Steep challenge awaits world’s top cyclo-cross racers at Fayetteville; Arkansas has front row seats

The eyes of the international cycling community will be on Northwest Arkansas this weekend as it hosts the 2022 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships. Fayetteville joins an elite group of bicycling epicenters and cities — such as Paris, Munich and Zolder, Belgium — that have played host to this prestigious event during its 72-year history.

Thousands of fans will have to journey across the globe to witness the world’s top professional cyclists compete at the championships. Arkansans are a short drive or bike ride away.

The field of athletes includes 300 Elite class male and female cyclists from the sport’s major disciplines: Olympic gold medalists, world and national champions, and Tour de France stage winners. Many future champions in these events also will be present, as talented Under-23 and Junior category racers from 25 countries are to compete. Six different world championship races will take place over the weekend.

“It is an honor to be only the second city in the United States to host the Cyclo-cross World Championships,” said Molly Rawn, chief executive officer of Experience Fayetteville.

She is confident that hosting the event will demonstrate to the world that Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas, as a region, are capable of accommodating future world-class cycling events.

“Cyclo-cross is known for its fun, festival-like atmosphere,” adds Hazel Hernandez, vice president of marketing and communications for Experience Fayetteville. “We can’t wait for people to experience what our team has built at Centennial Park.”

An estimated 50 million TV viewers will see Fayetteville and its one-of-a-kind racing venue at the city’s park.

Even spectators who know nothing about the sport can enjoy the frenzied action on display at a world-class competition. However, a little information about the sport will contribute to their appreciation.

The sport began in the early 1900s when European road racers, looking for a way to stay in shape during the winter, decided to race from town to town across the countryside. Their routes followed whatever course was quickest, cutting through farm fields, climbing over fences and taking any other shortcut available.

At first, these were referred to as “steeplechase” races because the most common visible landmark in the bordering towns was the church steeple.

Participation in cyclo-cross escalated after 1910 when that year’s Tour de France winner, Octave Lapize, attributed his win to off-season training in the discipline.

From these unconventional beginnings, cyclo-cross racing has become a boisterous experience for competitors and spectators. The close proximity of cheering, cowbell wielding fans lining the sidelines feeds racers’ adrenaline. Their herculean effort in return emboldens even greater crowd frenzy, with racers’ and fans’ enthusiasm in a symbiotic relationship, each feeding off the other.

“Cyclo-cross is the most spectator-friendly form of all the cycling disciplines,” says Brannon Pack, director of cycling tourism for Experience Fayetteville.

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The course is unique in the sport of cycling. The short, closed-circuit design, less than 2 miles long, guarantees continuous action for fans. Racers ride what are basically road bikes over surfaces made of grass, dirt, mud or sand, with a mix of mandatory natural or manmade obstacles that often require riders to dismount and carry their bikes. No two laps are the same.

Unlike many of the competitions among road and mountain bike racers, cyclo-cross limits a race to less than an hour. For these fit athletes, the short contest means an all-out sprint from start to finish.

With the minimum width throughout the course spanning 3 meters, riders race handlebar to handlebar, three or more abreast, sweeping around twisty turns, pushing up grueling steep climbs and scrambling over obstacles while shouldering their bikes.

As the pack of riders approaches the finish, the course expands to 6 meters wide or wider. Now, with an unobstructed passing lane, these highly competitive athletes dig even deeper, cranking up the excitement to the 11-dial as they propel their bikes forward, determined to nip fellow racers at the tape.

The bicycle contributes to the mystic of this unorthodox sport. Witnessing someone riding a streamlined frame with drop handlebars and narrow tires careening through the trees and down a muddy hillside, an uninformed viewer could easily believe a road cyclist had accidentally veered off a paved bikeway or highway. Why else would anyone be riding such a bike on this terrain? There are bicycles built specially for going off-road.

“Tradition!”

LET’S HAVE SOME FUN

Championship weekend begins with the 5:30 pm opening ceremony Thursday. The Fayetteville Town Center Plaza will fly flags of all the competing nations as Rawn and Mayor Lioneld Jordan welcome representatives from around the world. Although tickets are required to attend the weekend races, this ceremony is free and open to the public.

At 9 am Friday, Centennial Park opens its gates: Let the fun begin.

With 40 local and international cycling brands in the expo venue, including vendors’ displays and demonstrations, it makes sense to allow plenty of time to wander about and explore the latest in the world of cycling. Come to the venue hungry. Rawn has been working with local organizations to provide concessions and adult beverages to satisfy every taste bud.

Throughout the weekend, Kenny Belaey, multiple Trial Bike World Champion, will awe attendees with demonstrations of gravity-defying bicycle acrobatics. Known as “The Magician,” Belaey is known for his cycling skills but also for his amusing interaction with the crowd.

