The origins of the most fun and inclusive race in cycling
Everyone has been told to “look, but don’t touch” at some point in their life. Well, Trek CX Cup was built in defiance of that old parental admonishment.
CX Cup is one of the few elite events in the world that lets amateurs take on the same course as the very best cyclocross riders in the world. Ahead of Sunday’s World Cup race, dozens more will burn in the track, spanning from juniors to masters, and novices to Cat 1s.
And then there’s the Legends Race, the most inclusive and cheeky event of CX Cup weekend. Who can race it? Literally anyone. How many laps is it? As many as you want. How do you win? Unclear, but it helps if you’re dressed like a cow.
The Legends Race is the best party you’ll ever go to on two wheels, replete with costumes, lights, music and vociferous encouragement. (As well as a place to pit stop for some in-race refreshment. Shh.) It has taken on a life of its own, often the main attraction on a weekend that has always revolved around a World Cup race.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Legends Race, then you’ve been missing out. But don’t worry, because everyone is welcome to crash this party. Here is everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the Legends Race from people who love it more than anyone in the world.
A race for everyone
Every year as October encroaches, Trek Chief Financial Chad Brown transforms into CX Cup’s unofficial mascot. He is one of the Legends Race’s biggest cheerleaders, encouraging anyone within earshot to dress in their Waterloo bests and line up.
He has worked at Trek since 2011, and helped lead the charge to make CX Cup a World Cup destination in 2017. The event had been taking place for four years as a national-level race, and suddenly it was set to garner global attention out of Trek’s backyard. To commemorate the occasion, Brown said that Trek wanted to do something “new, better, different.” Thus, the Legends Race was born.
“We thought, ‘Everyone’s gonna be watching. All the biggest riders are going to be coming. We need to throw a party worthy of having Trek on the name,'” Brown says. “The great thing about our World Cup compared to everyone else’s World Cup is that the amateur racers get to ride the same course. So it was like, ‘Well, how much fun can we have on this course and show the world how much fun you can have on a World Cup weekend?'”
There were master blaster stereos out there, kids out there, and Sven's out there and he's racing cows.
The costumes were natural fit for a race that takes place just a few weeks before Halloween. They clearly signaled that the Legends Race is meant to be a fun, carefree event, a point buttressed by the fact that call-ups to the line are based on 1) whether you are a child, and 2) the quality of your costume.
Trek also had to convince legends of the sport to join so that the event could live up to its name. In cyclocross, there is maybe no one more legendary than Sven Nys, a two-time World Champion and current manager of the Baloise-Trek Lions. He was joined by road rider Jens Voigt for the first edition of the Legends Race, and every edition thereafter. Together, the two animated the event, inspiring everyone around them to go all in on the festivities.
“We didn’t have to convince Sven or Jens, or whoever was here, to dress up. They all were like, ‘We’re in this,'” Brown said. “There were masters racers out there, kids out there, and Sven’s out there and he’s racing cows.
“And so we’re like, ‘OK, well, this is something that we don’t need to make new or different. We just need to keep making it better.'”
Every year, the Legends Race gets just a little bit rowdier — cooler costumes, louder crowds, even more lights and music. But some things don’t change. Every year, the race starts, and the riders come over the first flyover bridge like a tornado. Nys will ride two hard laps to demonstrate to the kids what it’s like to keep up with a former pro. Brown does one lap (dressed as Santa Claus last year), stopping halfway through to drink a beer or two at the Secret Bar before hitting the finish line as daylight disappears, then grabbing a slice of pizza afterwards.
And that’s— Hmm, what’s that? Who said anything about a secret ba— oh, uh. Whoops. Well if the cat’s out of the bag …
The Secret Bar isn’t much of a secret these days, though it’s still a pain to get to. But if you don’t mind weaving under flyovers and through checkpoints all over the coiled race course, you can find a bumping party deep in the woods at the back of the course, where the drinks are free and the DJs are spinning from morning until night.
Katy Steudel, who is a Senior Product Graphic Designer for Trek, is the de facto leader of the guerrilla operation. She was part of a small group who founded the Secret Bar in 2017, when it was very much operating under the nose of Trek management. She describes herself as “one of those people where trouble kind of finds me — like good trouble.”
The bar itself is all wood planks and string lights. There’s a disco ball and a platform stage where Steudel managed to get a polka band to play last year. The beer is cold. The crew is motley. And it may be the best place to stand and watch a cyclocross race anywhere in the world based on vibes alone.
