The cyclocross season lumbered to a sweaty, stifling start in weather better-suited to the beach than a bike race in Rochester, New York, over the Labor Day weekend. Temperatures at the Ellison Park Cyclocross topped out near 90 degrees — a far cry from the damp, chilly conditions common in the sport.
The oppressive temperatures would be a challenge in the best of circumstances, but a summertime rule change concerning the use of the pit area for hand-ups, and confusion among race officials over the interpretation of new rules, left many riders suffering dehydration after their races.
With 2 laps to go my body shut down and started to shiver & I felt so cold and sick. I guess I am not made for racing when it is this hot.
— Gabriella Durrin (@Gabby_Durrin) September 5, 2015
In a series of posts on Twitter, Durrin added that race officials also forbade riders from taking a second bike with a water bottle on it in the pits. National champion Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus) also raised concerns in a post on Facebook after a winning effort on Saturday. “(De)Hydration* is an issue I want to stomp out,” Powers wrote. “I’m upset about it. I feel banning feeds was the wrong decision and would like actions to clarify the rules, but also I want the elite cyclocross community (who this impacts) to voice their opinion for a rule change.
“When I see riders with goosebumps, chills, headaches, vomiting after races, that’s not right,” he continued. “We need to fix this in a constructive way and voice our opinion on this. We have so much information and technology at our fingertips, I know we can find a way to get riders the fluids they need to have their optimal performance, insure the safety of everyone racing and put this to bed.”
Cyclocross’ feeding controversy goes back as far as 2009, when, after a particularly hot and dusty early season race in Eernegem, Belgium, reigning world champion Niels Albert complained bitterly about not being able to take feeds. “It was awful,” Albert told reporters then. “You want my opinion? I think it was scandalous that no feeds were allowed at such temperatures. I don’t know who abolished them, but it is still a stupid decision.”
Spurred by Albert and other riders’ outcry, UCI commissioners changed rule 5.1.038 in 2010, which concerns the use of the pit lane during races, to allow feeding in the pits when temperatures exceed 20 degrees Celsius — about 70 Fahrenheit. Riders were thankful, but the change was hardly a panacea.
Albert made headlines again during a scorching stretch of weather in October 2011, complaining in a column in SportWereld, that the rules regarding hot weather were being interpreted too strictly. Days later, the temperature dropped, but race officials took note and have generally given riders a bit of leeway about the exact temperatures at which feeding would be permitted.
Meanwhile, even though the rules forbade the use of the pits for feeding during the first two and final two laps of the race, the practice has increasingly served not physiological needs but race ones — as a quick shortcut around traffic, especially early in races.
That was at the heart of a kerfuffle at last year’s edition of CrossVegas, where men’s winner Sven Nys (Crelan-AA Drink) was fined 1,000 Swiss Francs for taking an illegal feed after only a lap-and-a-half of racing. Nys avoided disqualification, telling officials he had been unsure of when, exactly, feeding would become legal.
Although UCI leaders wouldn’t speak on the record, they indicated the cyclocross commission had become convinced by the end of last season that the rules were not working. High-speed feeds in the same pits riders use to change bikes had created a dangerous situation in the already chaotic environment. The situation had not been helped by confusion among officials and racers over exactly when in a race feeds became legal — especially in races that traditionally start with less than a full lap — along with the abuse of feeds to circumvent slower traffic during the race.
The elimination of language about feeding in the pits from the rules, the UCI said, should not have prevented riders from taking bikes with bottled mounted onboard. Race officials in Rochester got it right on Sunday, relaxing their orthodoxy in favor of riders’ health and safety by adding a legal feed zone to the course in a location away from the pits.
Still, with another hot-weather race — America’s first-ever World Cup — on the horizon at CrossVegas next week, the discussions will likely continue.
CrossVegas director Brook Watts said that heat is generally less of an issue at his race, given its nighttime start. But he believed discussions were underway to improve the rules for feeding, and he hoped the UCI would act soon to provide clarity.
“My perspective as a race director is that we need clear directives from UCI, and that the solution should not involve additional officials unless someone other than the race organization wishes to cover that expense,” said Watts.
Rule changes are never a simple matter; information takes time to propagate to commissaires around the world and inexact language can lead to confusion, most of the rules we know today have been refined over the course of decades. But cyclocross has survived changing opinions about tire widths, barrier heights, course construction, disc brakes, World Cup and world championships qualifications, and a slew of other esoteric technicalities that, taken together, make the sport what it is. Given a couple of years and a couple of iterations, UCI generally works out the kinks.
The no-feeding rule is no exception. There is no excuse for the confusion, and it’s potentially dangerous consequences in Rochester on Saturday, something officials implicitly acknowledged with their ad hoc solution on Sunday. But the light Saturday’s events shined on the problem will likely turn out to be the catalyst for its solution.