Louisville Gets Down and Dirty for Cycling’s Most Exciting Event

By Parrish Walton, August 8, 2013

It started with a meeting at a trade show in 2006. It ended seven years later with all hands on deck, bailing out water and creating a man made dam to ensure an event survived. The story of Louisville, Ky., hosting the 2013 Cylco-cross World Championships also includes a bankrupt solar energy firm, a transatlantic partnership and the Army Corps of Engineers.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve never heard of cyclo-cross. The sport, which is most popular in Europe (Belgium, specifically), is a mix of hard bicycle racing, pit stops, moguls, sandpits and a party. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen involving bikes. Held in the winter and fall, cyclo-cross is one of the most exciting cycling sports today due to the “rain or shine” mentality and the brutal course landscape. At times, the riders have to carry their bikes up hills and ride them through sand and mud pits, all while constantly having to stop and fix anything that may go wrong with the bike (and things always go wrong).

More than 14,000 fans attended the World Championships in Louisville, Ky.

More than 14,000 fans attended the World Championships in Louisville, Ky.

The course is unique for each event, but it’s generally between 1.5 and 2-miles in length, and the elite men’s competition doesn’t have a set time limit, but it usually takes about an hour. Organizers record the time it takes the first rider to complete the first lap (usually somewhere around the 10-minute mark), divide 60 by that number, and that’s the number of laps in the race. The consistent presence of mud-covered riders, busted bikes and a raucous crowd ensure the events are fan-favorites. The Belgian and Dutch riders have dominated the sport, but it is growing beyond that corner of Europe. The 2013 event was the first time in the history of the World Championships it had been held outside of Europe. How it came to Louisville is as much a case study in crisis management as it is event procurement.

“We wound up in space that’s just way outside of the scope of what we were designed to do, but the flip side of the coin is we all say it probably was one our prouder moments,” says Greg Fante, director of sports development for the Louisville Sports Commission. “We learned a lot. Though I can say we’ll never be there again. I can assure you of that. Hindsight is 20-20, and you learn a lot of lessons, but we got a Ph.D. in this one. The city of Louisville will never move forward, ever, with any promoter or any organization without the sanctioning body being present from the get go.”

The Beginning

Louisville met with Joan Hanscom, a third-party cycling planner, in 2006 to discuss the possibility of bringing some top-level cycling events to the city. It didn’t work out at the time, but each side left the table knowing the possibility of a future endeavor was in play. Less than a year later, that possibility came to fruition. Louisville teamed up with Hanscom to bring the U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclo-Cross to the city. After two years of successful events, Hanscom and Bruce Fina, her business partner, brought up the idea of hosting the most prestigious cyclo-cross event in Louisville: the World Championships. Fina and Hanscom set up Lousiville Championships 2013 and signed a deal with Union Cycliste Internationale, the global governing body of cycling, to place the event in the U.S. for the first time in its history. After signing a title sponsorship deal with Exergy, an Idaho-based wind power company, Fante said he felt everything was on track.

“It all appeared to be good as this wind energy company had been sponsoring professional races all around the U.S.,” says Fante. “They were a major sponsor of USA Cycling, so you know, your instincts [tell you] these guys have been big players in cycling and they’ve been paying their bills and sponsoring at a high level. They had professional teams and were heavily invested in cycling.”

Louisville, Ky., hosted the 2013 Cyclo-cross World Championships.

Louisville, Ky., hosted the 2013 Cyclo-cross World Championships.

But all was not well with Exergy. When the bills came due, the company didn’t pay. It couldn’t pay a dime due to its impending bankruptcy. Hanscom and Fina were expecting the cash to come in from Exergy and then flow to the various vendors whose bills were coming due at the same time.

“It wound up being a cash flow issue with them, and ultimately it became an overall funding issue for the entire event,” says Fante. “It just snowballed.”

This is where USA Cycling came in. While it was the wish of Hanscom and Fina to pull off this event without using USA Cycling’s resources, it became clear it was in the midst of a disaster after the title sponsor went belly up, which caused lesser sponsors to pull funding as well. Micah Rice, vice president of national events for USA Cycling, was tasked with righting the ship.

“When it became evident that the event was in trouble, USA Cycling, along with the Louisville Sports Commission, came in and backstopped the event,” says Rice. “We were able to raise money to help offset the costs, but we were taking on a pretty big risk only a couple of months out from the event. Everything was on us to make it happen.”