By the end of the weekend a ton of people had found the place. It had gotten really big. We had been out for beer I think like three or four times a day to restock.
Management might never have figured out its existence if not for the fact that the construction equipment necessary to build it was very conspicuous. During its first year, Brown was helping to tape up the course when he saw two employees walk past with a gallon of gasoline and an ax.
“I was like, ‘What’s going on back there?’ Because I also heard a chainsaw and they were just like, ‘Don’t worry about it,'” Brown says. “And we go back there the Wednesday before, and they have just completely built it on their own, and they were going to DJ the whole weekend. They started the party back there, and now it’s basically where the Legends Race lives.”
According to Steudel, the Secret Bar was established more in the spirit of necessity than defiance. The merry band of Trek employees, of which she was a part, had wanted to set up an official version of the bar, using the beer sponsor for the event. Their beer request wasn’t processed in time, however, so the Secret Bar was born, tucked away into an odd bend in the course and initially stocked with $60 worth of beer bought from a nearby gas station. They thought that the setup would draw only a few in-the-know coworkers.
“I remember it was my idea to put out a tip jar because I was like, ‘Well, if we get tips then we could just go buy more beer when this runs out,'” Steudel says. “And by the end of the weekend a ton of people had found the place. It had gotten really big. We had been out for beer I think like three or four times a day to restock.”
The Secret Bar was such a hit in its first year that it finished the weekend with a $1,000 surplus from the tip jar. The Secret Bar was never meant to be a profitable endeavor, so the leftover cash was donated to National Interscholastic Cycling Association — NICA — to help the non-profit organization promote youth mountain biking programs.
Thus, the Secret Bar’s beer money scheme sparked a legacy: Every beer at the bar is free, but donations are strongly encouraged, with all proceeds going to NICA.
The bar didn’t irk management. The exact opposite: Higher-ups recognized a good idea when they saw it.
“[Trek president John Burke] found his way back to the bar, and I was behind the bar at the time, nowhere to hide,” Steudel says. “And JB looks around like he does sometimes when he’s just assessing things. And then he goes, ‘This is awesome.’ And after that we were good.”
Like the Legends Race itself, the Secret Bar doesn’t seek to reinvent itself every year, only to be a continually better version of itself. Steudel is constantly thinking of new ideas for the bar. This year, she’s bringing in local artists to make custom pieces for patrons, including a wood burner, a chain stitcher and a tintype photographer. The Secret Bar will also have a rotating cast of DJs, as well as free haircuts from the legendary Velo Barber.
The bar has become such a destination spot during CX Cup that Steudel jokes about building treehouses to create more space and help contain the madness. It’s admittedly difficult to capture some of the rogue-ish magic of the Secret Bar’s first year now that it’s a fully sanctioned feature of the weekend. But Steudel also has additional resources at her disposal to put to good use.
It's very Secret Bar to not have the biggest and the fanciest, but just have this weird thing where if you know what you're looking at, you know what you're looking at.
“Over the weekend, I got a text from Katy saying, ‘Hey, I found a tampon dispensing machine, but I need $270,'” Brown says. “And I was like, ‘For what?’ And she was like, ‘The Secret Bar.'”
That tampon machine will be repurposed to dispense stickers and small art pieces throughout the weekend. Everything Steudel does for the Secret Bar is imbued with the same spirit upon which the bar was founded.
“It’s very Secret Bar to not have the biggest and the fanciest, but just have this weird thing where if you know what you’re looking at, you know what you’re looking at,” Steudel says. “It’s just tongue in cheek fun.”
A race with a mission
A lot of cycling greats have taken on the Legends Race, from Voigt, to Trek Factory Racing XC’s Evie Richards and Jolanda Neff, to the C3 Project’s Cam McCaul, as well as marquee American cyclocross riders like Matt Kelly, Tim Johnson and Jeremy Powers.
But perhaps no one is as passionate about the Legends Race as Nys. He loves the event so much, he’s willing to ignore his general distaste for beer to join in the festivities.
“I never drink beer during the year. I don’t like it, actually. I love a glass of red wine when we have dinner with family or friends,” Nys says. “But once a year, I’m drinking beer, and that’s in the Legends Race [laughs].
“I’m busy with the team, I’m working on the bikes, helping with the training schedules and having some meetings with people in the company, but at a certain moment, it’s time, the costume comes out of the bag and we are ready. And you see people at Trek coming out of their offices and then you feel that this is going to be fun again.”
