The dirt on cyclocross
As soon as the whistle blows, you have to hammer, standing up on your pedals and sprinting from pavement to grass, trying to carry speed through the first set of sinuous corners. It’s a lot of high-speed grass riding and just trying to keep up with the guy in front of you. In the corners it gets crowded, elbows touch elbows, some uneasy laughter, and then sprinting out of the corner. It’s typical winter weather, so there’s mud on a lot of the course, which is like pedaling through quicksand. Then more grass, more hammering, more elbowing, and then the sand.
You try to ride as much of it as you can, but it gets thick and it’s faster and smarter to dismount and run. A lot of people eat it in the sand. This is where you begin to regret breakfast. Get out of the sand and try to carry speed as you mount your bike and pedal, pedal, pedal, then dismount for the stair run, then back onto your bike. Now you really want to throw up. You can taste it. You approach the knee-high barriers fast, try to carry speed as you dismount, then back on the bike for a short stretch, then two more barriers, dismount-leap-sprint-leap.
That’s lap one.
Your heart rate is so high surely this is going to bring on a heart attack but you can’t dwell on it because you’ve got 45 minutes of this intense torture to suffer through. It’s the worst 45 minutes of your life. You know this because you spend the entire time wishing it was over. But then it’s over, and all you want to do is race it again.
Welcome to cyclocross, a bizarre hybrid sport that combines road biking, mountain biking, running, and steeplechase into a high-intensity competition that has become the darling of hardcore and softcore bikers alike. As esoteric as it sounds, cyclocross is the fastest growing sport on two wheels in this country, evolving from a fringe obsession of biking aficionados to a not-so-fringe obsession for just about everyone who rides bikes. Cyclocross has survived, then thrived, on the edge of biking culture for decades, but now it seems ready for its mainstream close up. Move over beer league softball, here comes cyclocross, America’s new favorite pastime.
We’re huge in Belgium
Ask three people where cyclocross got its start and you’ll get three different answers. Like all great things, the French like to claim it as their own. The legend goes like this: It’s the beginning of the 20th century and a French soldier decides to start riding his bike across some muddy fields to stay in shape during the winter. Some French generals like the idea and start training their soldiers in the same manner. It’s a beastly way to spend the afternoon, but the soldiers like it too, so they start organizing some competitions. Then a couple of key Tour de France racers pick it up to stay in shape during the winter, one of those guys wins the Tour in 1910 and tells everyone he owes his victory to racing cyclocross during the winter, and the rest is history. Fast forward 100 years, and cyclocross almost rivals soccer in popularity in Europe and is a bona fide cultural obsession in Belgium. Those skinny little men who ride their bikes in circles through the mud have their own reality shows in Belgium. The races are covered on the national news. Big competitions have been known to draw 35,000 spectators. Obviously, in America, cyclocross doesn’t enjoy the same level of celebrity. Until 10 years ago, cross was just a niche discipline for oddball bikers in this country.
Tim Hopkins moved to North Carolina from England in the ‘90s and quickly started the South’s first cyclocross series. “The only reason I started a series was because I wanted to race myself and the closest races were in New England,” Hopkins says, adding that he was lucky to attract 30 riders for his races during the first few years. Now, the NC Cyclocross series averages 300 riders per event. And there are half a dozen other cross series in the Southeast and Mid Atlantic that draw similar crowds, while smaller local races are popping up in just about every city with a decent biking population.
The growth below the Mason Dixon parallels what the sport is enjoying nationwide. According to USA Cycling, cyclocross participation has more than doubled in the last five years, from 32,000 racers to 72,000. For the 2010-2011 season, there are 53 sanctioned events in the United States—by far the most cross races in any country across the globe. It’s even more than Belgium, which only has 32 sanctioned events. Race promoters usually temporarily line off their courses in parks for each race weekend, but permanent cyclocross courses are beginning to be installed at city parks across the country. Boulder has a permanent course, Kentucky is the proud owner of two permanent cross courses, and one is in the works for Rock Hill, S.C. And the moment when everyone realized that cross had arrived in this country was when the UCI recently announced that the 2013 Cyclocross World Championships would be held in…drum roll please…Louisville, Kentucky. It’s the first time the Cyclocross World Championships will be held outside of a European country in the 50-year history of the competition.
The announcement shocked many American bikers and probably upset a lot of European ones. U.S. Cycling CEO Steve Johnson called the decision a “testament to the extraordinary quality of cross racing in the U.S.,” but the fact is, cross simply isn’t the same sport in America as it is in Europe. At least, not yet. Joe Dombrowski is a 19-year-old Virginia cyclist who just signed a contract with Trek-Livestrong, the premiere under-23 pro development road team. He spent a good bit of time in 2009 racing cyclocross in Belgium with the U.S. National U-23 Cyclocross team.
