Park City is home to some of nation’s best cyclocross riders
Cyclists travel to surrounding area for competition
September 8, 2017
By all accounts, Park City should not be a good place for cyclocross — a cross between road biking and steeplechase that usually takes place in notoriously terrible weather. There aren't any events for the sport in town.
But Park City is home to some of the biggest names on the U.S. scene, and boasts a large local club that has spilled across the states, with a chapter in the cyclocross-friendly Northeast.
Thomas Cooke is one of the founders of that club, the X-men, and an influential figure in bringing cyclocross to Park City. Cooke moved to Park City in 1993, and along with a few friends, helped established the X-Men in 1995. The club's formation filled a vacuum in Utah cyclocross, holding the first race in the state in roughly 20 years. And it has remained prominent for long enough to see its jerseys get passed down to a second generation of riders. Cooke said it's not uncommon for teenagers to show up at races in the club's iconic striped uniforms (the club's Facebook page refers to this year's black and grey striped kit as the "Hamburglar costume"), passed down from their parents or purchased second hand.
The team's enigmatic vibe (they claim they are hard to join and harder to leave, according to Cooke), even inspired a former member to form a chapter in Vermont. But still, the sport lingers in the town's wings.
"If you were to do a deep dive of cyclocross in the country, you'd probably come up with Massachusetts and Portland, Oregon," Cooke said. "Park City would not be top 10, but for some reason we have some of the best racers in the country that live here."
For example, Jonathan Page lives in Park City. Page has won the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championship four times. Between 2002 and 2013 he was a dominant force in the sport, finishing in the top three at the national championships eight times and took second at the UCI World Championships – the best an American has ever done in the European-dominated sport.
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Park City also has its fair share of up-and comers, like cycling stud Sofia Gomez Villafane, who took first in the D1 National Championships and placed 19th at the World Championships last year. Cyclists outside of cyclocross might recognize her by her high finishes at the Point 2 Point.
There's also James (Jamey) Driscoll, who kicked off his career with a second-place finish at nationals in 2008. Last year he finished sixth at the national championships.
To the uninitiated, it's an odd choice of sport. It's a cold-weather sport, running from September to February, it requires grueling training with a focus on cardiovascular and technical road-riding skills as well as a knack for dismounts to clear man-made obstacles.
Is it a sport for people who like to suffer?
"Yes," Driscoll said, on his way to a race. "I would say yes. My good friend introduced me to the term type-two fun, I would definitely categorize cyclocross as type-two fun."
Type-two fun, for those who don't know, is something that's fun in retrospect – fun to share stories about around a warm fire, when the actual task is a faint memory, not fun to actually do.
But, Driscoll said it's an engaging sport.
Cooke described it as "all the aspects (he likes) from other cycling compressed into one little nugget."
Plus, it's fun to watch. Because the event takes place on a relatively small course (less than 2 miles long), spectators can see most, if not all, of the race from a single position.
"It's such a good atmosphere," Driscoll said. "For bigger races you have people that just come to see the race, or then all the amateur categories come out and stick around and they do some heckling, which is usually above the belt. It's usually in good fun and adds to the atmosphere of it. Whereas a really good mountain bike race is a horrible spectator event because you see them leave and then you see them come back."
Cooke said that while viewership is big in Europe, where the sport originated in '40s and '50s, in the U.S. it hasn't quite caught on.
"In Europe, it's a big spectator sport but no one does it, but here it's a huge participation sport but no one watches it," he said. “In the U.S. you'd be hard-pressed to find any coverage of it, but the people that do it are super passionate about it."
That passion climbed in the U.S. in the late '90s and early 2000s. In Park City, which hosted a UCI sanctioned race at Soldier Hollow in 2002, it peaked around 2010, said Joe Johnson, who organizes regional cyclocross races around Utah, called P-town Cross.
"Back in 2009, 2010, we used to have 600 riders showing up at a weekend event," he said.
Now attendance hovers around 120, plus kids' races.
But he said, for those riders, the quality of competition is high, and because it gives young riders the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the best in the nation (both during and after races), the future looks bright.
Ideally, Johnson hopes Park City becomes a host for an annual UCI-sanctioned race, which would make it a stop on the national cyclocross circuit. Because Park City is centrally located among Western and Midwestern competitions, Johnson thinks it could draw 1,200 to 1,400 racers for a single event. As with most large events, the problem is logistics. Johnson said it's a challenge to get local authorities on board with the project, due both to the impact the sport has on its staging area and former incidents at races.
"Unfortunately, when people see lush, green grass they want it to stay immaculate," he said. "The grass typically gets beat up."
With the UCI season running from fall to February, he hopes the powers that be would recognize that damage done to grass would be concealed in snow until spring, giving it a chance to regrow without lying under the gaze of residents for too long.
But Johnson also faces the problem of a bad precedent established when racers left trash behind at a race in Park City.
Now it's a challenge getting all the landowners on board to host local cyclocross events, he said.
So for now, Park City looks like it will remain a centrally located gem in the national cyclocross scene, or at least a hangout for a who's who of racers.
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