GLOUCESTER — Racers and spectators alike may have noticed a drought of bicycle races on the North Shore and Cape Ann this summer and fall.
Not too long ago, there were three major bike races in region to watch: the Witches Cup around Salem Common; the Gran Prix of Beverly around downtown Beverly, and the premier Gran Prix of Gloucester cyclocross race around Stage Fort Park.
Local amateur and pro racers had a place to showcase their talents. Spectators delighted in the thrill of the action. And sponsors, vendors and restaurants catered to the thousands who showed up.
But 2019 will go down as the year when none of the races were held for a variety of reasons.
Road construction on Cabot Street on a major part of the course forced the Gran Prix of Beverly to go on hiatus after a decade or racing. Event Director Paul Boudreau says he plans to meet with Mayor Michael Cahill about holding the event next year.
The Witches Cup in Salem, which draws 1,000 people, never materialized again this year after traffic tied up the city during the race in 2017. The race was also not held in 2018.
Its race director, Kurt Maw of Salem, said he and Dan Shuman of Salem Cycle decided to take this year off as well. A decision as to whether they might try to hold the race next year will come in the fall.
"There was pure chaos in town the day of the race," Maw said of events two years ago. There was an accident elsewhere in the city, power plant construction teams had shifted their schedule so they got out at 5 p.m., and the commuter rail was shut down north of Salem forcing those picking up commuters to drive into the city at the time the bike race had shut down traffic around Salem Common.
"So it basically created gridlock," said Maw of those factors, who said race organizers took the hit for the traffic.
They wanted to bring the race back this year, but they had safety concerns because they wanted to hold an evening bike race. They also had sponsor issues, "and just the way the industry is moving, we were just not comfortable in making it happen, the biggest issue being safety." It would have been hard to cordon off the area around the common in the dark to make it safe for spectators and volunteers.
However, a huge blow to cycling came last week when Boudreau made what was for him and fans the emotional decision to cancel the Gran Prix of Gloucester at Stage Fort Park, which was scheduled to take place Oct. 5 and 6.
The race proved a draw. A Facebook post in late August outlining concerns among the Gloucester City Council's Planning and Development Committee about the event taking over the park and its impact on the grass, Boudreau noted the event attracts 1,100 spectators, 40% of who stay overnight in the area.
Word of the race's cancellation spread quickly and far and wide. Boudreau was interviewed by a national cyclocross magazine, CX Magazine, and one of cycling's leading publications, VeloNews, picked up the story.
Cyclocross is a hybrid of mountain bike and road racing, featuring on- and off-road circuit courses that can get muddy at times, and include obstacles riders have to hop over or dismount to get over while carrying their bikes.
Boudreau said there was a confluence of several factors that led to the race's cancellation, including financial issues, issues with the city, and "real life issues with staff," including three key people. Boudreau understands how life should take precedence over planning a bike race.
"No one is paying their mortgage putting on these events," he said.
The race attracted some of the best U.S. talent, plus riders from around the world, Maw said. The event was sanctioned by the sport's international governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, UCI. That meant both women and men pros could acquire points toward their international standings, Maw said.
The decision to cancel the Gloucester race was a tough one for Boudreau, but he also hasd to weigh the other ramifications. To become a UCI sanctioned race is not something that can be done overnight, and it could take another race two to three years to gain UCI status and petition to be on the national calendar.
And there was not a lot of time after the end of the race before organizers had to start planning for next year's race, due to the planning process for the UCI calendar, which starts shortly after the race ends.
"I have to have all my paperwork and everything lined up by November," said Boudreau, who noted in his message about the race's cancellation that they could not be certain plans for next year could be finalized before the UCI's Dec. 15 deadline.
For the Beverly Gran Prix, Boudreau noted the Beverly mayor had offered Boudreau another course, but it was not downtown, where thousands turn out to watch the action. Boudreau said the event is more than a bike race, and holding it in a remote area would defeat the purpose of creating something for people to enjoy.
"I want them to see how cool bike racing is," he said.
"I think, obviously, it's a shame so many North Shore races have been canceled," said Maw, who commended Boudreau and the Essex County Velo cycling club for their efforts over the years at staging the Gloucester race.
For Maw, the Gran Prix of Gloucester was the first cyclocross race he had ever seen, and it was also one of Maw's first races he in which he competed. He's raced it for the past 12 or 13 years. The race held sway in the sport of cyclocross, and it was affectionately known as "New England Worlds."
"I don't think people appreciate the level of effort Paul and ECV did to build it up," Maw said. The race's cancellation is a "major loss" not only for the racers, but for kids who were introduced to the sport at Gloucester, since there was a kids race in between the adult heats.
"That's the future of the sport," Maw said.
"It's a huge loss for the sport, period, locally and nationally," said Kurt Johnson of Haverhill, the manager of Riverside Cycle in Haverhill, on the cancellation of the Gloucester race. People came from all over the world to watch it. Johnson has raced it, supported it and had teams race in it. His son, Matthew, 19, raced it.
"It's massive," Johnson said. "It's a big hit."
But there was also a sense that the race's days were numbered. Boudreau said last year, he thought the race might not go on and people told him deep personal stories about what the race meant to them. However, planning went ahead for this year.
Boudreau said the tough part about holding the Gloucester bike race was it cost a lot of money to put on, which means holding a grassroots race would be impossible.
"You need money to deal with the city," he said. Landscaping alone cost $4,000.
Plans a few years ago for improvements to Stage Fort Park, such as sprinklers by the gazebo and path work, also would have made it impossible to stage the race.
"At some point, it will be impossible," he said.