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Commentary: How I brought the worlds to Fayetteville — and why I won’t be there

Brook Watts laid the foundation for the Fayetteville ’cross worlds from 2019 to 2021. Transgender legislation in Arkansas prompted a severing of the relationship.

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Brooks Watts is a longtime race promoter, and the former organizer for the 2022 Cyclocross World Championships.

The world cyclocross championships take place this weekend in Fayetteville, Arkansas — and for the first time in a couple of decades I will not be attending, despite my role as the guy who brought them to the U.S.

When VeloNews asked me to write about my role in bringing the worlds to America and my subsequent departure, I agreed. So, here’s the story of how things developed, how they unraveled and where that leads us today.

Related: How to watch the 2022 world cyclocross championships

It all started when I was contacted by Brendan Quirk in March of 2018. He was working for The Runway Group, the Northwest Arkansas incubator group owned by the Walton family grandsons. He said he was looking to build a cyclocross culture in Northwest Arkansas.

I remember chuckling to myself and explained that “you can’t buy a ’cross culture.” Cyclocross isn’t like mountain biking, in which a sophisticated trail system can be built for riders to explore. Instead, I explained, a ’cross culture grows organically, ’cross is different.

Of course, no single person can build a ’cross culture, but I had ideas — big ones. Anyone who knows me knows that my style is to build the biggest event possible, and in this case an event on the world’s biggest stage.

So, I proposed a five-year plan of cyclocross events culminating with the UCI Cyclocross World Championships in 2023. This plan would allow cyclocross to begin to permeate the Northwest Arkansas cycling community, a concept important to The Runway Group.

Ironically, my partner Kristin Diamond and I had already spent almost a year working on plans to bring the cyclocross worlds to Denver in 2020 — plans that were unfortunately scuttled for environmental reasons. So, for us, the outlining of the financial and budgeting aspects of the world championships was relatively easy.

The Runway Group liked the idea of hosting the worlds but wanted a four-year trajectory instead of five. This posed a bit of a problem, since the 2022 worlds were in theory due to take place in Hoogerheide, the Netherlands, because of the almost cyclical rotation of the championships among key European nations.

I lobbied for a switch of years and successfully got 2022 on behalf of Fayetteville, pushing Hoogerheide to 2023. While the Dutch race organizers was initially disappointed to be bumped back a year, I have no doubt that given the state of the pandemic in the Netherlands that they were, and still are, thrilled by the insistence on a four-year plan.

Initially, the objective was to host the worlds in Bentonville, the center of Northwest Arkansas’ cycling spending, if not the center of the cycling scene. So, with map in hand, I scouted multiple possible locations. Sometimes it took only a minute out of the car to see a location simply wouldn’t work: red clay caking to shoes, rocky land more suitable for MTB (at best) or open spaces with totally inadequate facilities. Trip after trip, it was becoming a challenging exercise and it was clear that the geology of that part of the state was not ’cross friendly.

Finally, a prospective location was mentioned “down in Fayetteville,” some 25 miles to the south. I was directed to a future city park on a former poultry farm that, at that point in 2018, was only raw land on a hill called Millsap Mountain. But on a positive note, it wasn’t clay or rock. Private foundation funds had been allocated to develop the property, which meant there was leverage for the design process to include a ’cross-specific course with associated facilities.

Although expressly not a part of my event-services contract, I worked to design the permanent cyclocross course, acting as the ’cross expert in the design and construction of what was to become Centennial Park. The process of working with city officials, planners and the trail builder during a pandemic was both fun and challenging.

Where I had spec’d a lung-busting set of 40 stairs minimum (Hoogerheide has about 50), the trail builder assigned to the project created a tame (or should I say lame?) 25-step feature. But I held firm and insisted that an additional 13 steps (significantly steeper than the first 25) be added. Over the course of many months, I walked every inch of the course, plotting what was needed, checking its width and preventing the natural sections from becoming tamed.

What did I want to see in the ideal worlds’ course? I wanted a distillation of the European courses I’ve seen over the years of attending landmark races. To my eye, the region comes the closest in appearance to the Ardennes, so I saw a bit of Namur — without the centuries-old Citadelle, of course!

Also, I wanted the elevation changes of a Valkenburg parcours; a set of stairs to rival Hoogerheide’s; a plunging drop like Zolder’s; and a long uphill drag like the one in Namur or Koppenberg (albeit tamer and sans cobbles). And when I learned there was going to be surplus soil, I asked them to use it to craft a mound like the one in Ruddervoorde (I showed photo after photo to the trail builder).

