The bikes do the riding in cyclo-cross at the 2013 US Nationals.
The 2013 UCI World Cyclo-cross Championships come to Louisville, Ky. this weekend.
The river town that gave the sports world the Kentucky Derby, Louisville Slugger, Muhammad Ali, the Louisville Colonels and Hunter S. Thompson (ain't the last three a tad ironic) is playing host to the first world Cyclo-Cross championship ever held outside of Europe.
Most American sports fans are familiar with bicycle motocross (BMX) either in its racing form or the X-games street riding format, mountain biking where highly specialized bikes are raced up and down mountain treks, and road races like the Tour de France.
Cyclo-cross is, more by coincidence than design, a hybrid of these three cycling events.
Like BMX, cyclo-cross races on short, spectator-friendly tracks.
Like mountain biking, the racers ride on a wide array of track surfaces.
Like road racing, the bikes have a 700-cm wheel size and drop bars.
For the cycling fan, it is the best of all possible worlds. You can actually watch The Race, not just see the racers fly by once or couple of times. You get to see the racers surmount obstacles that are not meant to be ridden on bikes, adding an X-games quality to the event.
And you get to see them do it all on the same style of bike that you demolished the first time you tried anything like this when you were a kid.
This is the world premiere, the first time Americans are being allowed to host a world championship that has never been contested outside the European continent. Until this year, cyclo-cross was more European than colonialism.
Thousands of raving cyclo-cross fans descend on Louisville as I write. So to prepare my countrymen for the onslaught, my crew and I threw together this primer for the American sports fan.
Look for our race coverage right through the men's elite final on Sunday.
Reporting with Jerry and Ralf Konty.
The American consumer market is a plum that any money-making enterprise wants to pick.
Soccer, for example, is the most popular sport in the world but at the pro levels in the United States, soccer languishes behind football, baseball, basketball and, by a head, hockey. This doesn't stop the big soccer franchises from doing everything they can to market in America.
The first UCI World Cyclo-cross championship was contested in 1950, hosted by a world tourist destination--Paris. For the past 63 years, the event has never been contested outside of Europe.
For 2013, the UCI takes a plunge into the American market with one of its most eclectic events. The move makes sense; cyclo-cross is one of those sports that appeals to Americans because of its level of difficulty and because it involves mud. If there is one thing Americans understand, it's mud.
The Ohio Valley has been soggy the last few weeks and there will be plenty of mud on hand this weekend.
The engines this weekend are human powered but there is no event more monster than a UCI World Championship.
Mountain biking is an American sport in the sense that it was "invented" in the United States, but before the first hippie threw a leg over a fat tire in Marin County, the Euros were riding their skinny tires over the most difficult obstacles one could conjure for a person on a bicycle.
Fat tire is not just the name of an awesome beer, it comes directly from mountain biking, which modified the standard bikes of the age with a set of treads so thick and rugged they were pert-near useless on a paved road.
Mountain bikes also modified the rider's position so that the rider sat more upright, in a position to easily un-weight the front tire over obstacles.
The standard cyclo-cross bike is, by rule, an analog of the road-racing bike.
Cyclo-cross bikes run the standard 700-cm road bike tire size that is larger in diameter than the 26-inch mountain bike. The cyclo-cross tire is a hair thicker than than standard road racing tires, but they lack the aggressive tread pattern of a mountain-bike tire.
Cyclo-cross riders are riding skinny tires on a fat-tire course.
Cyclo-cross bikes also position the rider further over the front wheel than most mountain bikes and use the standard drop bar that puts the rider's position even further over the front wheel.
In road racing, this is an aerodynamic position. On an obstacle course, it is one more challenge.
Many of the folks in my generation got a 10-speed for our first bike and those skinny tires and drop bars were ill-suited to the kinds of punishment young riders want to dish out.
But don't mistake these specialty bikes for your first 10-speed, the bikes are tough enough to take punishment and if they can't, well, there is always a pit stop.
Cyclo-cross is the only bike racing discipline where riders are forced to get off their bike and push or carry it over various obstacles. There is no rule that says riders must get off the bike, the course designs simply force the rider off the bike.
In racing it is always faster to stay on the bike, so cyclo-cross courses make sure the rider cannot stay on the bike.
The World Championship course in Louisville features one of every kind of cyclo-cross obstacle.
The most prominent feature of the course is a 40-foot flyover bridge that requires riders to carry the bike up stairs and ride down a ramp on the other side. Then there is a steep section that would be difficult to climb on foot if not for the railroad-tie or stone steps.
Bikes can be ridden down steps. But up? Not so much.
Just after the railroad-tie steps the riders visit the beach, riding through sand deep enough to cover the bike's axles. Some riders will manage to stay on the bike in this section, but even the best riders often can't deal with the sand.
Just in case a rider with awesome technical skills is able to ride the other obstacles, cyclo-cross puts actual barriers in the middle of the course. The barriers are about knee high, and can be bunny-hopped without getting off the bike, but again, very few riders can pull this off consistently, so most of the riders dismount.
In cyclo-cross, the racer's ability off of the bike is just as important as their time on the bike. The Louisville course looks harmless from a distance, but on the track it forces the rider to exercise every skill in the cyclo-cross discipline.
Cyclo-cross tracks are narrow things, barely enough room for two cyclists side-by-side. The course winds around back on itself.
This means a spectator can view much more of the race than in other cycling disciplines. The narrow course means the fans are right on top of the riders. It also means that the fans come loaded for bear.