It doesn't matter if you are a big rider from the past, or you are the leader of a company, or you are just a cycling fan. When we start the race, everybody's equal and that's amazing to see.
Nys’ love for the event stems from his love for the sport. He has dedicated his life to growing cyclocross. In addition to being a Trek ambassador and heading up Baloise-Trek, he also runs the Sven Nys academy, which is teaching bike skills and a love of cycling to a brand new generation of riders.
To Nys, the Legends Race isn’t simply a good time; it’s an event that highlights the full power of cycling. Whether you’re young or old, seriously competitive or riding for simple pleasure, you have a place within the sport.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a big rider from the past, or you are the leader of a company, or you are just a cycling fan. When we start the race, everybody’s equal and that’s amazing to see,” Nys says. “And yeah, of course with those crazy costumes and the crazy bikes, you see Santa Claus is there. It’s all about having fun. And that’s what I like the most.”
This year, Waterloo will be the only round of the Cyclocross World Cup taking place on U.S. soil. The rest will be held in Europe, which is the birthplace and traditional stronghold of the sport, particularly in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Cyclocross may not be mainstream in the U.S. the way it is in Europe, but that has allowed it to develop a character all its own. Go to a World Cup race at a historic Belgian course like Namur or Dendermonde, and you’ll watch brilliant racing on a gloriously overcast and rainy afternoon. Come to Waterloo and you can do that, too, but you’ll also tap into a tight-knit grassroots racing community where participation is encouraged, whether you’re a first-time or long-time rider.
The Legends Race is the beating heart of a living, breathing, freewheeling festival. The action isn’t contained to what’s taking place inside the course tape. It’s swirling all around you, sweeping you up in its vortex.
We go through a lot of details to make sure that this is the most welcoming, inclusive event we can make it.
Brown discovered cyclocross through an MTV Sports segment hosted by Dan Cortese (preserved in all its 90s-soaked glory on YouTube here). Brown had a healthy competitive streak, having raced criteriums and completed an Ironman, and decided to take up cyclocross as his next endeavor.
He not only discovered a sport unlike any other, but a community that was willing to welcome a newbie with open arms.
“I’d done Ironman and crit racing. And I always felt like, ‘Man, everyone here, they’re too serious,'” Brown says. “Then I started going out to cyclocross races. And people were inviting me to their practices, and they were like, ‘This is how you do it, just stick around.’ And I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ It was the complete antithesis of every other race I had gone to.”
Inclusion is the guiding principle of CX Cup weekend. The event is more like a gran fondo than a staged sporting event. There are few sports in the world where amateurs can take on the same course and conditions as the very best riders in the world before one of the biggest events of the year. Fans aren’t on the field running routes before the Super Bowl, for example, nor are they practicing their jumpers on the floor before Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
Audience participation doesn’t just make CX Cup more fun. Events like the Legends Race are designed to inspire lifelong love affairs with bikes.
“Something you never see at a European World Cup is how Trek has created the custom bridges and put cows all over the course. The atmosphere and the party tent and the Secret Bar — they invest a lot in creating something special,” Nys says. “You need to create an experience. Not only a World Cup event with professional athletes, but also all the small events around the World Cup. These are important. The social media afterwards, making a special movie out of it, all those details, they are also important to creating something special for the kids.”
For Trek, showing everyone in its backyard a really, really good time is a serious responsibility. Few things are as powerful as a lasting memory. And all Trek asks is that you show up if you can.
“Line up. Just come and have fun,” Brown says. “I view it as my responsibility to do as much as I can for everyone else. Whether it’s the kids races, or making sure that we have enough women’s races and enough spots for everyone to race at least three times over the weekend, we go through a lot of details to make sure that this is the most welcoming, inclusive event we can make it.”
If you’ve never picked up a ‘cross bike before, then start with the Legends Race, and receive a crash course in the spirit of American cyclocross. Race it as hard as you’d like. You might even catch the great Sven Nys at the line, just like one intrepid, hard-sprinting cow did in the race’s inaugural year, resulting in an iconic photo.
That moment was set up by a wink and nod between the two riders on race day. Nys may have vowed vengeance against the bothersome bovine, but the result was never really the point.
“When you see the photo, you’ll see that we’re having fun and that’s what the Legends Race is all about,” Nys says. “That picture tells you everything.”