The view from Devou Park, via flickr by Vidiot

The view from Devou Park, via flickr by Vidiot

The city of Covington, Kentucky, just outside of Cincinnati, became the state’s second city to commit to year ‘round cyclocross bicycle racing when the city commissioners, in a meeting shown on live television, approved plans for a permanent cyclocross park in Devou Park. Covington now joins Louisville Kentucky as a permanent home to the fast-growing off-road bicycle sport that has been compared to steeplechase horse racing. Devou Park is no stranger to cyclocross racing, as it annually hosts the opening day of the Cincinnati UCI3 International Cyclocross Festival.

Covington’s new cyclocross race and training park will be built on an otherwise unused portion of the park located near the intersection of Montague and Sleepy Hollow Roads, and much of the facility will utilize existing road beds that are no longer being used. According to the presentation made by Matt Bell, a local cyclist and long-time cyclocross racer who is heading up the project, the course will be low maintenance and minimally invasive to the local ecology due to its extensive use of a native landscape plan. The facility will also compliment Devou Park’s popular network of mountain bike trails, with the additional goal of turning Devou Park into a regional and national cycling destination. According to Bell, “it was important to me in the course design to beautify and enhance the park as well.” To ensure these objectives are met, IMBA (International Mountain Bike Association)-trained mountain bike advocate Chad Irey will be overseeing the sustainability of the cyclocross course.

Devou Park’s new cyclocross park will be the third such permanent facility in the U.S., following in the tire tracks of Boulder, Colorado and Louisville, Kentucky [Ed. note: Victor, Idaho also has one and South Carolina has a permanent course in the works]. The new facility at Louisville’s Eva Bandman Park was recently awarded the 2013 World Championships, which will draw an anticipated 50,000 spectators per day, many of them from Europe where cyclocross racing is big business and cyclocross stars are often the subject of reality television shows. Though it shares similarities with mountain bike racing, cyclocross is actually a much older form of off-road bicycle racing with roots tracing back decades before the invention of the mountain bike. The first thing most newcomers notice is that the bikes don’t look like mountain bikes at all, and are actually much more similar to the road bikes that Lance Armstrong races. The races are shorter than mountain bike races (only 60 minutes for pros), and they take place on shorter, wider courses that often require riders to quickly dismount their bikes several times each lap to carry them over stairs, logs and other “barriers.” In the tri-state region, cyclocross participation has been increasing by an average of nearly 40% per year since the sport was first introduced to the area in 2004, according to statistics kept by the Zipp OVCX Tour.

Natalie Gardner, Covington’s Director of Parks and Recreation, is one of a number of civic leaders who is excited about the project. “It’s an absolutely fantastic use of our park in the first place,” she said Wednesday. “I was a newbie (regarding cyclocross) last year when Matt, Nick Tinsler and Mitch Graham proposed moving the first day of Cincinnati’s three-day cyclocross festival to Devou Park. But Larry (City Manager Larry Klein) and I were on board immediately from word one.” Klein and Gardner were so enthusiastic about the idea, in fact, that they and City Commissioner Shawn Masters solicited Festival organizers to headquarter the event in a local Covington hotel and helped create ancillary events that drew cyclists from throughout the U.S. and Europe to Covington’s downtown to partake in local nightlife. Their enthusiasm continued after last year’s inaugural race despite the deluge of rain that turned last year’s cyclocross track into a soupy quagmire of deep mud ringing the otherwise pristine grounds. “We understand the benefit,” says Gardner. “Granted, it was unexpected circumstances to have 16 inches of rain, but coming from a recreation and sports background, I understand that when you play on natural surfaces, there is a potential for damage. But grass is a lot more resilient than people give it credit. We took steps immediately following the race and now, you’d never know. The organization of the race was just great and completely professional.”

Though Bell and his associates had been refining their plans for Covington’s cyclocross park for nearly a year, he was taken aback by the cooperation and encouragement his project received from Covington’s leadership. The timeline from his first casual meeting with City Manager Larry Klein to full approval of the project was less than two months. “In my recent experience, that’s how things are done here,” said Bell. “The city officials in Covington seem more conducive to getting things done. Even so, I’m blown away at the level of excitement they had for the project.” With the City Manager and Parks and Recreation Director on-board, the project was fast-tracked to the 12-member Devou Park Advisory Council, who had no objections. With the approval of the park’s advisory council, which is largely concerned with maintaining the beauty of the park, it was time to make the final presentation to the City Commissioners, provided Bell could have his formal presentation ready in time. “Usually with these things, it takes forever for a project to make its way through levels of bureaucracy,” said Bell, “but in Covington I get an email asking if I can be ready to make a presentation to the full City Commission in eleven days! When this government sees something that they think will have a positive impact on their city, they do everything they can to bring it into their borders right now – before it goes someplace else.”