it is indeed a reflection of St. Wendel’s course. The technical adversity on the Badger Prairie course does not lay in the individual technical sections, of which there are few, but as the sum of the total of the features put together. It was evident after a few laps at full on race pace, the riders that excelled were the ones who could capitalize on key points of the racecourse that were deceivingly simplistic but critical for maintaining a competitive position. The course is wide and has many wide enough berths both on the straightaways and on the climbs to easily get past traffic, if you can’t pass someone on this course, either you are truly on one of the few tight turns of the course, or you simply don’t have the fitness to make the pass count. It’s that easy to pass someone. The turns may be uninspiring in many parts of the course, especially in the transition turns from gravel to pavement or gravel to grassy climbs. The thought of uninspiring may turn into frightful as the winter introduces gnarlier elements to the already gravel strewn transitions. The climbs are substantial and weren’t very evident in the video, and at race pace, will be a deciding factor on whose fitness can sustain the punchiness of the elevation changes.
Start is a typical paved start on a wide road with a 100M lead out to a soft right turn going into the course full speed from pavement to grassy transition with immediate bumps, possible hooked turns here depending on final course selection but the course changed from Saturday to Sunday by softening those chicane turns to minimize crashing at the very start. The grass section is deceptively bumpy and bucked every rider into finding the smooth line for another 200M to a 90 degree right hand turn for another 100M to a quick twisty right hander onto another straightaway leading to a right hander into the first introduction of tight turns through very rough terrain. It navigates leftbound pass the pit for the first time, and straight ahead 50M to your introduction of the first climb.
A 90 degree left embarks everyone on a 200m false flat (3-5%) to an 80 degree right onto a 10-12% 25M climb that really starts the grind onto yet another false flat for (3-5%) for another 100M. A right hand turn to a quick left downhill on a gravel strewn descent excellent for recovery that takes you to a fast flowy right hand turn, in all about 400M of fast descent before a turn into the first actual dirt of the course in the form of an uphill soft dirt introduction to a rail tie step feature of approximately 15 steps widely spaced apart. This section immediately ends at the top of the hill with a quick remount on a bumpy section that leads to a soft s curve transition to a 50M fast descent onto a paved road transition that immediately points upward at 5-7% for another 150M then slopes down slightly after a soft left curve onto a dirt transition once again that points upward another 5% for 25M before a hard 90 degree left onto one of the most gratifying long descents as your reward.
The descent is incredibly fast and met with many bumps and dips that with one misstep, you may find yourself in the thickets along side the 10 foot wide section. The descent lasts almost 400M onto a sharp right 5-8% climb into a double barrier with a sharp left turn into one the courses only tight sections that leads back past the pit area, and into twists and turns going left and towards a short sandpit, which no matter how it’s used, should not be much of a challenge given its quick 10M distance. Beyond the sandpit, the back section riding continues with a 100M straightaway that parallels the paved road from where the start was. The straightaway takes a sharp 90 degree turn into some very bumpy sections that follows alongside a pond that hopefully no one takes a dive in.
The course follows the pond shortly before going into the next climbing section which is about 5% for the next 100M and then rises a bit to 10% for 5M, and then continues for another 50M before arriving at a 15% pitch for 8-10M. After that immediate pitch change, you hook right for another reprieve on a downhill that cross a paved road section and maintains the bumpiness, into a very fast right hander that if miscalculated will lead you into the thickets again. The speed is very important to maintain as the right hand turn glides upward slightly into a left hand turn onto pavement, the turn here is critical for the entry into the grassy bumpy section again to keep at high speed to navigate the final twisty sections that will inevitably slow everyone down to their rough state and tight turning, this then leads to the lap leadout on pavement back to the start finish. In all, the maximum length of a CX course is raced at just over 2 miles.
