Like the rest of the world, when I think of Kentucky, one thing comes to mind: world-class cyclocross racing.
Instead, like most folks, the mention of Kentucky elicits images of horse racing, bourbon, and folks clad in Carhartt overalls topped with Carhartt jackets (a.k.a. “the Midwestern tuxedo”). It came as a bit of a surprise when Louisville, Kentucky, was selected to host the 2013 World Cyclocross Championship.
Not content with just one renowned cyclocross race in town, the fervor surrounding the prestigious race spilled over with true Kentucky style in the form of the not-even-remotely-UCI-sanctioned Raleigh Singlespeed Cyclocross Derby.
Open to anyone on a bike—or unicycle as it were)—the SSCX Derby matched serious competitors with people who take the art of not racing very seriously. Denizens dressed up as bananas, clowns, and disconcertingly hairy prom queens charged through the sleeting darkness. Featuring fire spewing barricades, chants of “Hurry up, buttercup!” and the occasional Krispy Kreme donut followed by a bourbon chaser, SSCX proved a remarkable display of how much fun can be had while being absolutely miserable on a bike—a perfect opening act to the big race.
Weeks before the Cyclocross World Championship, there were murmurs that the weather might be too nice and the course too easy. It was the first time this caliber of cyclocross racing graced the U.S., and speaking on behalf of everyone who has spent an inordinate amount of their lives wearing spandex in America, we really didn’t want to screw the pooch on this one. As the race neared, an atypically warm Louisville winter was replaced with the Ohio River Valley weather we know and loathe: nasty gray slush.
Awful weather in the days before the race threatened to flood parts of the river-adjacent course by Sunday. Press releases were scrambled, schedules were changed, and Saturday was turned into a non-stop race extravaganza as the Junior Men, Men’s Under 23, Elite Men and Elite Women competitions fired off back to back.
Spectators cheered for racers covered in freezing mud from morning until the sun began to fade. We cheered riders who fell, and cheered harder when they got back up. We even cheered for some guy who took to the course in nothing but a Speedo and a pair of boots (a.k.a. “the French tuxedo.”)
Amid the ruckus of vuvuzelas and cowbells, the heartbreak of unexpected defeat danced with the glory of hard-earned success. No matter which flag peered from beneath the mud on riders’ jerseys, the crowd rode the ups and downs with each racer. We felt the frustration of Katie Compton’s chain deciding this was the day to be a jerk and reveled in her determination as she fought back to second place. We fell silent as Ryan Trebon stayed on the ground too long after a palpably hard fall, and roared as he slowly righted himself knowing this would be his last lap. We soaked in the glory shared by Marianne Vos and Sven Nys, as though our furious cowbell ringing and bourbon swigging had something to do with their perfect riding.
Just beyond the crowds, a horde of city workers spent the day racing the mighty Ohio river, filling bags of sand and running water pumps to hold back its rising waters. One of the workers explained: “You see that red line on the tree by your waist? That’s where the water should be right about now.” When I thanked him and wished him a day off to rest his back, he responded in a born-and-raised Kentucky accent, “There isn’t any place I’d rather be right now.”
For those of us at the race that day, thoughts of Kentucky will be forever intertwined with world-class cyclocross racing. And I’m not kidding.
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