From the Pages of Velo: How Lousiville became the first American host of ‘cross worlds
Editor’s note: This feature originally appeared in our guide to the 2013 UCI Elite Cyclocross World Championships in the February 2013 issue of Velo magazine. Since the issue went to print, Bruce Fina and Joan Hanscom have handed over management of the world championships to USA Cycling following the departure of title sponsor Exergy Development Group. USA Cycling vice president of national events Micah Rice is the acting race director, while Hanscom continues to fulfill a support role.
‘Crossing the pond
Abandoned cars. Trashed washing machines. Thick, litter-strewn underbrush and vagrant camps.
Six years ago, what was to become Eva Bandman Park was nothing more than a neglected patch of land on the southern banks of the Ohio River, just outside of downtown Louisville, Kentucky.
On February 2-3, 2013, the park’s miraculous transition will be complete, as the best cyclocross racers in the world will descend on the small plot of renovated property for the first world cyclocross championships held on anything other than European soil.
How did this small city in the central United States — world famous as the host of that iconic American race, the Kentucky Derby — come to host the world championships of one of the most deeply rooted European niches of cycling?
Like any good cyclocross race, it is a circuitous tale involving diverse terrain and numerous barriers, one where the most determined competitor came out on top.
Greg Fante, director of sports development for the Louisville Sports Commission, has a simple job description: bring sporting events to the city of Louisville that bring meaningful economic impacts and quality of life improvements to the citizens and businesses of Louisville. Can you hear echoes of world cyclocross championships in that sketch? Fante could.
The journey started in 2005 at the National Association of Sports Commission’s annual symposium in Lexington, Kentucky, where Fante met Joan Hanscom. Hanscom, who is one half of the team that promotes the U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross series, was then promoting high-level road events. Fante had never heard of cyclocross, instead, the two spoke about the possibility of bringing a high-level road event to Louisville.
“As we went through and vetted that process, it became glaringly apparent that the cost of doing a high-level road event was something that was larger than our ability,” Fante said. “We opted to take a flyer and not go down that path but maintain the relationship with Joan.”
It was around this time that Hanscom formed a partnership with Bruce Fina, managing the USGP series. And she didn’t forget her friends in Louisville. As the USGP looked to expand, Kentucky’s biggest city was first on the list of new potential sites. And it happened; originally run on a former country club, the USGP had found a new home in Louisville. But it quickly morphed into something much grander.
Fina and Hanscom had the desire to do something big in ’cross. Fante was right beside them. By this time, Fina had approached the sport’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), about hosting a worlds outside of Europe, and at that time his promotional team had run more large-scale UCI-sanctioned events than any other promoter in the country. Naturally, Fina turned to Fante.
“[Fina] said, ‘Louisville is the perfect location; help us find a venue,’” Fante recalled. “So we reached out to Metro Parks, which managed the [country club property] and with their staff we said, ‘We gotta find the right tract of land because we might have something special happening here.’”
It wasn’t long before they happened upon that dilapidated tract of riparian zone.
“It took me 40 minutes to walk from [River Road] to where the [mechanics’] pit is this year,” Fina said. The distance? About 200 meters.
“The piece of land did not look anything like it looks now; it was really derelict, trashed, especially the wooded areas were horrible, full of garbage, full of junk. I had a hard time having that vision,” Fante says. “We then brought in Simon Burney and, as a delegate from the UCI, he walked the land with us. It was a cold February day, which was perfect, and Simon said, ‘Yeah, there’s definitely something here if you can make it happen.’ So, we got Metro Parks to go to work on cleaning up and starting to lay out and here we are.”
The city worked very closely with Fina and Hanscom on the creation of the UCI bid and on the creation of the park. The Louisville Sports Commission has remained on board as a high-level sponsor, financially supporting the effort from the beginning.
“When we first said we were going to go to Louisville [for the USGP], a lot of people said, ‘Are you crazy?’” Fina said. “People from Boston, people from Portland, people from Seattle — they’re very proud about their cyclocross communities which is great because they all should be — they said, ‘The USGP in Louisville, that’s nuts.’ But one thing we’ve learned is that it’s great to go into a community where you’re wanted and not where you’re forcing yourself in the door.
“I’m talking about municipal support — states, cities, counties, parks commissions, sports commissions. It’s really tough. It’s horrible when you build something up so significant and it might get taken away from you because you don’t have the support of the city. Louisville is the exact opposite of that. The city built this park [for us]. This was a derelict park, honestly, a scrappy piece of land. And they obviously went ‘all-in’ on this.”
As far as the city is concerned, determination brought them the prize.
“It’s been a long journey to get here. But to me, this validates this tract of land much the way the Ryder Cup did [in the PGA] for the Valhalla Golf Club out in eastern Jefferson County,” said Fante, who has traveled to the last three world cyclocross championships in Koksijde, Belgium, Sankt Wendel, Germany, and Tabor, Czech Republic. “When you host a championship event that is international at the highest level, forever that piece of property is validated as significant in the history of the sport. And we believe that by hosting the worlds here that we will be able to go on and host many cyclocross national championships here; we would never rule the worlds out again, even though it’s been an enormous, difficult, arduous process. We would go back and do it again even if we knew how difficult it was going to be because of what the value will be for everybody. That’s how we got to Lousiville. It’s been fun.”
