As I type, the Ohio River is swelling and covering increasingly large swatches of the Eva Bandman Cyclocross Park, in ways that would have thoroughly extinguished this World Championships event had the original schedule remained in place. Knowing this, or hearing from the local hydrologists, the organizers adjusted and put on a day like no other in cyclocross history. It was that kind of weekend in Louisville.
Coming into the event expectations were at a bare minimum, with the dominant voices from Belgium and the Netherlands expressing a series of doubts. It was too far to come for an hour of racing. The course wasn't selective enough. America wasn't a worthy host, given its place in the cyclocross world. I got all that: it's like holding the Super Bowl in London. Plenty of reasons why it'd be tempting to do, but the hardcore supporters would come into it with a TON of skepticism.
Then things got weird. The schedule began to change as the weather turned not into classic CX weather but a bizarre mix of precipitation and yo-yoing temperatures, not at all in character with Louisville in February. There isn't usually a threat of flooding, or freezing, or snow here. A tall task for the organizers got even taller. Riders greeted the schedule change with a mix of shoulder-shrugging and/or anger. Their preparations were changing on the fly. The compressed Saturday schedule would minimize warming up on the course. And so on. These are thoroughbreds, something people in Kentucky can understand, and thoroughbreds don't roll with the changes that well.
Fans from Europe were even more skeptical, if not downright pissed -- word traveled around that a decent contingent of Belgians were due to arrive Saturday, just in time for the big Sunday events: the elite women and men. All those people were screwed.
In the end, though, the madness of the circumstances gave the race a distinct character. The frozen mud varied from holding a cover of snow to melting a little bit, on the top, but with a hard enough surface underneath to make this a real cross. Eva Bandman had just enough tricks up her sleeve that, in inclement weather, she could turn this into a hard day. That's what everyone wanted, and with a layer of white and a few trickier than usual tricks, we got more than we could have asked for.
From the on-site experience side, the day was perfect. OK, the crowds might have suffered in size a bit, and the people who could only make it Sunday, even the American contingent, won't see it this way. But four championships in a day is an unprecedented download of awesome, and in hindsight it's hard to imagine getting up and doing this a second day. Better still, every race was a bit different, as conditions changed. Not unusual in cross, but as I described above, this was changing conditions with a twist. The action was almost non-stop, a long exhausting day for the folks on the sidelines, let alone the working media (ahem! Not me, obviously) and the riders and team support. Wheels were being rushed in and out of the pits. Drew helped Rob Peeters' guy carry the nicest set of cross wheels I've ever seen up a muddy cascade dangerously close to the encroaching waters. Oh, and the local water and sewer guys were pumping those waters back to where they came from on the other side of a sandbag wall, as fast as possible, to hold off Mother Nature until 4pm. Then she could have the place back.
The winners themselves added a layer to the story. American fans, without the connection that Europe has to the sport and with a long tradition of celebrating winners, were treated to as memorable a set of podiums as you could wish for. Yes, we hoped for Logan Owen, but Mathieu van der Poel is almost certain to be a guy who, in a decade, we look back and say "I saw him when he was a teenager. And I'm glad I did." Marianne Vos is in the conversation for best modern athlete, period. Katie Compton couldn't keep pace, but her silver medal was earned with a masterful set of attacks late in the race. Sven Nys's glorious win is akin to a late-era Babe Ruth stopping by Gent and hitting a towering grand slam. Only the U23 results were less of a future omen. Instead, we were treated to the best actual race of the day.
Our crew gathered quickly afterward, threading the needle between a mass of humanity to a hidden bar that served more Belgian beer than I'd seen in the US. We skipped the podium ceremonies for a large reserved table and an experience that would have been impossible half an hour later. Called Sergios, it's a few tiny rooms lined with coolers full of bottles. You serve yourself and keep track of what you drank, on the honor system. The only rule is that you have to bring the bottle to the bar so they can put the beer in its matching glass. The number of glass choices is over 200. The drafts include the Klokke Roeland I mentioned yesterday, a beer I've never seen outside Belgium, let alone on draft. This place was more dedicated to the purveying of Belgian beer than anyplace I know of state-side, and I've looked around a bit. How is it this strange little gem exists at all, let alone half a mile from the venue that would host the most Belgian sport on the planet for a weekend? I don't know. I don't want to know. I can only sit here in stupefied awe.