When Ziggy Martuzalski looks out over his cyclocross race course this weekend, he expects to see plenty of cyclists running, not riding. They'll be shouldering their bikes as they hustle over knee-high hurdles, slip through mud or scramble up a hill too steep to climb. It's not that the riders at the national championships won't be the best in the country – it's that, for cyclocross riders, dismount-worthy obstacles are part of the sport.
Mr. Martuzalski is familiar with negotiating tricky situations – he's a cyclocross rider himself – but this year he's having a hard time getting around the brick wall being put up by city staff when he applies for permits to run races in city parks.
Pine Point Park at Islington Avenue and Highway 401 in north Etobicoke was not Mr. Martuzalski's venue of choice for this weekend's event. He wanted to showcase the sport somewhere with less airplane traffic and more foot traffic.
"My hands were tied," says Mr. Martuzalski, a former member of the Polish national cycling team. He says he was turned down for permits at five or six other parks, with supervisors telling him he would have to run his off-road race along paved bike trails if he held it in more central parks such as Riverdale, Cedarvale, Christie Pits and Winston Churchill.
Mr. Martuzalski says the paved proposal lays bare a new bureaucratic resistance to bike wheels rolling over, and possibly damaging, turf in city parks. He points to a dramatic drop in the number of races being held in Toronto this year – roughly half of the number run in years past – as proof that city hall is no longer welcoming this sport with open arms.
Mr. Martuzalski says more than 250 racers competed and 2,000 people watched last year's championships held in Cedarvale Park, near Eglinton and Bathurst. The regional race scene remains healthy with two races held in Southern Ontario most weekends from September to December.
Originally created as off-season and off-road training for road racers, cyclocross is a mash-up of road biking and mountain biking. Bikes resemble sturdy road racers with their overturned handlebars, but the frames are heavier and the wider tires feature a tread more suited to harsh terrain. Courses are designed on the principle that the dullest distance between two points is a straight line. At a typical park course, racers will round a three-kilometre loop five or six times in an hour, passing one another based on which riders can accelerate out of slow areas faster, maintain speed through sand pits, bunny-hop over a knee-high hurdle and keep control on slick, off-camber hills.
"It's like being a nine-year-old again, riding wherever you want to and doing everything on a bicycle your mother told you not to," says Craig Fagan of Midweek Cycling Club. The club has run cyclocross races in Toronto for 13 years, and gets up to 70 people out to Centennial Park for its Tuesday-night training series throughout autumn.
Mr. Fagan says cyclocross incorporates none of the mind games or pack-racing strategies of road racing. Instead, racers rely on bike-handling skills and lots of endurance.
"One hour riding cyclocross is equivalent to four hours on the road," says Mr. Fagan.
Grant Edmonds thinks that math holds up. The 44-year-old owner of a midtown audio-production company has entered three or four races each over the past two years after seeing a race pamphlet in his local bike shop. He was shocked at the intensity.
"I remember hitting a hallucinatory stage in a race last year," says Mr. Edmonds. "I started thinking about how soft the blankets in the ambulance would be when they took me out of there."
Mr. Edmonds won't get the chance to hallucinate about being carted out of Riverdale Park this year. Wil Mills of Cycle Solutions on Parliament Street says he tried to secure permits to run the annual Angry Johnny's Cycling Club race in Riverdale Park this month but eventually gave up.
"It was like pulling teeth last year, even though we were paying twice as much for permits. This year was worse. We've been to Riverdale for five years, the neighbourhood loves us, but the city won't listen to us any more. We'll have to go up to Albion Hills or somewhere next year."
Mr. Martuzalski registers similar complaints from his ZM Cycles and Fitness shop on Dufferin Street. "The local slate of races had grown from two in 2005 to seven each of the last few years, but will fall to just three this year," he says, a downward trend he attributes to a lack of co-operation from the city.
Mr. Martuzalski said a park permitting officer told him Christie Pits park was "too busy" to host the championships this weekend, but he thinks the real reason is what he considers to be cosmetic and temporary damage done to park grass.
City councillor Joe Mihevic, whose ward is home to Cedarvale Park, confirms the bike tires rubbed more than park grass the wrong way last year.
According to Mr. Mihevic, there were "lots of complaints" about damaged grass, though he notes the turf was repaired by the organizers themselves.
Mr. Mihevic says council has given no policy direction on barring the racers from city parks, but he makes it clear a neighbourhood park in his ward may not be the best place for off-road cycling events.
"We want our parks used, but we have to protect our assets."
His neighbouring councillor, Josh Colle, happened to walk by the Cedarvale race when it was being held last year and came away with a different impression.
"I'd like to see a race in my ward," says Mr. Colle. "We should be enabling, not hindering park use. It's not the city that owns the parks, the citizens do."
Mr. Martuzalski says he is considering approaching Mayor Ford for help next year, hoping doors open for him like he says they did after he appealed to former mayor David Miller in 2005.
In the meantime he is left "scratching his head" at what he thinks is a policy to discourage events that provide active recreation for hundreds of people and entertainment for even more.
"Some people always complain – you know how it works – but we made happy a few thousand people."
Special to The Globe and Mail