Cyclocross looking to become a Winter Olympic sport

Last modified: Saturday, March 01, 2014
As the 2014 Winter Olympics came to a close, the United States crept up and briefly held the top spot on the medals table before finishing second.

The US brought home medals from men’s and women’s ski halfpipe, ski slopestyle and snowboard slopestyle — all new in 2014 — among other events.

Another sport could make its way to the Winter Olympics, and a medal could find a home in the Pioneer Valley.

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Local cyclists, including two-time US cyclocross national champion Jeremy Powers of Easthampton, have heard rumblings of the sport lobbying for a future Winter Olympic bid.

“It’s not an Olympic discipline yet, but it’s moving in a great direction for a Winter Olympic berth,” Power said in January, after winning the 2014 US national championship. “The Winter Olympics is consistently looking for events. The basic hitch in the Winter Olympics is that it has to be held in the snow.”

Cyclocross is an Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) discipline held on a short, closed circuit track riddled with obstacles that require riders to dismount and run while carrying their bikes. The US and international seasons run September through February, which tends to be a snowy time of year, but races go on with or without Mother Nature’s appearance.

Powers isn’t alone. Alec Donahue, an Easthampton resident and a Northampton Cycling Club board member, has heard similar mumbles. While he said he believed it’s a long shot, he still agreed that cyclocross would be a good fit for the Olympics and that it would do a lot for the sport’s growth locally, nationally and internationally.

“They are mainly rumors we’re hearing,” Donahue said. “But there is conversation of it in the Olympics and before it was a definitive, ‘No, you’re not getting into the Olympics.’”

Donahue said that he had a passing conversation with USA Cycling officials in which it seemed clear the interest went both ways.

“One of the board members made comments that (the current snow element) might be negotiable because the Winter Olympics are searching for more marketable sports,” he said. “I think cyclocross is a pretty interesting sport to watch.”

Other cycling disciplines — BMX, track, road and mountain — are already Summer Olympic sports.

“The (cyclocross) sport got started as a way for road cyclists to stay fit in the winter,” Powers said. “You go slower speed, on a short track, where you’re running to keep your feet warm. Slower speeds means you’re staying warmer because the wind’s not blowing through you. Obviously, the shorter race being 60 minutes, you’re not exposed to the cold for that long.”

The format of the race, which takes riders around the course an average of eight times over 60 minutes, is spectator and TV friendly, Donahue said.

Donahue and Powers have witnessed the local and national growth of the sport due to its accessibility.

Locally, the annually cyclocross race at Northampton’s Look Park has reached near capacity, said Donahue, who serves as the race director. An Olympic berth would continue the upward trend.

“The allure of an Olympic medal is a big selling factor to road or mountain bike racing,” Donahue said. “Being an Olympian has a huge amount of cachet and you could have more traction getting new riders, working with schools, better retention of your top talent.”

Marc Gullickson is the director of mountain bike and cyclocross programs at USA Cycling, based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Being an Olympic sport “would certainly raise the profile of the discipline,” Gullickson said. “I think it would help grow the sport even more. Right now, it’s an international sport, but it’s pretty heavily dominated by the Benelux region of Holland, Belgium area. ... I think if it became an Olympic sport it would sort of internationalize the discipline even more than it is.”

The ultimate decision falls in the hands of the UCI, which works directly with the International Olympic Committee. Gullickson said the right people are involved to push the process forward.

“I know that with the new president at the UCI, Brian Cookson, he’s said he’d like to see that happen,” Gullickson said. “I’m not sure how quickly it’s going to happen, but I would certainly like to see that happen.”

Without the Olympics as a goal, Powers and his fellow riders focus each season on the World Championships (Powers finished 24th on Feb. 2 in Hoogerheide, Netherlands), but that could change.

“If the Olympics came, obviously the Olympics would be the top” honor in the sport, Powers said. “If the Olympics came in 2018, I would theoretically still be racing and would definitely be looking at that opportunity and that would be something I would be dead serious about. ... That would be something special for sure.”