LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It took some serious bailing out -- of more than one variety -- to do it, but the first UCI Elite Cyclocross World Championships held outside of Europe was an almost unmitigated success.
A team of more than 20 workers bailed out the waters along the banks of Badger Creek, working furiously to keep the worlds course at Eva Bandman Park dry during the condensed race schedule on Saturday. And only months ahead of the races, USA Cycling bailed out the event financially after original sponsor Exergy failed to meet its financial obligations to promoters late last year. The fallout from both debacles was fodder for critics ahead of the championships, but in the end, there were few complaints. Instead, the worlds was elevated by the energy and enthusiasm of the roughly 10,000 fans who lined the muddy, half-frozen course for six hours on Saturday.
"For me, (winning in the United States) is really special," said Belgium's Sven Nys, the first elite man to win a championship outside of Europe, and something of an elder statesman of the sport. "To win here is maybe more special than to win in my home country. Definitely, that's also something special, with maybe 60,000 people, while here there were maybe five, six, seven thousand. But I felt myself, the whole week, really, really relaxed. And the respect I got from everybody over here helped me a lot."
Nys' reaction to the outpouring of support was hardly unique. Racer after racer, most more accustomed to the cloud of silence that envelops anyone not at the front of the field in European races than the ebullient atmosphere of American 'cross, said the sheer volume along the course was overwhelming.
"It was unbelievable," said Amy Dombroski, an American rider for the Belgium-based Telenet-Fidea team who has spent most of her last two seasons overseas, after finishing 11th. "I'm kind of choked up right now. It was absolutely deafening; my ears were actually hurting. It was absolutely unbelievable racing here, and I think America really came out, so it was exciting. It was a big thing for America."
Though the course was dotted with pockets of European fans -- Belgians, Dutch, Swiss, French and Czechs who had made the long trip for the championships -- it was Americans who carried the day. The home fans screamed themselves hoarse, furiously rang their cowbells, and waved signs and oversized cutouts of rider photos in support of the men and women on the course. It was, without a doubt, one of the most frenzied championships in the 63-year history of 'cross worlds.
And though there were hiccups -- the emergency schedule change from Sunday to Saturday and long lines for the relatively scarce concessions, among others -- fans almost uniformly said the race experience was positive.
Matt Haughey, who traveled to Louisville from Portland, Ore., and also made the trip to Koksijde, Belgium, for last year's championships, said he had enjoyed himself.
"For a first-time cyclocross worlds in the U.S., it was a pretty good show," he said. "The crowd was louder than the Koksijde crowds of 62,000 last year, mostly due to Americans chanting and hollering for everyone, not sitting quietly and politely clapping for their favorites like I saw in Belgium. I had a good time and was glad I went; the races felt worlds caliber."
Nicole Swan, from Fort Collins, Colo., said much the same, highlighting the friendly, community atmosphere at the races and all the associated events in Louisville.
"I got to be part of the whole experience, which was incredible," she told VeloNews. "Just being out among all the other people who love cyclocross as much as I do was amazing.
"The race course was great. Spectating was great. The races were amazing. And it was really fun to see lesser-known athletes from countries that aren't as well known for cyclocross. To cheer for them was really neat."
So, was the first American 'cross worlds a success?
The answer is almost unequivocally yes. Admittedly, there were problems in the run-up to the event and on race day. Not everything went off without a hitch, and the schedule change, prompted by a concern of flooding, was definitely an embarrassment for race promoters. But the dedication of the city workers who kept the course out of the quickly rising water saved the race, and as the course filled up with water on Sunday, racers and fans alike agreed the change was the right call.
More importantly, in every race, the best rider won. Racers and fans called the course a real "European" cyclocross: a track demanding both technically and physically. And Nys, Marianne Vos, Mike Teunissen and Mathieu van der Poel each were clearly the best, both on the day, and throughout the season. No one is likely to question the legitimacy of the four "American" titles -- at least insofar as the course conditions and depth of the race fields went in determining race outcomes.
And if producing a dramatic race and an event that pleased fans and riders alike is the definition of success for a championships, then Louisville was wildly successful. On to Richmond, Va., in 2015.