Even Elvis is part of 'Viva CrossVegas'
LAS VEGAS -- This is horsepower of a different color.
That was my reaction after watching my first cyclocross race -- the discipline known as the steeplechase of the sport, with good reason.
Elvis -- nothing happens in this town without his say-so -- kicked things off Wednesday night with a rendition of "Viva CrossVegas." An elite 125-man field that included U.S. champion Tim Johnson and his counterparts from several other countries took off under the lights. The course, laid out mostly on the grassy expanse of a soccer complex with some paved and some dirt sections, snaked around several fields like the "Dante's Inferno" version of an airport security line, with a few extra obstacles thrown in.
I stood at the bottom of a short, steep incline to observe the action on the transition that is the signature difficulty of 'cross. Riders wheeled around to the base of a short, steep hill, clipped out of their pedals, lifted their bikes and streamed up and over a series of low barriers with surprising lightness of foot, then remounted and powered into a flat section of the course.
The first time, that is. With every lap over the next hour, the field strung out more. Faces hardened into masks. Riders unclipped a few steps earlier and heaved their bikes onto their hips with more discernable effort. I felt an empathic lactic acid buildup.
Meanwhile, a beer-swilling, cowbell-clanging crowd was in no pain. 'Cross is amazingly spectator-friendly -- it's easy to dash between different vantage points on the course, and proximity allows for direct communication (read: heckling) with the riders.
French champion Francis Mourey nipped Johnson's Cannondale-Cyclocross World teammate (and defending "CrossVegas" champion) Jamey Driscoll at the finish line in one of the most important early-season races in North America -- and perhaps the last edition here, as the Interbike trade show it piggybacks off is moving back to an August date in Anaheim next year. The top riders here will go on to compete in the Grand Prix series that includes stops in Louisville, Ky.; Madison, Wis.; Ft. Collins, Colo.; and Portland, Ore.
'Cross is an old European sport with a quickly burgeoning American following. Sponsorship money and events have expanded to the point where riders like Johnson, a New Englander who has juggled road and 'cross for years, can now make a full-time living at it. The fall-winter discipline isn't an Olympic sport; it's against the rules to run it on ice or snow (although that clearly wouldn't have been a problem in balmy Vancouver, nor would it be in sea-level Sochi, Russia four years from now). But 'cross will have a mini-Olympic cycle of sorts here in the United States, as Louisville will host the elite world championships in 2013.