USA Cycling helped secure the funding necessary for the world championships just two months shy of the event date. The clock was ticking. Literally.

The Stakes

UCI and USA Cycling understood what hosting this event in the U.S. meant for the sport. In hopes of internationalizing the sport, having a successful event in the States was paramount. But Louisville had other concerns. With the city having very little to do with the business side of the event, what became most important for them was to pull off a great event or not have an event at all.

“What would be worse is for the event to happen and then for it to not be successful and for a lot of people to not get paid, and it winds up being that you upset the international governing body of cycling and the national governing body of cycling,” says Fante. “We would much rather have seen the plug pulled and it not happen here and maintain a positive relationship with both of those governing bodies.”

At times the riders have to carry their bikes while running up a hill. Seriously.

At times the riders have to carry their bikes while running up a hill. Seriously.

One way to appease both sanctioning bodies was to create a world-class course. The course used for the 2006-2007 Gran Prix of cCyclo-cross was a fine course, but it wasn’t up to snuff for the elite World Championships. Louisville put upward of $400,000 of time, talent and resources into the construction of a brand new track near one of the city’s parks. After the track was initially constructed, it hosted two years of the U.S. Gran Prix.

“We had the best U.S. riders coming in for the [Gran Prix] stop, and they were able to tell us where the shortfalls and weaknesses were and what we needed to do to get it a little more European,” says Fante. “It was a combination of people and dedication to get that done. We had the beauty of having a couple of years more of the U.S. Gran Prix being able to run the course, so we were able to test it with large scale events, tweaking it after each one to make it tougher.”

The Flood

It was January, and USA Cycling, UCI and the Louisville Sports Commission had finally nailed down the funding and logistics of the event, which was scheduled for Feb. 2-3. Things were finally looking up.

Until they weren’t.

The track was located near a water source per the requirement of UCI. The Ohio River was next to the track, providing a solid water source for the various points of conflict the track was designed to employ. But what happens when the river suffers from flooding the likes of which the city hadn’t seen in 50 years?

“We wound up in space that’s just way outside of the scope of what we were designed to do, but the flip side of the coin is we all say it probably was one our prouder moments.” —Greg Fante, Louisville Sports Commission

“By about Thursday, week of, we realized through the Corps of Engineers’ projections that the course could be in trouble for Sunday as a big portion of it would be underwater,” says Fante. “As soon as we were armed with that information, we went to USA Cycling, and we agreed we had to get with UCI, and we built a temporary dam and put some pumps in to keep the water back.”

The temporary dam? Oh, it was built by hand, with members of USA Cycling and the Louisville Sports Commission using buckets to bail out water, replacing it with sandbags. Water pumps were used to move water from one place to another, all in hopes of keeping the most important cyclo-cross event in the world afloat.

After being briefed on rain and flood projections, UCI made a strategic decision to condense the championship schedule into one day, hosting all races on Saturday, Feb. 2. It turned out to be the right call. On Sunday, at least 40 percent of the track was underwater.

The Aftermath

“They created something special here in the States.” That’s probably the last thing event organizers expected cyclo-cross world champion Sven Nys to say as they stared at bankrupt sponsors and rising flood waters just weeks before the world championships. But that’s what he said, after all was said and done, adding, “I think it’s quite interesting because it’s the first time we’ve gone overseas, and that’s good for the promotion of cyclo-cross.”

Riding through mud and snow is part of the job for cyclo-cross competitors.

Riding through mud and snow is part of the job for cyclo-cross competitors.

Somehow, when the mud settled, all parties involved left happy. UCI and USA Cycling got what they wanted from the event, as exposure and awareness of cyclo-cross is higher than it’s ever been, says Rice. “No question that U.S. cyclo-cross got a shot in the arm from hosting a world championship,” he says. “We see more excitement than ever before, and I think we will see increased interest for years to come.”

The event was also a success for Louisville. The Championships brought more than 14,000 spectators to the city, generating close to 6,000 room nights and $2.3 million in economic impact. It’s also created a new, thriving cyclo-cross community in the city, and the track is filled almost nightly by fans and competitors.

“Sven Nys said it was the most important championship he’s ever won,” Fante says. “When you have that amount of positive press, and then to hear naysayers say they were wrong…you just feel good about what you did. It starts with one-on-one appointments at trade shows, and you talk about opportunities and you build relationships with the hopes of something good happening. To me, this event is one of my favorites because it grew from a little seed of opportunity all the way to the highest level in the sport, and we did it all right here with our partners.”

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