Riders feared snow and ice. Instead they plowed through mud and ruts.
Unseasonably mild weather in early January created the unexpected conditions for the USA Cycling Cyclocross Championships contested on a 2.1-mile loop in Badger Prairie Park south of Madison.
Over five days of racing for 36 stars-and-stripes champion jerseys, racers dealt with frozen ruts and a cheese grater-like surface in the cold mornings and peanut buttery mud in the warmer afternoons.
The contractor hired to clear snow was redeployed to spread straw and bark on the muddiest of sections. The power washers in the pit area ran out of water.
For cyclocross, it was nearly perfect.
The competitors, spectators and the officials from USA Cycling all praised their hosts, the Madison Area Sports Commission and Team Sports Inc., for putting on a championship that exceeded their expectations, perhaps because it fell short of their fears.
It was the first time USA Cycling scheduled the championships in January, with the purpose to align more closely with the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) calendar and the world championships later in the month.
The total number of registered riders was close to 1,100. Entries were down about 100 riders from when the championships were held in Bend, Oregon, in December 2010. USA Cycling had anticipated some drop off because of the January date, but the decrease was less than they had feared, according to Andrea Smith, a spokesperson for USA Cycling.
Smith called the community support unbelievable, but acknowledged the crowds were slightly disappointing. Even on a gorgeous Sunday, with the country's best taking the line, long sections of the hilly course remained spectator free.
Close to the start-finish area, though, the enthusiasm was deafening. Cyclocross has something of a NASCAR vibe, with riders turning laps, announcers hyping the action, a big-screen video board and racers making stops in the pits.
Everyone seems to be covered in sponsor decals. The beer starts flowing early and the riders seem always ready to join the party.
"Everybody is crazy, and the atmosphere is great," said Ben Senkerik, who raced for Ripon College in the Division 2 collegiate event. "With cross taking off, hopefully it will get bigger."
Senkerik has noted a significant increase in riders and enthusiasm for cyclocross over his three years of racing. And he's among those hooked on the sport.
"It's the hardest 45 minutes you have to endure, and it's mano y mano," Senkerik said. "You can't just sit in."
The men's elite race proved his point.
Jeremy Powers, Ryan Trebon, Timothy Johnson, Jonathan Page and Zach McDonald traded attacks and the lead for five laps before Powers (Team Rapha-Focus) broke clear and exorcised his national championship demons.
There was also cause to celebrate the success of the Wisconsin riders.
Kaitlin Antonneau of Racine established herself among the elite racers in the country, and perhaps the best of a group of young riders chasing the dominating Katie Compton. The veteran from Colorado Springs, Colorado, won her eighth consecutive national championship, but Antonneau was second, and defended her U23 title.
The 20-year-old riding for Marian University and Cannondale/Cyclocrossworld also won the collegiate Div. 1 race on the previous day and is the reigning USA Cycling Collegiate Road Champion.
Other upper Midwesterners to pedal to U.S. titles included Linda Sone, from Northfield, Minnesota, who won the women's masters 40-44, and Corrie Osborne, from Mequon, Wisconsin, the junior 17-18 champ.
The national championships will return to Badger Prairie Park next year. After all, the Madison-area has a second year to deliver on its promise of a snowy cyclocross course.
Tom Held maintains "Off The Couch," a silent sports-oriented blog for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at www.jsonline.com.
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