The Chicago area hosted the first-ever (non-USA-Cycling) Nationals in Palos Hills in 1963. Next December, Cyclocross Nationals return to the Land of Lincoln and the city of Wheaton in DuPage County.
The 2020 event is being hosted by a newcomer to the cyclocross scene in the DuPage Sports Commission and will take place at Cantigny Park, a beautiful, historic venue in Chicago’s West Suburbs that, to our knowledge, has not hosted a cyclocross race in recent memory.
When I learned that Nationals were headed to Chicago last week, I immediately wanted to learn more. I grew up in the Chicago suburb of Sleepy Hollow (yep, it’s a place) and went on field trips to Cantigny as a kid, so I am personally interested, but with a new organization choosing to host Cyclocross Nationals as a way of spurring economic development, it also struck me as an interesting story.
I spoke with Beth Marchetti, Executive Director of the DuPage Convention and Visitors Bureau, to learn more. Hopefully, as a self-proclaimed Chicago-knower, I can chip in some knowledge as well.
2020 Cyclocross Nationals, How and Why
Announcements of big cyclocross events going to places that do not necessarily have a cyclocross heritage have been all the rage recently, with the 2019 SSCXWC going to St. George, Utah and the 2022 Cyclocross Worlds heading to Northwest Arkansas.
Cyclocross in Chicago, however, makes perfect sense. The region is home to the very successful Chicago Cross Cup series and has hosted UCI races such as the New Years Resolution races in 2012 and 2013.
Even with the region’s history in the sport, the host for the 2020 Cyclocross Nationals is a new kid on the Chicago sports block. The DuPage Sports Commission is a recently created arm of the county’s Convention and Visitors Bureau focused on increasing the number of sports events that take place in DuPage County, one of six counties that make up the Chicagoland area.
“Why sports?” Marchetti asked rhetorically. “Through two different studies and a lot of conversations with stakeholders, several town hall meetings and working with the sports advisory committee, we identified that we wanted to combine all of our sports assets under a recognizable brand. That’s how we kind of divided the DuPage Sports Commission out. We are a great destination, and we felt like we needed to get more partnerships with stakeholders across the county to get them to understand that this is a huge economic development opportunity.”
When the new DuPage Sports Commission launched last week, cycling events were a key part of the roll-out. In addition to the 2020 Cyclocross Nationals, DuPage County will also be hosting 3 days of the 10-day Intelligentsia Cup criterium series this July.
We have a sense of the number of participants Cyclocross Nationals brings in, and at the same time, we have also seen the swarms of people other sporting events such as CrossFit Games have already brought to my hometown of Madison. Against the backdrop of CrossFit, triathlons and marathons bringing in big numbers, cycling and cyclocross seemed an interesting choice.
For DuPage County, however, there was a reason behind choosing cycling. “There are a lot of people interested in cycling. It’s a growing sport in DuPage and because we have so much land available, cyclocross was a perfect fit,” Marchetti said. “To have cycling be elevated in DuPage, we might be known as the destination for road cycling and cyclocross. It fit perfectly. And the timing couldn’t have been better because these were two events we were able to announce during our launch.”
There is another key factor behind DuPage County choosing cyclocross among the cycling disciplines.
Although the Chicagoland metro area is the eighth-densest in the U.S., squeezing nearly 9.5 million people into an area of 10,800 square miles, there is a lot of green space in the region, much of it maintained by the respective counties’ forest preserves.
Cyclocross requires land to put on a race, and so the host venue of Cantigny Park and its 500 acres of land was a perfect fit.
“One of the largest landowners in the County is the DuPage Forest Preserve, so while we are a very densely populated county, we have nearly a million residents, we have a lot of open spaces,” Marchetti said. “We got really creative and went to Cantigny, and they were really excited to work with us. After lots of work together, we made it happen.”
Cantigny Park, the Venue
If you are a history buff, when you read that Cyclocross Nationals were heading to Cantigny, you may have thought the announcement was talking about French Nationals.
Cantigny Park is named for the Battle of Cantigny that was fought in France during World War I.
What’s the connection?
Cantigny, the Illinois version, is the grounds of the estate of Robert McCormick, an owner and publisher of the Chicago Tribune. In 1917, McCormick enlisted in the U.S. Army artillery and was eventually promoted to Colonel. His tour of duty included fighting at the Allied victory at the Battle of Cantigny, thus the renaming of his estate after returning from the war.
As a history buff growing up, an adult cyclocross racer and a “journalist,” hosting Cyclocross Nationals at Cantigny Park is *chef’s kiss.* The grounds are home to the Robert McCormick Museum as well as the First Division Museum, which is an impressive accounting of the history of the “Big Red 1.”
Cantigny Park also has impressive gardens and a golf course, if botany and that 18-hole sport are more of your thing.
As for what a cyclocross course is going to look like at the venue, that is still TBD. There is plenty of land to work with, with the entire estate covering 500 acres.
Marchetti described the venue a bit. “Obviously we’re in Illinois, so it’s not super hilly, but there will be enough differences in the terrain that it will be challenging but delightful course. Cantigny is really excited about hosting it, and I think they’re going to really work hard to navigate through the different areas of the park to make sure it’s a challenging but fun course.”
It has been a few years since those high school field trips, so my Chicago-knowing likely comes up a bit short in recollecting what the grounds are like. The USGS topo map shows a bit of terrain change, so maybe it can be described as “rolling?”