I fought the impulse by the trail builder to create just more Arkansas MTB trails. I preached 4 meters wide when single track was the trail builder’s comfort zone. I educated anyone who would listen about the need for natural surfaces not hardened surfaces. I argued strongly for a different version of what has come to be called “Stonehenge” — the original plan was a cartoonish, bike-park feature that had no place on a cyclocross course.

As a result, I became comfortable that what emerged was neither artificial nor contrived. Rather, the course is best described as a distinctly American first half and a classic European second half.

How will the course I designed be used this weekend? That remains to be seen, though already I’ve seen a dumbing down of the more difficult features and a departure from my original layout.

Once the bid was awarded, several world championship race organizer colleagues gave me advice. “Start work immediately. Even though the championships are three years away, the years go quickly,” they said. Taking their advice, work began in earnest.

In 2019, I produced a C2 event on a temporary course on the site of the future park that attracted both local and national racers. It created great buzz. I had intended to include a World Cup in 2020, but when Flanders Classics assumed management of the World Cup schedule and cut the U.S. to a single race, I elected to produce the Pan-American Championships instead.

Then the pandemic hit. Given the rising infection rates, filled-to-capacity ICU beds, the travel embargo and speculative nature of everything, there were times when I could not fathom that the worlds would even take place in 2022. Nonetheless, like everybody, I shifted into Zoom mode.

I planned for and coordinated almost every logistical and administrative detail for the World Cup and worlds — from team hotels to catering to staffing to VIP hospitality.

When the pandemic started, all sponsorship proposals immediately halted overnight. To maintain interest in the event, I implemented a sophisticated social media plan and launched an innovative and highly successful merchandising campaign featuring a whimsical varkin (a wild pig) that mimicked the Vlaams Lion so identified with Belgian ’cross. It was a huge hit.

The pandemic also afforded even more time to focus on the commitment to the community-development goals that were an essential part of The Runway Group’s original intent.

For example, Kristin was a guest lecturer at the University of Arkansas and managed and supervised several internship programs with the university that curated dedicated content for the event’s race program, website, social media, blog and race-week marketing campaigns. She also developed an academic program for local elementary school students where classes “Adopt a Team.” It rolled up geography, history, math and social studies in a fun way.

Students would learn all about a cyclocross nation, visit the race site on Friday and receive free tickets to the event on the weekend — and thereby bring their parents along. In the meantime, I was connecting with dozens of local vendors and continued to refine the course.

I was also preparing something for the Fayetteville worlds that had never been done before. For at least a decade, there has been talk of staging a mixed team relay event like the one held during mountain bike worlds. No ’cross worlds’ race director had yet stepped forward to make the relay a reality. This year in Fayetteville, we will finally see an unofficial mixed team relay championship — and I suspect it will become a fixture in future years with its own rainbow jerseys.

In 2020, as the pandemic raged on, with the U.S. borders closed and virtually every other domestic cyclocross event canceled, I made the obvious, but still difficult decision to cancel the 2020 Pan-Ams. Instead, knowing we needed to test our systems and the course itself, I decided to produce a midweek World Cup race in October last year.

In January 2021, with a few of my staff, we attended the Ostend worlds as special observers. It was far from a festive event as no spectators were permitted. But we had the opportunity to observe best ’cross-specific pandemic practices in Europe that were sufficient to keep riders, staff and members of the media safe. While we didn’t know what the state of the pandemic would be like in January 2022, we had enough understanding after Ostend to plan for the worst.

After returning from Belgium at the end of January 2021, I had completed all preliminary operational and administrative work for the worlds in Arkansas. All major vendors had either been identified or contracts firmly established. I had entered into contracts with the most experienced cyclocross staff, who totaled more than 200 years of ’cross-specific event experience.

Almost 100 volunteers had signed up. Our 11-month global social media plan targeted both U.S. and foreign spectators. I had strategic partnerships in place for broadcast rights along with an international cyclocross-experienced television production crew. The official website was launched at the one-year-to-go mark. While tickets ordinarily go on sale at the same time, our ticketing partner waited in the wings while we figured out pandemic protocols.

However, by February last year, the political climate in Arkansas started to change. That month, I caught wind of the first proposed anti-transgender legislation: SB289, The Medical Ethics and Diversity Act. This was quickly followed by The SAFE Act HB 1570 (which had more than 60 co-sponsors) and SB354, To Create The Fairness In Women’s Sports Act.

