World championship cyclo-cross course designer: it sounds like the most awesome job in the known universe.
You get to be outside telling people what to do while plotting sinister traps for the racers. You and you alone are responsible for the success of the race and your design is the test that selects a world champion.
This is what I was thinking as I walked the course at the 2013 UCI World Cyclo-Cross Championships two days before the event. What devious mind came up with these off-camber straightaways that I can barely walk on? Who devised these seemingly normal steps that rise taller and steeper than the Mayan ruins at Palenque? What crazy trickster thought it was a good idea to plop a sand beach into the middle of a race course?
And then I met him.
I was just strolling along between the course fences envisioning how my heart would explode before I ever got to this point of the track when I came upon a fella moving from one part of the track to another with the other city workers who were doing a bang-up job on the track.
"How's it goin'," I said.
"Not bad," says he.
"Do you work for the city?" I asked because I was curious about whether or not the city of Louisville was helping with the track.
"Oh, are you a contractor?"
"Sort of, I designed the track."
Ah, I've found Loki.
Keegan Shelling designed the course where the 2013 Cyclo-Cross World Championships will be contested this weekend as well as all of the UCI Grand Prix tracks in the U.S. He doesn't work for anyone and he doesn't own a company, he just designs courses.
But like all jobs that seem supreme at first blush, it isn't a job for your average slacker. Keegan puts his heart and soul into designing tracks, works impossible hours and at the end of the day takes no public credit. You won't find his name on the program or in the results.
When I asked him what he was doing after the race he said he was going on vacation. He'd been working on this race for two solid years.
Sure enough, he's the guy who came up with the off-camber straights and tight, technical turns through the trees. He made it his mission to test every skill in in the cyclo-cross discipline, including three off-the-bike sections, quicksand and mud bogs.
I noticed that crews were busy spreading wood chips on the muddiest parts of the course, which seemed anathema to the sport. Keegan just grinned when I asked him about the attempts to limit the mud and he said, "it doesn't matter, it will be peanut butter by the weekend."
The Ohio river silt is mostly small clay particles and when it gets wet it makes peanut butter look soupy. The wood chips were just to make the practice laps proceed smoothly, by race time it will suck at the racers' tires and clog the gears and brakes causing even more strength-sapping drag on their high-tech bikes.
Keegan hadn't slept for nearly two weeks as he whipped the course into a condition worthy of deciding a world champion.
Keegan's course nearly didn't happen. Two months ago the title sponsor defaulted on their contract and no one was sure who would pony up the cash to get the event done. Up stepped US Cycling with the funds and the city of Louisville provided the muscle, material and machinery to get the course and venue ready.
Much was at stake. The U.S. was responsible for hosting the first cyclo-cross world championship held outside of Europe and both the nation and the city would look the fool if they couldn't rally the troops to pull it off.
The city was "indispensable," Keegan said. They were johnny-on-the-spot when the feces hit the fan and city workers were out there on a frozen afternoon ensuring that the city of Louisville didn't fall on its face in front of the world.
The small army of volunteers recruited by the Louisville Sports Commission added their finger to the dam's breach. Keegan was thoroughly impressed by the steady stream of local talent who came out to work gratis.
Without local government and the efforts of Louisvillians the entire event could have crashed and Keegan was quick to give credit where it was due.
When I asked him what role the international cycling body, the UCI, played in designing the track Keegan told me about a 45-page booklet the UCI gave him specifying their course design rules. UCI advance crew arrived a couple weeks before the race and made minor tweaks to Keegan's design.
As in all sports, television drives the bus. When it was discovered that one section of the course that looped through the trees couldn't be seen as well by the TV cameras, Keegan set to work altering the back stretch so that the Belgian television audience wouldn't miss a single crash.
If you catch the race in person, on television or the Internet this weekend take a minute to think about the Loki of course design. If Keegan isn't sleeping or drunk after his months of hard work, he might appreciate a pat on the back.