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And there is a big sports championship this weekend. No, we're not talking about the Super Bowl, it's the Cyclo-Cross World Championships. Now you may not have heard of cyclo-cross, but it is the fastest growing bicycle sport in the U.S., and it's grueling. Riders traverse mud, sand, and other obstacles. For the first time in it's 60-year history, the world championships will be held outside of Europe, in Louisville, Kentucky.

And so, Louisville is where we're going now with Devin Katayama of member station WFPL.

DEVIN KATAYAMA, BYLINE: The first thing you have to know about cyclo-cross is the fans are a bit crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

KATAYAMA: This is at last year's Louisville Derby City Cup. Hundreds of people, some in costumes, packed onto the course to cheer the riders on. It's not like the Tour de France. It's an off-road course but they use similar bikes with tough tires and deep treads. Racers carry their bikes up steps. In other parts, they pedal through mud, often in cold wet conditions.

JEREMY POWERS: For people that don't know anything about cyclo-cross, it's kind of like when everyone drinks a bunch at a college football game, when they're tailgating just before they go in.

KATAYAMA: That's Jeremy Powers. He's the top-ranked U.S. cyclo-cross racer. Internationally, he's 11th. Last year, Belgian racers took the top seven spots in the world championships. That's because the sport has deep roots in Europe.

POWERS: There were tires that they would use that were like handmade, hand-sewn cotton tires basically with, like, rubber, you know, put on them. You know, even five years ago those were very, very hard to get in the United States.

KATAYAMA: Cyclo-cross began as a way for cyclists to stay in shape during winter months. As the sport developed, courses added certain features to make them challenging. This week in Louisville, riders shared the course with workers as they put on the finishing touches. Event director Joan Hanscom says the sport is growing quickly and the international cycling body, the UCI, wants to expand globally.

JOAN HANSCOM: So they had a vision for what other markets would work. And the U.S. is the fastest growing market for cyclo-cross in the world.

KATAYAMA: In the past few years, the number of riders at cyclo-cross events has tripled to 100,000 according to USA Cycling. But Hanscom says, U.S. fans haven't shown up yet.

HANSCOM: We don't have the spectator base, we don't have the football fan watching our sport here, but we have the participation base. And I think for the sport to grow long-term, you need to have both.

KATAYAMA: In Europe, it's the opposite. Cyclo-cross racers are celebrities. Sven Nys is one of Belgium's most well-known cyclists. He says he's adjusted to Louisville, but says traveling is a challenge.

SVEN NYS: At the normal race, we have - I have five bikes with me and more wheels.

KATAYAMA: How many bikes do you need?

NYS: Normally, over here three or four. I have three with me, so I hope it's enough.

KATAYAMA: Nys says if the sport's popularity does continue abroad, it's something he'll have to get used to. But some things are likely to remain the same, such as loud fans and beer. Jeremy Powers, the top-ranked American, agrees it doesn't matter what country he races in, the fans are always supportive. And there will be the occasional costume, or not.

POWERS: I came around a corner at a race in Colorado and this guy said to me: Hey, look over here, Powers. And I was like: Oh, what, oh my gosh. This guy is just butt naked in the woods. A dude that I kind of knew was butt naked in the woods.

KATAYAMA: Powers says even that won't throw his attention, but he can't count on the Belgians budging either. For NPR News, I'm Devin Katayama in Louisville.

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