The degree of technical difficulty for this course is low – however – the true technical nature of this course has to be valued at the sum total of all it’s components. It’s not unlike an MTB course where the climbs are meant to separate people, and the downhills are not just the recovery but the ability to carry speed through the next section while maintaining the best line to keep that speed as every bump and hole scrubs speed. Taking the turns at the highest speed possible is going to be critical for conquering the laps on this course. There is little room for actual rest as the name of this cross game is getting up to speed and maintaining that speed as much as possible to not let the weight of the grinding climbs get you too far down. It was evident in how strung out the field was in every category at the damage the punchy climbs had, in addition, to the incredibly bumpy descents and straightaways. Power riders do not necessarily excel on this course, but neither did the incredibly technical riders as there was little to interact with and gain momentum on in technical sections – this blended the saavy of reading the course, attacking on the climbs, and being fearless on the descents.
Day 1 was 18 degrees and dry, with slight wind and no sun. It was a cold reminder of what we’re in for Nationals. Day 2 was a sunny reprieve at 40 degrees and perhaps the thank you we deserved for being out at the course both days. Two hours of full on racing on the course, and it’s evident that if this is the best that it will ride in good conditions, than come winter, with snow and ice, the course will take on another technical capability that can only be imagined as difficult climbing situations, slower and more cautious descents, and even scarier gravel to paved road transitions. The snow, if it comes, will hopefully smooth out the bumpiness of the chopped grass course which would be very welcome, but will pose challenges such as the steeper pitched climbs that were easier to hammer out of the saddle, but will prove meddlesome with ice and snow under our rear tires, especially the sharp pitched ones. The cornering, though in small quantities now, may still prove troublesome depending on conditions as they are in tighter areas with little room to pass causing traffic if a rider goes down. The rail stair run up – will be amazingly frightful if it freezes over. These are all good things to look forward to for a true CX course in the midwest.
Cross NEEDS to remain spectator friendly. If not for our friends and loved ones coming out to cheer for us and of course heckle us, we racers, do experience moments of mental weakness when we are exposed to the elements on our own in long lonely and desolate parts of a course. This is rare for over 90% of all the cross courses in many of the series across the midwest. A national caliber course should have mandatory access for spectators to get to various parts of the course without much hindrance. Especially in the conditions of January, the racers need spectator support and providing that access will be key to fully qualifying the event as spectator friendly.
The pit area should be reviewed for better placement for ease of access into and out of the pit in two viable directions that allow for an easy transition for racers to switch bikes or wheels. The current pit experienced definitely made for some cramped quarters that made for some sketchy transitions (don’t put the pit into a transition on a turn!).
The transitions should be reviewed closely in the coming weeks as the weather turns to snow and ice, gravel descents onto grass won’t be a major cause for concern, but the gravel descents onto pavement are a definite cause for concern. Icy pavements are no place for downhill transitions from an off-road course in the winter, and in the European races, they do pour sand over this transitions to ease it up. This should highly be considered to avoid any unnecessary carnage at critical areas.
Warming tents – this can’t be stressed enough – keep the spectators happy, not just the racers. Leaving folks from the ‘warmer’ states happy can go a long way in leaving a great impression on our hospitality.
The course is worthy. Granted, I, have only read and heard from friends experiences at National CX races in the past decade, so I do not have a first hand experience in how it can compare to those races. However, from what I do know is that every CX Nationals race isn’t without it’s challenges from both the promoting venue and mother nature. Cold weather racing is not for the faint of heart, and I’ve never known cross racers to be faint of heart. The conditions can be as gnarly as what has been experienced in epic cross nationals such as Tim Johnson racing to victory in a blizzard, or it could be a soupy wet and cold mess like Kansas City Nationals. The midwest brings you cold, icy, and a technically demanding course. If you truly believe that this is course is not worth the Nationals course, you haven’t given it a chance. We have two years to deal with Nationals at this course and we can make things accommodating and better for racers and spectators between now and January 6th – and even moreso next year with this year’s run.
We are all in the midwest together – and this is our gem we can highlight as ‘our own’ and we have the ability to make it shine despite any circumstance and put our best foot forward for our visiting racers. We are a great racing scene when spread across WORS, ChiCrosCup, DINO, ICA, WCA, etc. – let’s not let initial opinions misguide the effort to produce one of the best cross racing experiences this part of the country can offer. If a Californian thinks its retarded to race in sub-zero weather – well kudos to them for living in California. This is how we roll, let’s roll proudly and let’s roll together on this race.