Come 12:30 pm, the three days of racing officially kick off with team relay. This is the first time the world championships will include a team relay. The relay has its own set of rules and, adding interest, a mix of cyclists on different levels.

Relay teams from competing nations consist of six riders — one Elite male, one Elite female, and two male and two female riders from the Under-23 or Junior ranks. The race will be six laps long; riders complete a single lap before handing off to their teammate at the transition zone.

With each nation determining the starting order of its riders, it will be intriguing for fans to speculate on the most effective deployment of skills. Should they begin with their fastest rider to possibly establish an insurmountable lead, putting pressure on their opponents, or do they save the fastest for last and let them chase down the leader on the final lap?

What order would you use?

Saturday, the gates open at 9 am, followed by a full slate of racing. At 11 am, the UCI Women Junior Cyclo-cross World Championships approach the start line; UCI Men Under 23 Cyclo-cross World Championships pedal off at 1 p.m.; and at 2:30 pm, UCI Women Elite Cyclo-cross World Championships roll out.

During the racing, the expo will buzz with festivity: Belaey, vendor demonstrations, concessions and “beer.”

Sunday, the final day of racing, the gates again open at 9 am, with another full day of competition: At 11 am, the UCI Men Junior Cyclo-cross World Championships; and at 1 pm, UCI Women Under 23 Cyclo-cross World Championships. The final race, the UCI Men Elite Cyclo-cross World Championships, begins at 2:30 pm

SPECTATOR GAME PLAN

Centennial Park’s “Chasing Gold” Trail was created with hosting these world championships in mind and designed to meet international cyclo-cross race standards. NWA Trailblazers oversaw the project, funded by the Walton Family Foundation and the city of Fayetteville. Rock Solid Trail Constructing built the only race course of its kind in the United States.

Tunnels, bridges and the awesome Stonehenge provide great vantage points for spectators to move about and enjoy the mini-battles taking place throughout the course.

And “move about” is rule No. 1 for spectators. After watching the starting field of racers sprint for position before the first turn, meander around Chasing Gold to view packs of racers as they smoothly maneuver the first twisting, off-camber turns. Farther around the course, witness racers transition off their bicycle seat to plant their feet on the ground while hefting the bike onto their shoulders to sprint over obstacles.

And be sure to check out what Pack refers to as “The 39 Climb.”

He assured me this mountain of stairs would be the memorable feature for the 2022 Walmart UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships racecourse. The stairs are so tall that adding them changed the elevation profile of the mountain on which Centennial Park is built.

As you can imagine, familiarity with the course will be a plus. Racers who competed at Centennial Park during the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup in October will have a definite edge. Since the Belgian racers took the top three podium positions at that Elite Men’s competition, other racers who bypassed the event will be at a disadvantage.

For the Elite Women’s race, fans are anxious to witness a rematch between world champion Lucinda Brand and six-time world champion Marianne Vos. The pair were battling it out at October’s race until Vos crashed on the serpentine downhill section entering the final lap.

MUDDERS

Cyclo-cross races start rain or shine. October’s race was no exception: Heavy rains turned the course into a muddy, slippery mess for racers on their skinny tires. Pack described October’s muck as “added value for the fans as the athletes had to navigate conditions that got harder with every lap.”

Racers share similar feelings about racing in foul weather, as Brand exclaimed, “I like the mud. The course went from a fast course to one for power, which suits my style of racing.”

So don’t wait to check the forecast before committing to attend. Fair or foul, the race goes on. One-day general admission for Saturday or Sunday costs $30; three-day admission is $50; and there’s a VIP package that includes special access and amenities for $350. Tickets are at cyclocrossfayettevillear2022.com.

Oh, and of course, “Go, Team USA!”

Bob Robinson of Fort Smith is the author of “Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail,” https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2022/jan/24/steep-challenge-awaits-worlds-top-cyclo-cross /”Bicycling Guide to Route 66″ and “Bicycling Guide to the Lake Michigan Trail.”

Dutch rider Denise Betsema finishes the 2021 Cyclo-Cross World Cup in second place in October at Fayetteville. The 2022 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships are set for Jan. 28-30 in Fayetteville, only the second non-European city to host the event in its 72-year history. Louisville, Ky., was the first, in 2013. (Courtesy of Experience Fayetteville)

Where to park

There is no on-site parking at the Cyclo-cross World Championships venue. Shuttles will run to and from Centennial Park from 8am-5pm Friday-Sunday. Ticketholders can use two free park and shuttle locations:

◼️ Washington County Fairgrounds, 2536 N. McConnell Ave., Fayetteville

◼️ Arvest Ball Park, 3000 Gene George Blvd., Springdale

Gallery: Cyclo-cross at Centennial Park

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