The sound of ringing cowbells filled the air in Centennial Park this weekend as cycling enthusiasts gathered to cheer on renowned racers and watch them tackle challenging obstacles during the OZCX UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup event.
Spectators watched eagerly as racers leaned into sharp turns, maneuvered up and down steep hills and even swung their bikes over their shoulders as they climbed a stretch of stairs on foot. Crowds lined the finish line as racers sprinted to beat the clock, their bike wheels often within inches of one another, as an audience from over 75 countries watched from afar.
The OZCX UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup included both professional and amateur races, the latter of which was a new feature of the three-day festival. It allowed youth racers the opportunity to share the same start and finish line as world-class racers, said Brannon Pack, the director of cycling tourism in Fayetteville.
The UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup concluded the festival Sunday. It was one of the 14 events happening globally this year, and only two were located in the U.S., Pack said. Athletes from more than 25 countries participated in the races.
Belgian cyclist Eli Iserbyt won the men’s elite division, followed by Laurens Sweeck and Michael Vanthourenhout. American cyclist Eric Brunner came in fourth place.
In the women’s elite category, Dutch cyclist Fem Van Empel came in first place, followed by Lucinda Brand and Annemarie Worst. Van Empel is returning to Europe with two World Cup wins under her belt this season, with her victory in Waterloo, Wisconsin, on Oct. 9.
“I never expected this before I came to the U.S., and it’s very nice to come to the U.S. and then go home with two victories,” Van Empel said at a press conference Sunday.
Cyclo-cross courses are action-packed short courses specially designed for fans. Spectators at Centennial Park could use tunnels or stairs creating a bridge to easily move to different parts of the course.
Centennial Park was built with biking in mind and features both an Olympic-style mountain bike race course and a cyclo-cross race course. The venue is one of a kind in the country, Pack said.
This weekend’s festival included free admission, shuttles running from Baum-Walker Stadium, and many food and merchandise vendors. In lieu of ticket sales, organizers asked attendees to consider making a donation to Arkansas Children’s Northwest.
Spooky decorations placed throughout the park gave the family-friendly event a Halloween theme. In one tunnel, a Pennywise plush sat atop a bicycle, and spooky skeletons hung out the windows of a vehicle parked near the course. Children could also pick up a trick-or-treating bag and visit the expo to get started early on their Halloween candy haul.
Jason Brummels, 44, from Lincoln, Nebraska, sat on a rock near the stairs, cheering on racers as they swung their bikes over their shoulders and tackled the obstacle. As someone who has been involved in the sport for 18 years, he knows how difficult the races can be. The stairs on the Fayetteville course were “soul-crushing and fun to watch,” Brummels said.
Brummels also liked that the event had a charitable purpose, he said.
“It is great to have a purpose that is a little more than just who moves fastest on a given day,” Brummels said. “The racing is great, but I think having a higher purpose is a phenomenal thing.”
Representatives from entities such as Walmart, the UofA and OZ Trails were present at the event, showing their involvement in the cycling community.
“That opportunity to take an event like this, showcase it to the world, truly is an opportunity to showcase the investment that’s been made in cycling here in Fayetteville and in Northwest Arkansas,” Pack said.