The beer flows freely among the cyclo-cross spectators, some of whom show up in bizarre costumes. Of course you can't have a pagan rally without a multitude of noise makers, including the ubiquitous cowbell. Perhaps we'll even hear a vuvuzela this weekend.
It's all part of the fun.
Cyclo-cross began as winter training for road racers who were looking for a something a little more interesting than riding more miles on a paved road.
Cyclo-cross is true to its origins. The colder the weather, the more snow and mud there is, the closer conditions get to the absolute last environment in which one would expect to ride a bike, the better.
Interestingly, a winter sport that welcomes any and all weather scenarios is not eligible for the Winter Olympics because it doesn't require snow and ice to contest. Snow and ice are de rigueur for cyclo-cross, but that ain't enough for the International Olympic Committee.
The weather folks say we won't get any snow or ice during this weekend's world championships. The good news is temperatures will struggle to clear freezing for most of the race week.
The first cyclo-cross world championship may have been held in France, but its spiritual home is in Belgium.
Cyclo-cross is the most viewed sport on Belgian television, particularly in Flanders. Even minor races can bring out 60,000 spectators and a one-third TV share.
Four classifications will be contested this weekend: Men's Junior (18 and under), Men's U23 (under 23), Elite Women and Elite Men.
Looking at the World Championship results from 2012, the Belgians had the first seven finishers in men's Elite, five of the top ten Juniors and three of the top ten U23s, but only one of the top ten women's Elite (the only event in which an American cracked the top ten).
In the 2012-2013 UCI World Cup points standings, the Belgians claim the top four riders and seven of the top ten in Men's elite. Belgians boast 13 of the last 16 World Cup points winners.
The 2009 and 2012 men's Elite champion, 2010-11 World Cup points winner and current World Cup points leader is Niels Albert, a Fleming. The 2011-12 World Cup points winner Kevin Pauwels is a Fleming. Seven-time World Champion Erik De Vlaeminck was a Fleming.
Be ready, the Flemings are descending on Louisville.
The top American in this weekend's race is women's Elite rider Katie Compton. Compton headlines the new Trek Cyclo-Cross Coalition racing team that she helped launch in 2012.
Compton won her first USA Cycling Cyclo-Cross National Championship in 2004, but she was prevented from racing in the UCI World Cup because she also participated in the Paralympics, riding a tandem bike in the 3km pursuit with blind racer Karissa Whitsell.
She entered her first UCI World Cup races in 2007 and won the World Cup points championship in the 2010-11 season. At age 35, she has a commanding 500-point lead in this year's World Cup standings.
Compton has never won a World Championship and looks for the American crowd to boost her to her the only trophy she has yet to claim in cyclo-cross.
The top male American rider is 18-year old Logan Owen.
The Junior rider won eight consecutive national championships and currently sits second in the World Cup points ranking. He placed 17th in last year's World Championship and like Compton is looking for the home crowd to boost him on to his first World Championship podium.
Incidentally, Owen and I both wore the Redline colors. My first BMX bike was the original "squareback" with the gusseted front triangle, tubular forks with the leading axle and Redline's innovative "V" bars.
Unfortunately, the good folks at Redline never made it to Texas to catch my mad skills so they went with Stompin' Stu Thomsen and Greg Hill instead. I had to proudly fly my Redline colors unsponsored.
Owen, by contrast, has been with Redline since he was five years old and is a loyal rider for one of America's great bicycle companies.
The top American racer in the men's Elite category is 30-year-old Jeremy Powers, who rides for the Rapha-Focus Cyclo-Cross team.
Powers won his first US National Championship in 2012 and in 12th-place is the top American in the World Cup points standings. He finished two laps down at last year's World Championship and he too is looking for some magical home cooking to boost him onto the podium this weekend.
If you'd like to see more of the life of a cyclo-cross rider, check out Power's serial documentary Behind the Barriers.
One of the greatest American cyclo-cross riders of all time joins Powers on Team USA. 36-year old Jonathan Page won four national championships including 2013. Page is currently 29th in the World Cup standings but is in good form heading into this weekend's World Championship.
The top U23 rider is Powers' teammate, Zach McDonald. McDonald is the current U23 National Champion and finished 12th in last year's World Championship.
The Americans are a long shot to make this year's podium, but Louisvillians will do their best to bourbon-up and cowbell these riders to the front of the race.
According to my brother Jerry, the best rider usually wins in cyclo-cross. I am not quite sure how that statement isn't simply self-defining, since we usually call the winner the "best" rider, but I think he means that cyclo-cross requires such a huge skill set that very few riders can be the best across all of them.
Cyclo-cross races start fast on paved road with the holeshot a huge advantage on the narrow course. So sprinter's speed is important.
The extreme technical nature of cyclo-cross requires supreme bike handling skills. The obstacles require a level of aerobic fitness beyond the basic cycling muscles.
Even though cyclo-cross is a short race compared to road racing, the hour-long races are done at full speed with no peleton to draft in. Every rider is alone, going full-tilt gonzo for an hour. The level of fitness required to sprint on and run with a bike for an hour is mind-blowing.
So yeah, the rider who can excel at all of these disciplines (i.e. the best rider)usually wins.
But we all know that sports are not decided on paper. There is many a slip 'tween the cup and a lip as we like to say in Louisville, where it's a sin to dribble your bourbon down your chin. So anything can happen in the race.
Even if the races go to the favorites, there is still the competition to see who has the rowdiest fans. I'll be looking to see if Louisvillians can stack up to the Flemish.