While many Americans will be tuning into the Super Bowl on Sunday, there's another big sports competition this weekend: the Cyclo-Cross World Championships. This weekend's event, in Louisville, Ky., marks the first time in its 60-year history that the world championships will be held outside of Europe.
Cyclo-cross, a grueling sport requiring riders to traverse mud, sand and other obstacles, is growing rapidly in the U.S. And the fans can be a bit crazy. At the 2012 Louisville Derby City Cup, hundreds of people — some in costumes — packed onto the course to cheer the riders on.
Big In Europe, And Catching On
It's not like the Tour de France — cyclo-cross is on an off-road course. But riders use similar bikes and have tough tires with deep treads. Racers carry their bikes up steps; in other parts, they pedal through mud, often in cold, wet conditions.
Jeremy Powers, the top-ranked U.S cyclo-cross racer, describes it this way:
"For people that don't know anything about cyclo-cross, it's kind of like when everyone drinks a bunch at a college football game — when they're tailgating just before they go in."
Internationally, Powers is ranked 11th. Belgian racers took the top seven spots in the 2012 World Championships; the sport has deep roots in Europe.
"There were tires they would use that were like handmade, hand-sewn cotton tires, basically, with rubber put on them," Powers says. "Even five years ago those were very, very hard to get in the United States."
Cyclo-cross began as a way for cyclists to stay in shape during winter months. As the sport developed, courses added certain features to make them challenging.
Event director Joan Hanscom says the sport is growing quickly, and the international cycling body, the UCI, wants to expand globally.
"They had a vision for what other markets would work, and the U.S. is the fastest growing market for cyclo-cross in the world," Hanscom says.
Lots Of U.S. Riders, But Fan Base Lags Behind
In the past few years, the number of riders at U.S. cyclo-cross events has tripled to 100,000, according to the cycling organization USA Cycling. Despite that growth, Hanscom says, U.S. fans haven't shown up yet.
"We don't have the spectator base," she says. "We don't have the football fan watching our sport here. But we have the participation base, and I think for the sport to grow long term, you need to have both."
In Europe, it's the opposite: Cyclo-cross racers are celebrities.
Sven Nys, one of Belgium's most well-known cyclists, says he's adjusted to Louisville, but that traveling is a challenge.
"At the normal race, I have five bikes with me and more wheels," he says. "I have three [bikes] with me [here], and I hope it's enough."
But Nys says if the sport's popularity continues to grow beyond Europe, it's something he'll have to get used to.
And if that growth does continue, some things are likely to remain the same — like loud fans and beer.
Competitor Jeremy Powers says it doesn't matter what country he races in. The fans are always supportive, and there's the occasional costume — or not, as Powers learned at one competition.
"I came around a corner at a race in Colorado, and this guy said to me, 'Hey, look over here, Powers!' ... This guy was butt naked in the woods. A dude that I kinda knew was butt naked in the woods."
Powers says even that won't throw his attention — but he can't count on the Belgians budging from their top slots, either.