The state of Kentucky is famous for several things, from a massive horse breeding and racing tradition with the annual derby to the Colonel's secret recipe and the ensuing high rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes that he (amongst others) has helped bring about. After last week in Louisville, it is also going to go down in history as the first city outside of Europe to ever host the Cyclocross World Championships. A lot of people were skeptical of it really happening, and it almost didn't happen several times due to unforeseen financial and climatic changes. But in the end what did happen was one of the best races on a classic course, in some of the most unpredictable weather, with the biggest crowd ever seen on that side of the world. I'd left Belgium in the middle of a very settled period of snowstorm action, and after the final World Cup race in Hoogerheide I'd been enjoying the novelty of riding my bike along familiar but now somewhat more luscious and arduous paths and roads.
When I arrived in Louisville it was a similar temperature (but as always, confusingly in Fahrenheit) but there'd been no precipitation so the only moisture was locked up in concrete-solid puddles of ice and all the ponds and creeks were well and truly frozen over. Everything else was more or less a uniform shade of brown, and quite a beautiful sight for my non-American eyes.
Right from the start I was greeted with an enthusiastic welcome (albeit somewhat forced from the "shoe shine sir" at the airport - despite his inviting calls I didn't want to give him false hope that the rubber on the tip of my shoes would be worth polishing) by everyone I met and in particular David Klein, the most hospitable host with the most who doesn't eat toast of not only myself but the entire southern hemisphere contingent in town for the race. This consisted of Gen Whitson, fellow NZ representative and Paul Larkin, logistical and mechanical expert kiwi on loan from his new home in Melbourne. Also from Melbourne in the house was Lewis Rattray, my friend and arch-nemesis on the cyclocross field, representing Australia with aid from his Belgian coach, soigneur, directeur sportif and manager in the name of Jeroen Suys.
I arrived a few days earlier than the others, and was able to get in a race at Kings CX in Cincinnati, Ohio the weekend before. There's something about the name of the city that has always stuck in my mind, but I can't for the life of me think why I know it. It was about an hour or so drive from Louisville, by most vehicles, and after some communicating with various strangers I managed to find a lift with the guys from the Bob's Red Mill cyclocross team. I'd seen the ads for Bob's Red Mill products in American magazines, they make granola and other grain-based foods, and I think Bob himself is a bit like Dick Hubbard in New Zealand. Master of cereals and all round philanthropist. So at 7am I arrived at the house of Joe Czerwonka, team manager along with Mitchell Kersting, and we hopped aboard the "short bus" and made our way hesitantly up alongside the Ohio river to Cincinnati. Funsize, the bus, was having a few problems with the early start, despite having had about half an hour of idling to warm up. The gears were slipping and we would occasionally find our speed trickle down to a near halt on any hills, so we pulled into a truck stop and let her rest for a while. It was possible she was overheating, but unlikely given that it was several degrees below zero still. More likely is that her recent placement on and acquision via the second hand market indicated the need for some major and overdue maintenance. This was evidenced by the casual nature of one of the warning lights, illuminating "service engine soon" - how long that light had been on for was anybody's guess. However the short stop seemed to do the trick, and we were once again rolling on the road - and when we got to the course and manoeuvred our way to the right spot, we bounced all about in the back, as it's set up more like a lounge than a transport vehicle.
While it had been dry in Louisville, up the river in Cincy it had been snowing and the course was icy and firm. I went out for a practice lap and slid out on a corner that was sharper than I expected, landing heavily on my right hip. I nursed my way around the rest of the lap then hobbled back to the bus, more or less sitting down resting until my race got closer and I needed to warm up. Out the window I could see the earlier age group races passing by, and got out to watch riders pass a few times. It was at this point, during the women's race, that I noticed just how different it is in America compared to Belgium. Fans, who are typically racers themselves, cheer for everyone, regardless of gender or position in the field. This makes for a really cool atmosphere all the time, and watching the women stomp past in a very exciting race made me realise just how lacking in support the sport is for women in Europe.
I'd arrived three days earlier, but hadn't been able to sleep very well and was still quite jet lagged, so although not surprised, I was a little confused to find myself starting to doze off right as I needed to be getting ready for my race. I forced myself up onto the trainer and then made my way to the start, lining up alongside the likes of Jamey Driscoll and Tim Johnson amongst other mainly North American riders, apart from a few notable Europeans who were also keen to have a blast pre-Worlds. The sun had come out and while it was still below zero in the air, it had melted off a lot of the snow and the ground was now a slushy mess of mud and mush, with crispy frozen ground occasionally revealed somewhere beneath. I took a fairly gentle start to the race, settling into a position roughly two-thirds of the way through the pack where I stayed for most of the race. I had plenty of other riders to race with, a nice change from the scene in Belgium where I generally tend to have to timetrial my way around with only the clock to gauge my progress. After a few laps I started to feel better, and was able to corner more smoothly and push harder through the straights, but my bike was filling up with mud and it was freezing solid in place. I'd only brought one bike as my second one had suffered a little bit of damage during transit from Belgium and I hadn't had a chance to sort it out. Feeling fairly bedraggled and not wishing to destroy a derailleur I wasn't overly disappointed to be pulled off the course with several laps to go - Niels Albert was leading the charge and looking pretty comfortable ahead of everyone else. I'd had a lot of support from fans of my moustache around the course, and was surprised to find quite a few people knew about my story and came up to me to say hello.
On our way back I had some local refreshment en route and we stopped off for some dinner at one of the myriad highway dining institutions, and despite my curiosity at some of them I didn't really feel like indulging in the absolute bottom of the barrel just yet, so we headed to Chipotle for a burrito. I witnessed sufficient evidence of America's obesity epidemic, but also of the amazing courtesy and open friendliness and generosity of its people and my first week in America was the best introduction I could possibly have had into its world.
My second week, and Worlds will follow shortly.