Each of the bills had strong support in the GOP-dominated legislature and it didn’t take much to figure out that these bills would all pass. Cyclocross fans, too, were quick to notice these hateful bills and the first call for a boycott of the Fayetteville worlds was posted on Twitter in February. I immediately brought this to the attention to my local partner. The message was largely dismissed.

Maybe the partner didn’t think it would become a big issue. Maybe people in Arkansas were just used to business-as-usual conservative politics and simply kept their head in the sand, knowing that in the end there was really nothing they could do anyway. I’ll never know.

What I do know is that in early March last year, Twitter posts denouncing Arkansas and the worlds increased significantly and I began to receive daily emails from concerned, passionate and often hostile cyclocross fans. They called for a boycott, stated that they would not attend and demanded that the event be moved out of Arkansas — which was beyond my power since I did not hold the event license. At the same time, reliable sponsors canceled their commitments and promotional partnerships evaporated. No one wanted their names to be affiliated with the toxic political swamp that was Arkansas.

As the first bill passed, and with an increasing barrage of emails, I again reached out to the local partner, urging them to make a public statement denouncing the legislation since they held the event license. They did not.

When the emails and posts got personal, criticizing and threatening me, I could no longer remain silent. With prior notice to the local partner, I made my own public statement.

Good PR means getting in front of an issue and resolving the public’s uncertainty with authentic, truthful statements uncluttered by PR-speak. I believe that people are equipped with excellent “BS” detectors, and I’ve never been a fan of trying to evade one with a carnival barker-style web of deceit.

I wrote a statement that came from the heart in simple language. I stated that the people I encountered in the region were not bad people and were supportive of rights for all citizens. I said boycotts hurt the wrong people, in this case the community that was building around a celebratory event like the world championships.

I released my personal statement on a Friday. By early the following week my world turned upside down. I was told, with no real explanation, that my contract was being terminated. Then, without further details, I was told that my contract would be paid in full.

I hired a lawyer to address related matters and tie up loose ends, of which there were many. I had numerous subcontracts in place with businesses and individuals. I wrote another public statement informing the world that I was parting ways with the partner in Northwest Arkansas and would no longer be involved in organizing the 2022 worlds. I asked for privacy. Many assumed I had resigned. This was not true.

I was stunned to be suddenly uninvolved. Like a racer who had trained so long and so intently and then is abruptly injured, the endorphins — in my case, mental ones — didn’t stop. Three years of creative planning, building partnerships and establishing relationships were all zeroed out.

The community programs and planned special events? Never got off the ground. The university interns’ completed projects? Never saw the light of day. The experienced team I worked so hard to put together wouldn’t have a chance to perform. These are perhaps my greatest disappointments.

However, I do not regret speaking my mind about transgender rights and if this was the result, then so be it.

Lots of ink has been spilled describing the legislation passed that created the hateful environment of less than a year ago. It seems that’s all subsided, if not forgotten completely, as fans pack their bags for Northwest Arkansas. Even the loudest critics have gone silent. The calls for a boycott have gone. And — bored, bought off or satisfied that they stirred things up enough — it seems the haters have moved on.

While my tenure as worlds race organizer ended, my enduring love for cyclocross hasn’t diminished in the slightest. This year, as in the past 10 years, I’ve spent the past few months in Europe attending cyclocross races.

As often the only American face present at a ’cross race in Europe, many racers, media and fans routinely ask me questions: “What’s the Covid situation like in the U.S.?” “Am I allowed to go to the U.S. with my Astra Zeneca vaccine?” “What’s the weather like in Fayetteville in January?” “Is Fayetteville in North Carolina?” “Will the worlds be canceled?” As a supporter of cyclocross, I answer all these questions and many more, politely.

What will I be proudest of as I watch the racing in Fayetteville from afar? I can think of several things — from creating a course that will remain post-event, to the first mixed team relay, to the role I’ve played in bringing the world championships to the U.S.

Because for me, it has always been about the sport. While I might be a race organizer, I am, at heart, a cyclocross fan. Last week, I traveled to Monopoli, Italy, the site of the 2003 ’cross worlds. The start grid has long since worn away and, when asked, the locals have no recollection of the event.

Nonetheless, champions were crowned, rainbow stripes were awarded that weekend and, no doubt, the racing was as exciting as it surely will be this weekend.