Don’t worry, the ‘cross nationals venue is okay!

The mud in Joe Creason Park looked like a disaster, but park staff are confident the park will return even stronger.

Photo: @pinnedgrit/Jake Orness

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LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (VN) – Tim Fulton, parks administrator for the Louisville Parks and Recreation Department, casually strolled through the soupy, deep mud of Joe Creason Park as the under-23 men’s national championship race churned away on course.

Fulton was surrounded by a sea of thick slop, pock-marked by the footprints of thousands of fans, racers, spectators, and staff at the venue on the city of Louisville’s southern reaches. He was surrounded by pools and patches of every kind of mud you could imagine: greasy, slick off-camber sections; watery, gritty puddles of muck; peanut-butter-like bogs of soil, grass, and twigs. To the layperson, the scene at USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships likely looked to be an utter disaster — the park ruined; the earth scarred forever.

Not so, said Fulton. So how would the city refurbish the park after thousands of racers and just as many fans obliterated the grassy slopes and wooded portions of the park? Fulton, bearded and bespectacled, was completely unfazed.

“The parks are for people to use,” Fulton said. “Louisville is incredibly lucky to have a national championships here. We’ve planned ahead with all of our partners for this. This is cyclocross, this is what we expect this time of year. I appreciate our local residents bearing with us while this is going on, but more importantly, I hope they’re coming out to witness these awesome events.”

Fulton laid out a very simple plan to return the muddy mess back to the passive-use park; in some ways, it will return as a healthier, more robust place once work has finished.

As soon as the men’s elite race wrapped up on Sunday, clean-up began. On Monday, city staff cleaned the hard surfaces, brushing and scraping sidewalks, roads, and paths of mud. In certain areas, straw was used to protect the area from further damage and to hasten the drying process. The rest of the drying would be up to mother nature, and in mid-December, that could take several weeks.

Under Louisville’s turf is a clay-rich soil. Once dry, any compacted soil will be aerated by the city’s golf course maintenance crew. Aggressive grasses are native to the area, so in much of the venue, nature will simply be allowed to take its course. Seeding will also be used to supplement the regrowth in certain areas. The bowl area, which was spectacular because of the mud, according to Fulton, is a managed meadow. The parks and rec staff will return in the spring to reseed with native species and perennials.

According to Fulton, the track is not the biggest issue. Rather, it’s the areas where crowds of fans gathered that pose a slightly more challenging issue. There, sod will be used to refurbish any damage. According to Fulton, it’s also helpful to remember that the weight of fans and cyclists is relatively small to vehicles like semi-trucks and RVs, and causes much less compaction and damage.

“By late April, I suspect you’ll barely notice that we’ve had an event of this size,” Fulton said. “One of the great things is that on some of the slopes we had some invasive species. This event worked to our advantage because we were planning to come back in the spring anyways and replant with native understory.”

The ease of cleanup is aided by the care with which the course is originally designed. Keegan Schelling, the course designer and operations director for USA Cycling, does not route the track near vulnerable trees with critical root zones and other more delicate areas. It is a lesson Schelling learned the hard way after the national championships in Austin, Texas, when issues with the course and its route near old, beloved heritage live oak trees, disrupted racing and necessitated hasty rerouting.

“Since Austin, I’ve spent considerable effort educating myself in forest ecology and the way that trees and their under-stories grow,” Schelling said. He now owns a nut and fruit tree farm outside of Albany, New York. “I rely on the knowledge to make decisions about the best places to route the race track.”

In the case of Joe Creason Park, Schelling said, you have to consider how the native grass meadows had co-evolved with large herds of herbivores, historically. That has been eliminated in the past couple hundred years. While it looks like a disaster, the grasses need some damage every once in a while, to rejuvenate and remain healthy.

“It is, in a sense, quite analogous to the rejuvenating process that occurs when a wildfire burns through a forest,” Schelling said. “It has the same effect. It’s a single event and definitely an impact, in the short term. But in the long term, that type of a disturbance has a minimal impact, especially since it’s only once a year. It looks bad, and I acknowledge that. But we’re not coming at it from an ignorant point of view.”

In terms of expense, Fulton was, again, unfazed. Clean-up and repair is budgeted for, he said, and things like seed and native species are not expensive. While he would not share a total dollar amount, Fulton focused on the value gained from the experience of timing a planned refurbishing of the park with the event, effectively minimizing any costs due to damage. Likewise, with Louisville’s climate and annual rain totals, grasses are prolific and much of the work will take place naturally and relatively quickly.

“Louisville is a special place when it comes to events like this,” Fulton said. “My staff and staff in other departments are fans of cyclocross. Some of the guys that will be cutting the grass know the pro riders. That’s a special thing to have.”

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