"Deciding to travel to Louisville, Kentucky for the first UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships ever held in the U.S. is one of the best decisions I will ever make as a cycling fan. The streets of this seemingly quiet mid-western city came alive with cycling’s global culture. For those of you unfamiliar with cyclo-cross, quite simply, the Belgians rule the sport. Both on the track and off, they came to Louisville in full force.
A sea of light blue dominated the first row of the start line at the Elite Men’s race, as their small country had 7 of the top 10 riders at the 2012 Worlds. But what really floored me was the fan base that accompanied these athletes across the pond. It may seem crazy that Western Europeans would come in droves to watch only four hour-long races (Juniors, Under-23, Elite Women, & Elite Men), but the best way to explain it is to draw a comparison to the Super Bowl. If one day the Super Bowl were held outside the U.S. (I know, such a thought is sacrilegious!), our fans would also flock to the airports to go watch their favorite teams battle it out. For this event, packs of Belgians and Dutch, all wearing gear to prove their authenticity and support for individual riders, roamed Louisville’s streets.
|Serious fans get custom jackets made. Now you know.|
I knew I was in for something special the moment I got off the plane. I hopped into a cab and felt like a kid in a candy shop. Pro riders out on training rides swarmed the city. Closer to the venue, everywhere I looked I saw another world-class cyclist pedaling around in his or her nation’s colors.
I went straight from the airport to the venue because I knew there was only an hour left of the official pre-ride of the course. Seeing the pros pre-ride and the mechanics dial in and wash bikes was a huge reason I wanted to go to Louisville. Around the world people could watch the race online, but only those at the venue had the chance to see the best up close and personal, and I was ready to take full advantage. As I trudged through the mud and took in the sights and sounds, I made a beeline for the team tents to try to see behind the scenes. I soon found myself next to the bike of the (then) current world champion, Niels Albert. I took photos, taking in all the little details that go into a build of this caliber. World champions get those wonderful rainbow stripes on just about every part of their bikes, and Niels’ mechanic was especially eager to show off the stripes under the saddle.
After poking around the venue for a while, I headed back to the hotel to relax and anticipate the epic day of racing that was to come.
The next morning I showed up at Eva Bandman Park ready for an action-packed day of world class cyclo-cross. Due to adverse weather conditions, the planned two-day event was condensed into one day with all four races going off on Saturday. While this was a huge curveball to the racers’ training plans, it actually made for a better event for spectators. Without an afternoon and night in between the U-23 race on Saturday and the Elite Women on Sunday morning, the energy and course conditions were allowed to build and crescendo for the main event, the Elite Men’s race. The day started off well below freezing with about two inches of snow and a course full of frozen ruts. Watching the best juniors, U-23, and women in the world give it everything they had was amazing. Riders had a ton of different styles and a huge variation in quality and type of bike. I expected that the best riders from each country would have the highest quality equipment that the industry has to offer, but this did not hold true, particularly in the juniors’ race. This was something I would never have known from watching the webcast at home. There were plenty of racers with a generation or two-old component groups and less than cutting edge frames—some even with the stickers you would see on a messenger’s setup downtown. I suppose this is a nod to the fact that 'cross, while huge in some circles, is still a fringe sport. (I haven’t been to an international road race, but my instincts tell me that the best juniors there all ride top-level machines.)
The back-to-back races made conditions worse and worse as the day went on, climaxing with an extremely messy final race, with snow falling during the final 20 minutes. My experience during the Men’s Elite race is something that I will never forget. I had positioned myself to watch the heat of the battle, right at one of the most technical parts of the course. Knowing that there was bound to be some real action, be it a crash or an attack, on this steep and slick downhill, I arrived early and secured a spot right on the fence. Fortunately, with social media and cell phone cameras I was lucky enough to find photo proof of what I experienced.
I’m the third guy from the top left corner of the shot, screaming my head off in surprise as a rider and bike come flying at me. The USA rider sliding down the hill in the photo is multiple-time national champion, Ryan Trebon. At 6’5” he was easily the tallest rider on the course. With his height and the bike to match, you can only imagine what it was like to have all that coming my way. Trebon had made a wrong move navigating the ditch/lip in the top right corner of the shot and went straight over his bars. He did a full-on flying squirrel, hit the ground HARD, and then slid right to my feet as his bike toppled end over end. Queue my memorable moment: I grabbed his wheel and held on to his bike to keep it from crashing down on top of him!
|Super high photo quality courtesy of Instagram|
After Trebon slid down the hill, he remained in the curled up ball shown in the photo for about 15 or 20 seconds. The crowd watched in suspense as he squirmed and let out a few groans of pain. I was certain he had broken bones. He stood up, stared right at my friend Cassidy and me, and said, “That’s it. I’m done. Get me out of here.” The look on his face was unforgettable. His face was fully caked in mud, and the only feature that shined through was his intensely blood shot eyes. After he stood up and realized that he was going to be okay, he grabbed his bike and took off running as the crowd let out its biggest roar of the weekend in support. Soon after, he left the course and took a DNF.
From the start of the men’s race I was utterly blown away by the intense concentration and attitude of the riders. They were warriors. From the second the start gun went off, these riders were in battle. They gave literally everything they had for an hour’s slog through mud and snow, as an impassioned, noisy crowd greeted them around every corner. At no point did I see any rider’s concentration wane for even half a second. Nothing was on their minds except the grueling task at hand. It was the most thrilling sporting event I’ve ever seen in person. If you ever get a chance to attend a CX world cup, especially if it returns to the USA, do your best to be there."