The early-November weekend of racing for the Derby City Cup, the third round of the USGP series, was much more than a high-level race for the domestic ’cross community. It was the last opportunity for everyone involved in the production of ’cross worlds, both the organizers and UCI officials, to make final tweaks and assurances, and craft a worthy venue. And it gave America’s favorites a preview of what was to come.
From the outside, though, it was a rather relaxed affair. There was no paperwork to be filed, no tape measure in hand, and no air of authority as UCI chief commissaire Philippe Märien greeted Fina for a course walkthrough on a gorgeous November day. Fina, Märien, Fante, and Jason Canuel, of Metro Parks Louisville, casually strolled among the rolling berms, sandy troughs, and leaf-strewn stands of tall oak on the banks of the Ohio River for a final inspection before the racing began.
Moments before, Fina had been chatting with Americans Tim Johnson and Jeremy Powers. Both had been pre-riding the course and gave their feedback to Fina. The starting grid was too far back from the first corner, they noted. As it was, the first turn would be too fast, and too dangerous, and both pros felt it should be shortened.
Once Fina and Märien arrived at the starting straightaway, they collectively pondered its length. Johnson and Powers were right — it was too long. But what was the UCI regulation? After all, the worlds demanded the utmost attention to detail, didn’t it?
“You can’t have strict rules about everything, no?” Märien said in his quintessential Belgian lilt. “It can be up to 200 meters in length, but it’s …” a gesture of the fingers, much like our American way of indicating money, “all about feeling.”
Later, just after coursing under the flyover, American Barry Wicks, who races for Kona and is a former overall winner of the USGP series, rolled up.
“Bruce, who would you most like to see win worlds?” Wicks asked.
Fina, who was reluctant to answer for fear of the repercussions of divulging any favoritism (or lack of patriotism, for that matter), gingerly dodged the question. Finally, Wicks cut to the chase.
“Powers. We all want Powers to win. So, why don’t you make a course that Powers can win on? We can’t put out 1,200 watts like the Euro dudes. This part is great,” Wicks said as he waved at the sandy, twisty, technical side of the course. “This side ain’t no good,” hands sweeping across the horizon, pointed toward the long stretches of thick, brown grass reaching toward the banks of the river. “You don’t think the Belgians consider us when they put together worlds courses there, do you?”
It was half-joke, half-legitimate consternation. This was Wicks looking out for his compatriot, Jeremy Powers, America’s most talented and, therefore, most likely elite male to have any shot at unseating the traditional Belgian dominance — Belgian’s elite men grabbed the top seven positions at last year’s worlds, albeit on a course tailor-made for their skills, in, over, and around the sand dunes of Koksijde.
“Barry, you think I haven’t asked these guys that very question?” Fina sighed.
With a few taps of a rolled up piece of paper on Wicks’ leg, Fina ended the conversation and the Kona rider rolled away, straight into the heart of the sinuous course.
Building a dream
“It’s a little bit of an ‘If-you-build-it-they-will-come mentality’ and we just wanted to show people that you can do that,” Fina said. “We’re growing another hotbed of cycling and it’s fun to be part of that, and grow a place that puts itself on the map.”
In February, what has traditionally been viewed as a spectator sport of the Lowland countries of The Netherlands and, most especially, Belgium, comes to a country where participation is the name of the game, in a city known for thoroughbreds and baseball bats, rather than Lycra-wearing, leg-shaving bike racers.
It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the U.S. and for its flourishing talent pool. But if you think that means Fina, the former manager of the U.S. national cyclocross team, is going to build a course that only Powers or top American woman Katie Compton can win on, you’d be fooled.
“Do we want to make a course in the U.S. that a U.S. rider could win on? It’s kind of tough to do that, honestly,” Fina said. “To say this is a home job course — it’s been done before. But let’s face it; we have a few different riders now that have the great potential to do really well at the world championships no matter what. Zach McDonald has obviously shown his face in the U23s — if this course gets buried in mud, Zach’s going to be a happy guy. Katie Compton would love this course to be buried in mud. For the elite men, it’s just harder to say. How do you make a course that’s going to beat Sven Nys?”
“But we do want to make a course that’s good for U.S. riders. Some people say this is a true world championship, European-style course. We want to take pride in that. I think it has its American elements to it, but I’m also not the person who says that ’cross here should be different. It was my goal in the past, with the USGP series, to make the courses as close to the European courses as possible so that our guys didn’t go to Europe every year and get their asses kicked.”
Now that the long journey has nearly reached its climax and the host city is ready to welcome the cycling world, the hard, finishing touches begin. The money to make worlds happen is substantial: every vendor has to be paid, the tents, infrastructure, and fencing need to be rented and installed. That’s non-negotiable. When you talk about a world championship, the demands from the UCI for live television coverage cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and are, likewise, non-negotiable. The budget is over $2 million. Despite the stress that clearly weighs on Fina as he sips his beer inside the podium tent on the last day of the Derby City Cup — as Powers cruises past, just outside the flaps — it’s still a dream come true.
Asked to describe what would make a successful world championships, Fina answered, “The strongest rider wins all four categories — that’s first and foremost for me. That the people who come to Louisville to see it have a great time. It’s a great city and the city is extremely hospitality friendly. That we break even on the budget. And people go away happy.
“The people that come are going to be shocked and surprised and I think the Europeans will be shocked and surprised. The last time they had a world championship in a city and not in a cow town was a really long time ago [in Munich, Germany, in 1997]. To have worlds in a city like Louisville is going to be spectacular.”