“Cross gets bigger in the U.S. every year, but there’s nowhere near the same depth in the field as in Europe,” Dombrowski says. “You line up at cross nationals in December as a Junior and there are seven or eight guys out of 50 with the potential to win the race. In Europe, you’re 10 rows back in a field that’s stacked with fast riders. It’s not that their fastest guys are much faster than our fastest guys. It’s that everyone over there is fast.”
Right now, it’s nearly impossible to make a living in the states as a pro cyclocross racer, which is the main reason why Dombrowski and many others pursue road racing, the bread and butter for pro bikers. Dombrowski thinks that could change in the future, though. Cross has already surpassed mountain biking in the number of UCI events and cash purses in this country. If the niche sport were to see the same amount of corporate support road biking sees, it’s possible America could produce a steady stream of World Champions.
“I think the North American circuit could be just as competitive as the European circuit,” says Arley Kemmerer, a DC-based pro cross racer riding for team C3, the top women’s team in the country right now. “All we need are the resources.”
Other crossers think it’s unlikely that the discipline in the U.S. will ever see the level of competition or popularity it sees in Europe.
“There’s gonna be a peak,” says race promoter Tim Hopkins. “It might continue to rise through the Worlds in Kentucky, but cross will plateau just like mountain biking did. No cycling discipline will ever have the cultural appeal in America that it has in Europe. It’s just like soccer. There’s support for it in America, but it’ll never be this country’s pastime.”
Hopkins has a point. It’s difficult to imagine any bike race drawing 35,000 spectators in the states. And we’re not just talking about 35,000 people mildly interested in watching cross. We’re talking about 35,000 die-hard, live by the results of your favorite biker, fans. Imagine the most rabid NASCAR fan you know. Now, imagine him drunk on wine and yelling obscenities in French. That’s a European cyclocross fan. Cross fans in Belgium are so “invested,” they’re famous for heckling any racer competing with their favorite biker. At the Belgian National Cyclocross Championships this year, a drunk spectator grabbed the reigning World Champion causing him to crash and break his rib. Why? Because the dude was beating the drunk fan’s favorite biker.
In America, Las Vegas has the biggest cyclocross race, Cross Vegas, which pulls in 10,000 spectators and even scored a Lance Armstrong appearance in 2008. Meanwhile, Portland probably has the most developed cross scene, with an 18-year-old race series that bags 1,000 racers every weekend. The biggest races in the South will see half those numbers, and so far, none of America’s cross fans have been willing to stoop to assault to ensure their favorite biker wins a race.
American cross will probably never hit this sort of feverish popularity. But as it continues to grow in the U.S., it has taken on a different kind of popularity. In America, cross has evolved into a sort of beer league for adult cyclists. In Europe, cross is about competition. The best of the best race cross. In America, cross is far more democratic (there’s a category for every type of rider, even tandems), and there’s more of a social aspect to it. Instead of playing adult league softball or soccer on weekends, cyclists compete in local cross race series. The discipline has grown into an excuse for men and women to get together and ride bikes and act like 12-year-olds again while the family cheers them on from the sidelines. It’s an interesting development, particularly when you consider the fact that cross is arguably the most miserable thing you can ever do on a bicycle.
“Ride as close to throwing up as you can without actually throwing up. That’s my best advice for any new cross racer,” says pro Arley Kemmerer, who also teaches cross clinics for women. “The first time you race cross, it’s a shock to your system. You push so hard for a short period of time. There’s just no way you can be fully prepared for it.”
Cross races are fairly straightforward. You take a loop course that’s one or two miles long traveling over pavement, dirt, and grass (any city park will do), then throw in a number of obstacles that force bikers to dismount. Sand pits and sets of stairs are popular, as are uphills too steep to ride, while knee-high barriers that you have to hurdle are pretty much standard. Each cross course is different, some more punishing than others, and the weather always plays a factor. Fall is the traditional cross season, though more series are extending into winter. Both seasons mean mud. Lots of mud, which is often the biggest obstacle for crossers to overcome.
“The mud slaughtered all of us last season,” Kemmerer says. “It forces you to work ten times as hard. You’re churning out major wattage to get through the mud pits, but you’re only going six miles per hour. It takes a toll.”
Cross, in general, takes a toll. Pro races are only 60 minutes long and amateur races are even shorter, just 45 minutes. But the intensity level is so high–imagine sprinting for 45 minutes. But then you’ve also got to handle your bike through tight corners and sand, and then carry your bike while leaping over barriers.
“Cross has a lot of weird movements,” Dombrowski says. “It’s punchy. You’re on and off the bike a lot. To be fast in cross isn’t as easily quantifiable as being fast on the road. It’s not just about fitness. It’s about combining a lot of different skills into a short, intense time period.”
The sport may sound miserable to the outsider, but it could be argued that no other cycling discipline is as well suited for American culture as cyclocross. The sport is far more democratic than road biking or mountain biking—you don’t need miles of country road or singletrack, just a city park or old golf course will do. It’s less intimidating than other cycling disciplines–since it’s a short loop, nobody gets dropped and if you crash, you fall on grass, not asphalt. The short course makes it spectator-friendly, and race days are comprised of multiple races for different categories of riders stacked throughout the day, which encourages the racers to stick around and cheer. And most importantly, cyclocross was built for short attention spans.
