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.”