Chicago folks can feel free to correct me, but I think an apt comparison might be the lower part of the course at the 2017 Cyclocross Nationals at Hartford’s Riverside Park. The section through the woods and near the gazebo did not have the visual appeal of the giant hill, but with the snow and ice, throughout the week, the lower parts of the course proved to be the most decisive throughout the week.
Course aside, there is one thing that absolutely has to be a part of the course. At Reno Nationals, we had dinosaurs. At DuPage Nationals, there are tanks. Tanks!
“I think they’ll be riding right beside them!” Marchetti said. “I know they’re working on the course and making sure the riders are going through the park’s unique landscapes and features.”
Two Historical Nationals Issues
In recent years, a couple of issues have arisen at U.S. Cyclocross Nationals that are still a topic of conversation today. One is the heritage tree debacle from Austin’s Zilker Park in 2015 and another is the pre-race discussion of parking prior to the 2016 Asheville Nationals.
Like Zilker Park, Cantigny is a beautiful venue with a lot of history. With Cantigny not having hosted a cyclocross race prior to the Nationals bid, it seems like an invitation for some conflict over the week’s impact on the grounds.
Cantigny is owned by the Robert McCormick Foundation, a private owner who can dictate the terms of the use of the park.
“That was one of the reasons Cantigny was selected,” Marchetti said. “They really felt like they could design a course that wasn’t going to damage native plants. The Forest Preserve’s role is conservation, and Cantigny is ready to make that happen. By working with Justin Roach [Business Director of the Dupage Convention and Business Bureau], they’re going to be ready. I’m not concerned at all.”
Prior to the 2016 Asheville Nationals, there was some pre-race chatter about the parking setup, with the Biltmore Estate relying on shuttles to take racers and fans to the race venue.
If parking is a concern for you, especially in the conditions mid-December Chicagoland weather might bring, fear not. Cantigny has tons of parking, and they’ve done this before for events much bigger than a cyclocross race.
“The good news is Cantigny is very acclimated for handling parking. They have significant parking,” Marchetti said. “They’re used to hosting big events. They have off-site parking. The golf course just a mile down the road has additional parking. No one will be playing golf during Cyclocross Nationals, so additional parking will be available there.”
In 2012, Cantigny helped provide parking for the Ryder Cup held at the nearby Medinah Country Club. That event brought 40,000 spectators a day to Chicago’s west suburbs, so Cyclocross Nationals in December should be good to go.
As of right now, the tentative plan is to have on-site parking for racers and potentially have an off-site shuttle available for high-traffic spectator days.
Speaking of weather conditions, us Midwesterners like to joke that our weather is crazy, but then again, so does pretty much every other place that isn’t San Diego or somewhere idyllic like that.
The average December high in Wheaton is 37° F and the average low is 20° F with about 2.5 inches of precipitation. Of course, averages mean nothing for a given week. It could be 0 one year and 60 the next and have an average of 37.
High temps and snow cover/rain for the 2020 race weekend of December 11-13 for the past few years from a nearby weather station are shown in the table below. It could be rainy and muddy, there could be snow on the ground or it could be darn near 60 degrees out. I guess we will just have to wait and find out.
Chicago Historical Dec 11-13 Weather
|Dec 11||Dec 12||Dec 13|
|2012||36° / no snow||39° / no snow||46° / no snow|
|2013||24° / 3″ snow||24° / 3″ snow||23° / 3″ snow|
|2014||35° / no snow||32° / no snow||38° / no snow|
|2015||59° / no snow||58° / no snow||62° / rain|
|2016||28° / 3″ snow||32° / 6″ snow||23° / 6″ snow|
|2017||37° / no snow||42° / no snow||27° / no snow|
|2018||35° / no snow||44° / no snow||44° / no snow|
See You in Wheaton?
As plans come together, the folks at the DuPage Sports Commission will have a great resource in the teams that put on races in the Chicago Cross Cup and the 600-800 cyclocrossers who race in that series every Sunday.
With nearly 10 million people in the Chicagoland area, there is also a lot of potential to attract spectators from both the larger cycling community and folks with a casual interest in cycling. As a branch of the DuPage Convention and Visitors Bureau, the folks behind the 2020 Nationals might be in a good position to capitalize on that potential.
“We’ve already talked about trying to bring local spectators in,” Marchetti said. “Meghan Risch [of R4 Communications] will be talking to local press. We’ll be working with local organizing committees and cycling organizers. We’ve got so many people in the region who are enthusiastic about the sport.”
For those us already in the attending Cyclocross Nationals market, Marchetti said they are going to focus on getting folks from Midwest scenes like those in Minneapolis, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and the OVCX to make the trip to 2020 Nationals.
“It’s great that places like Madison are close enough that people can get here pretty easily and just spend the day. If they spend the night, even better. Because we have such great cities in the Midwest, we’re going to be making sure we work on maximizing the drive market as well.”
For folks looking to make a trip out of it, the setting in the Chicago suburbs will offer no shortage of things to do. My go-to for Wheaton is it has the most churches per capita in the U.S., and Marchetti offered the Billy Graham Museum as a site to see in town.
With the Morton Arboretum and its holiday lights and downtowns in Naperville, Wheaton, Glen Ellyn and other nearby towns, there will be plenty of attraction, brewery and restaurant options to choose from.
We will keep following the 2020 Cyclocross Nationals as the event starts to come together. For the author, checking out the venue might just have to be a good excuse to go home and visit the parents and maybe have a shot of Malort.
And contrary our friends from the CCC, I will also be going to Lou’s, thank you.