“The beauty of cross is that it’s a short race,” says Skip Huffman, a former racer who’s promoting a local cross series in Roanoke, Va. this year. “Race days are short, so the family can watch, and it doesn’t take a lot of training to compete. For a 45-minute race, you can train and have fun racing while still working and taking care of your kids.”
Beyond the user-friendly nature of the competition, cross has also become the most social of all cycling disciplines in the U.S. Cowbells and beer gardens are standard issue at most cross races coast to coast, while costumes and shenanigans are par for the course.
“There’s a team out of Colorado called Team Steel Wool. They only wear wool and they only ride steel bikes,” says Andrew Stackhouse, a cross racer living in Boone, N.C. “And that’s not even surprising. It can get really ridiculous in cross.”
Huffman, the former racer, likes to reminisce about the time he was watching a cross race while standing by a bonfire wearing a Snuggie, handing racers open cans of PBR as they flew by on the course.
This is just the way it goes with cyclocross. Take the user-friendly nature of the sport, combine it with the social atmosphere, and you come out with a cult obsession that is rapidly infiltrating every corner of the U.S., particularly the Southeast where small grassroots race series are popping up to compliment the bigger races in our region. Boone has two race series, Richmond, Charlotte, Asheville, and Charlottesville have a well-developed scene, and just about every biking club in the South hosts cross practice during the week.
“I did a race last night in Wilkesboro,” says Andrew Stackhouse. “There was a guy riding a 10-year-old mountain bike while wearing gym shorts and tennis shoes, and he had a blast. Even the nutbags like me who are super into racing treat cross like it’s more fun than competitive. It’s more grassroots. It’s more like softball. It’s you and your friends and it’s what you do on the weekends during the fall and winter.” •
CROSS FOR BEGINNERS
The typical cyclocross course is a little over a mile long. The terrain varies, but most of the time you’ll be riding grass on a route that’s about as wide as a two-lane road. You’ll likely start on pavement, then move to grass, then back to pavement. Expect sharp corners and lots of flat fast sections before hitting any obstacles. The obstacles can vary from course to course, but usually include sets of two barriers, stairs, sand, mud, and super steep “run ups.” UCI rules dictate no course can be comprised of barriers that equal more than 10 percent of the course, which means you’ll be on your bike 90 percent of the time.
Cyclocross isn’t about distance, it’s about time. Pros will race for 60 minutes, amateurs for 45. Timing officials will take the fastest first lap, then do some math to come up with the number of laps the fastest rider can do in 60 minutes. Fastest rider to hit that lap number wins.
Races are broken down into categories, so a professional going for a cash purse won’t share the course with a newbie just feeling his way into the sport. Pros will race in the Elite and Cat 1/2 races. For your first race, sign up for Cat 4, the least competitive category.
USA Cycling is considering extending the national cyclocross race calendar through December and January so professional cross racers will peak in time for the World Championships each year. Here in the South, many of our cross race series already run through January. Here’s a look at the races you can still hit this season.
NC Cyclocross Series
It’s one of the oldest cross series in the South with a popular UCI Gran Prix race in November and amateur races that draw 300 riders each weekend. There’s a full schedule of races scattered throughout the Piedmont and Western N.C. almost every weekend in December and January.
Rome Wintercross Series
Race three weekends in January (9, 16, 22/23), with the final weekend also being the Georgia State Cyclocross Championships. All races are at the Lock and Dam Park in Rome, Ga., but the courses change from race to race.
Kingsport Cyclocross Cup
This is one of four new races on the official UCI calendar for 2010-2011, so expect a big field of pros looking to pick up international racing points. But Cat 4 is always open to beginners. January 15.
Mud Sweat and Gears
The final race in the Mud Sweat and Gears series is held on East Tennessee State’s campus in Johnson City and will include a collegiate category. Dec. 4.
Virginia Cross Series
The final race in this popular 10-race series takes place in Charlottesville on December 4.
An eight-race series through the dead of winter that attracts only the hardest of the hard core. Racing begins Jan 22 and runs almost every weekend through February 20.
TIPS FROM THE PRO
Pro Joe Dombrowski not only tears up the regional and national circuit, he coaches clinics to help newbies get into cross too. Here are Joe’s three tips for your first cyclocross race.
Get there earlier than you would for a road race. Maybe two hours early, so you can poke around the course at low speeds. You’re looking at the technical sections and the fast sections, breaking down the course so you know what to expect.
Warm up for a half an hour right before the start. Get on a trainer or ride around the parking lot. It’s full gas from the get go, so you’ve got to be warm.
A little training can go a long way. I like to take my cross bike on mountain bike trails and tool around, hop logs, dismount and run steep sections. It dials in your technical skills. If you can run technical mountain bike trails on a cross bike, you’ll be much faster and feel dialed in on a groomed grass course.