The chicken wasn't wearing any pants.
Jeremy Powers couldn't help but notice. Powers is one of the elite cyclocross racers in the world, the U.S. national champion in 2012, and a couple years back, he was in the middle of a race—he thinks it was Portland, Ore.,—pedaling his bike, pushing that red needle of exhaustion, when he became aware of an exuberant, feather-costumed fan running alongside him.
"A dude with a chicken outfit on and no pants," Powers said.
Welcome to cyclocross.
Yeah let's talk about cyclocross. I know the Super Bowl is Sunday, but I've already had enough of that overhyped barn dance, and so have you. There's another Super Bowl coming this weekend, not to New Orleans, but to Louisville, Ky., and in a strange way, it's more significant, because on Feb. 2 and 3, Louisville is hosting the UCI Cyclocross Elite World Championships, the biggest moment for a small but fast-growing sport in this country.
I am also 1,000% sure the cyclocross race will have better beer and more cowbell.
So let's explain what cyclocross is. If you're with me this far, you're with me, right? (You're so psyched this isn't a column about Jim and John Harbaugh's childhood pets! Me too!) Cyclocross is kind of a hybrid between mountain bike racing and road bike racing. Riders do laps on a contained course. There are obstacles—flights of stairs, railroad ties, stretches of sand, barriers—and riders must occasionally dismount to get through it all. Sometimes it snows. Often, there's spectacular mud. It looks a little crazy because it is a little crazy. "It's like fast-forward mountain biking," said Powers.
Here's the other thing: Cyclo-cross is fantastic for spectators. You go to the Tour de France, you stand on the side of a road with your Bordeaux and your stinky cheese and the whole race passes by in 45 seconds and you're sunburned and tired and arguing about who has to drive the camper van down the mountain. At a cyclocross race, you can stand in one place, drink your beer, shake your cowbell (that's not a euphemism—I mean a real cowbell) and watch the whole thing unfold since a lot of the course will be visible. Belgium—the motherland of the sport—gets 60,000 people for cyclocross races. You can gamble on cyclocross in Belgium. It's on live TV. Beyoncé plays cyclocross halftime shows in Belgium. OK, that last sentence isn't true but you get the point.
Cyclocross fans in the U.S. tend to be passionate and a little crazy-eyed about the sport. The main reason is that the people who follow cyclocross here have probably also raced cyclocross themselves. The sport is booming at the grass roots, amateur level; there are races throughout the country, and a season that stretches from late summer into midwinter. And while the races are competitive, cyclocross is also beloved for its laid-back atmosphere and sense of humor. (Taking yourself too seriously is for road racers.) Joan Hanscom, the organizer of the Louisville event, recalled a recent cyclocross race in which a fan in a unicorn costume dangled cookies from a fishing line on the course for passing riders to grab. Tim Johnson, a three-time U.S. national men's elite champion, remembered a race in which spectators tempted riders with dollar bills in beer cans. Powers said he's seen strips of bacon on a fishing line. He's also wheeled around corners in the woods and encountered naked people.
"I have seen a lot of stuff in cyclocross," Powers said.
At this point we should probably stop goofing around and talk about this weekend's elite racing. Because it's an astonishing field, the best this country has ever seen. The Belgian national team is in Louisville. The Belgians are like the Beatles of cyclocross; at last year's worlds, they swept the top seven spots in the race, and U.S. fans are going to be totally nerding out that they're here. In the women's field, there's Colorado's Katie Compton, a star both stateside and in Europe, and this season's World Cup champion. Marianne Vos is coming. Vos is a champion in track, road racing and cyclocross, and not long ago, BBC Sport writer Ben Dirs made the case that she is the greatest cyclist in the world. That's cyclist, period. The elite men and women race Sunday; juniors race Saturday, in which the field will include Washington state teenager Logan Owen, a rising sensation.
These are serious thrashers. The riders themselves are geeking out that a race of this scale is actually happening. "Pretty amazing," said Compton, who will be joined by family and friends. Johnson compared it to a "graduation" day for the sport in the U.S.
"I don't even know if I can describe how meaningful it is," Johnson said. "It's surreal."
You do not have to be told that these past few weeks and months have been some bleak days for the sport of cycling. I don't know about you, but I am weary of tuning into the Oprah Winfrey Network for global cycling news. Most of cycling's crises are self-inflicted, and deserve intervention and a full airing, but the sport is bigger than one individual. It's a relief to get excited about an actual bike race. Louisville looks like an excellent place to start.
There's one more thing. There are rampant rumors that after the cyclocross world championships are over, there will be a foam afterparty. Yeah: an afterparty with a foam machine. Powers will be one of the DJs. "We're trying to get dropped off at the venue in a helicopter," he said.
Enjoy Super Bowl XLVII. Seriously. Eat your wings. Watch the fancy commercials. Looks kind of fun.
It's just not a cyclocross race.
Wall Street Journal Wednesday, January 30, 2013 As of 7:16 PM EST