Chequamegon 40 riders cross Rosie's Field. PHOTO BY KELLY RANDOLPH
Chequamegon 40 riders cross Rosie's Field. PHOTO BY KELLY RANDOLPH
Greg Lemond, Lea Davison, Mary Grigson, Jonathon Page, Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski – all are former Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival champs. And all would be ineligible to race in the 2014 CFTF if a Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) rule stands which bans licensed riders from competing in nonsanctioned races. 

The UCI announced the so-called “forbidden races” rule this past March, and USA Cycling followed in lockstep with its parent organization. 

According to USA Cycling, “No license holder may participate in an event that has not been included on a national, continental or world calendar or that has not been recognized by a national federation, a continental confederation or the UCI. Article 1.2.019 applies to all license holders, without exception. It does not solely concern professional riders or just the members of UCI teams, contrary to certain statements in the press and on some blogs.”

Essentially, this rule will force riders to choose between sanctioned events, such as races in the Wisconsin Off Road Series (WORS), and nonsanctioned, grassroots events in the upper Midwest, like the Chequamegon 40 or Ore to Shore Mountain Bike Epic. Choose one or the other, the rule states.

Since the rule was announced abruptly and right as the 2013 season kicked off, the UCI delayed the implementation of the policy until the 2014 season. Many licensed riders had already penciled nonsanctioned races into their schedules, booked flights and reserved hotels rooms. Some nonsanctioned events offer big prizes, like the Whiskey Off-Road 50 in Arizona, which paid out over $40,000 in the pro/elite class on April 28. Geoff Kabush and Lesley Paterson, the men’s and women’s winners, each earned $6,500 for their wins.  

The penalty for violating the rule is one month’s suspension and a fine of 50 to 100 euros, which is $66 to $132 at the current exchange rate.

For the majority of the CFTF riders, or most riders at grassroots events, this rule will have little or no effect on their finances or careers. Many riders probably don’t even know who or what the UCI or USA Cycling are let alone what they do. 

But they do know who Greg Lemond is and relish the opportunity to line up with a three-time Tour de France champion. Part of the fun of a grassroots event is the possibility of racing with a national or world champion or one in the making, like 1997 Short & Fat winner Matt Kelly who went on to win the 1999 Junior Cyclocross World Championship.

CFTF predates rule-making bodies 
When the first Chequamegon rolled out of downtown Hayward, Wisconsin, in 1983, there existed no governing body to sanction the event, had the organizers desired one. 

At the time, the United States Cycling Federation (USCF) was the governing body for road cycling. The National Off-Road Bike Association (NORBA) did form later that year and held its first event in December. The UCI didn’t sanction a world championship until 1990 when the first was held in Durango, Colorado. NORBA and USCF later merged to become USA Cycling.

In the mid-1980s, when CFTF finished at Lakewoods Resort, the event was NORBA sanctioned, and for a couple of years hosted the NORBA Midwest Off-Road Championships. According to festival director Gary Crandall, the incentive to get sanctioned was the insurance that NORBA offered. “After we grew, we realized we didn’t need their insurance,” he said. “When it got to five bucks a head, we got our own insurance.”

After USA Cycling gobbled up NORBA, the rule book grew “as thick as your arm,” Crandall said. “That took the sanctioning and regulations to a whole new level.” 

To continue as a sanctioned event, the race would have had to offer separate competitive classes, racers would have needed a one-day or an annual license to compete and the course would have been altered to meet the sanctioning body’s specifications.

“We simply didn’t want to do the extra steps,” said Crandall.

These extra steps would have forever altered the event. The mass starts in Hayward and Cable would be gone, replaced by waves of riders of the same age, ability and gender. The field would be much smaller since at least 80 percent of the participants don’t hold USA Cycling licenses. And the long, point-to-point course held on logging roads and two track would have been modified into a shorter, multi-lap race with a more generous amount of singletrack. In short, we would hardly recognize the event if it had remained sanctioned.   

Will CFTF suffer?
Crandall admits that Article 1.2.019 could hurt his race and other nonsanctioned events in 2014. “Would we lose numbers? No,” Crandall said. The race already turns away hundreds of riders who would make up for the loss of licensed riders. But the level of competition would suffer if licensed riders chose to obey the sanction barring them from the event.

Some licensed riders might chose to disobey the sanction, especially riders near the ends of their careers. Someone like three-time champion Steve Tilford, who at 52 might simply snub USA Cycling and risk the fines and suspensions. But a younger rider with national or international aspirations would think twice about defying the governing body.  It also makes no sense to unexpectedly ban a rider like Tilford, who has ridden over 20 Chequamegons.

Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, who won the Chequamegon 40 in 2006, has been an outspoken and articulate critic of Article 1.2.019. “I am in a unique position in that I’ve built my career at these races, but now have the freedom not to license with the UCI and continue to race at marketable and valuable events,” he wrote in an April opinion piece in Velo-News. “I won’t be taking a UCI or USA Cycling license this year unless a viable solution is negotiated where professionals can race in events of their choosing — a solution that promotes the grassroots growth of the sport, balances the needs of the athletes and the industry, and above all, preserves the culture of mountain biking in the country that started it.”   

It’s foolish of the UCI to punish nonsanctioned events for organizing grassroots races and penalize and suspend licensed riders competing in these “prohibited” races. Grassroots mountain bike races are the foundation of the sport in the U.S. and the UCI should think twice about cutting off its nose to spite its face. The Chequamegon, and hundreds of other forbidden races, will continue to thrive – with or without the UCI and USA Cycling.

Mark Parman lives in Wausau, Wisconsin, where he teaches English and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County.