Rutted and Gutted: ‘Cross Returns to Louisville for the 2023 Cyclocross National Championships

Brett Rothmeyer transports us from our desks, our computers, or phones this morning and whisks us away to the 2023 Cyclocross National Championships in Louisville, Kentucky, for an action-packed medium format and 35 mm film gallery full of moments so vivid you can hear them…

Each time the train passed, the building would shake; depending on the weight of the load, it varied from noticeable to concerning. Sprawled out on my sleeping pad on the hardwood of the third floor, I drift in and out of sleep. Klause Schulze’s “Osiris Part 1” buffers the noise from the street through my headphones.

Suddenly, I’m falling from my bicycle rapidly through the course tape, yet the ground never seems to greet me. Shaken awake by my own clumsy effort to brace for an impact that would never arrive. The floor vibrates as another train passes close to midnight, and Schulze’s synthesizers continue to bump out square waves of comfort in the fleeting state of hallucination. Perhaps it was the 4 am wake-up call, the proximity to spending the day at the bike race, or just old nervous ticks repeating habitually, but something was triggering the ghosts of bike races past.

I had not lined up for a proper cyclocross race since Charm City 2018 or a National Championship event since 200+ plus singlespeeders and I stormed onto the slopes of the Biltmore Estates in Asheville, NC. I had marked the calendar this year, remembering the absurdity and elation of racing on one gear amongst a horde of bicycle lunatics. Why not? If for no other reason than to celebrate a sport that I love, lack of fitness be damned.

In September and October, I drove around to the USCX series races, photographing the elite fields; I gleaned inspiration. On weekdays, I would pedal my bicycle with some intent, even sneaking (gasp) an interval or two to avoid being the most out-of-shape participant come December.

As I walked the grounds of Joe Creason Park in Louisville, Kentucky, on Friday, the day of the singlespeed race, my bicycle remained in my basement, 350 miles away. When registration opened in November, I gazed at the screen in shock: $145 for a mere thirty minutes of racing! “No, thank you.”

I have always considered Nationals to be a bit of an end-of-the-year celebration. A time when ‘cross racers and fans from all over can commune in a place and on a course that takes on more than just a chance to wear a flag-adorned jersey for the following year. Anymore, it has felt like a cash grab from USAC. Cyclocross has taken a heavy hit since it was the cool kid at school a decade ago.

Coincidently, one could argue that its peak was reached in Louisville in 2013 when it hosted the World Championships. If 2013 was the top of the mountain, 2023 feels like altitude sickness at base camp. The industry has collectively turned its sites to other genres that can sell more products, and USAC has all but stopped supporting the rising talent in their pursuit of competing on the world stage.

This season, the women’s national champion, Clara Honsinger, began the season learning that she would no longer have the support of a major sponsor, returning to her home team of S&M. As of now, the newly crowned men’s national and Pan Am Champion, Eric Brunner is without a team for next cyclocross season.

When ~80 male singlespeeders barreled onto the course, there was a glimmer of how things once were. The women’s field numbers have noticeably decreased since the last visit to Joe Creason in 2018. Past champions Sarah Sturm and Sunny Gilbert didn’t make the trip this year, leaving a noticeable gap in character and all around for-the-fun-of-it vibes.

Tobin Ortenblad, last year’s runner-up and the other half of the most entertaining battle of the 2022 event with Kerry Werner, was also noticeably missing. Still, the spirit of singlespeed rode on; Colonel Sanders, fake mustaches, real mullets, jorts, and a shark did their best to rescue what was once the event of the weekend. All seemed to be going well until the news spread that the shark had been disqualified and pulled from the race for not wearing sleeves.

Amid the fun-at-all-cost event of the weekend, an attempt at fun was shuddered due to a technicality reserved for ‘proper racing.’ Where do we go from here?

Saturday, the juniors took to the course, pouring themselves into rides that left them slumped at the finish line, exhausted but still smiling. Each 35-45 minute bout of racing that ticked off the end result was the same: teenagers pushing themselves to the absolute limit for the sheer act. Sure, there was a national championship on the line and the prospect of being touted as the future of the sport, but what came through was the simple love of the game.

Throughout the day, amongst the team tents, mud-speckled faces smiled ear-to-ear, recounting their exploits on the course. Most of them didn’t bother to change out of their kits as they buzzed around the park, cheering on friends and teammates.

By the end of Saturday, the rain was coming down hard, and lightning began to cascade around the venue as the day’s final race neared its last lap. In the evening, back on my camp pad, the building gently shook as the nightly train passed through town. I thought back on the day and the joy of the kids who raced, and I wondered what would wait for them next year. How diminished would the fields be? For the fastest of the bunch, will there still be opportunities to test themselves against the rest of the world, or will they be relegated to local races or switching disciplines? And what of the sleeveless shark? Had his spirit been so broken that he would seek out a place more accepting of his fashion choices, however aquatic they were?

I’m critical of what I see because watching something you love on what can only be described as life support is difficult at best. I want to see Cyclocross return to where it once was, but it will take more than a sleeveless shark and Colonel Sanders to save it. Who knows where nationals will be held in the next five years, but part of me is hopeful that the next wave of Cyclocross greatness will reside amongst the juniors who slid around in the mud, high-fiving friends smiling ear-to-ear…