North Carolina’s impressive cycling scene is old news. For years, mountain bikers and road cyclists alike have relocated to The Old North State for its varied and technical terrain.
But this week, western North Carolina is attracting national attention from a lesser-known subset of the cycling community. The city of Asheville is hosting the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships at the Biltmore Estate through January 10.
“Having the Cyclocross National Championships in Asheville is really an honor,” says men’s masters racer and Sylva-based rider Josh Whitmore. “It recognizes the growing energy of the sport in this region and the grassroots efforts to provide high quality events.”
At the core of those grassroots efforts lies North Carolina Cyclo-Cross (NCCX), founded in 1997 by Tim Hopkin. During the late ‘90s, Hopkin, who was born in England, raised in Brazil, and transplanted to the hills of North Carolina, says he was always interested in racing cyclocross, but simply couldn’t find anywhere to do it.
“I decided I was going to fix that problem,” Hopkin says, and he did, despite the fact that the entire western North Carolina region had, at best, two or three legitimate cyclocross bikes to even ride. “There were maybe 20 people, mostly on mountain bikes, at the first event we did.”
Now, nearly two decades later, Hopkin says NCCX events bring upwards of 400 racers on average. Though cyclocross hotbeds on this side of the pond have historically been in New England and the Pacific Northwest, there’s an increasing number of competitive cyclocross racers who are cutting their teeth right here in the Southeast, claiming western North Carolina as home.
“Cyclocross was kinda used as an off-season training for road cyclists back in the original days,” Hopkin says. “Now, it’s its own bonafide winter sport with its own racing season,” which typically runs from early fall to the end of January.
So what is cyclocross? And why the upsurge in popularity?
“The easiest way to compare it is a mixture of cross-country racing and steeplechase with a little bit of NASCAR thrown in,” Hopkin says.
Cyclocross races are typically short, both in course length and the duration. Juniors may race only 20 minutes while Elite men may race for an hour. The course, which ranges from a mile-and-a-half to two miles, covers a wide variety of terrain, including gravel, grass, sand, mud, dirt, and pavement. Oftentimes, sections of the course can become so heinous, riders are better off dismounting to “run-up” the obstacle with their bikes in hand. For spectators, this equates to entertainment—that is, until the winter weather sets in.
“Sometimes it’s dry, wet, muddy, snowy, windy, cold, and hot,” says women’s Elite racer and Mills River resident Ally Stacher. “Anything can happen in a ‘cross race.”
Of course, veteran spectators know this and have come to expect it of cyclocross races. The muddier, the better, truth be told. Yet with the upcoming National Championships to be held at the Biltmore Estate, which is privately owned and operated, concerns as to the entry fee for the event ($11 for the week) have some locals worried about the turnout for the traditionally spectator-friendly (and often free-to-watch) sport. With onsite parking and discounted rates for tours of the estate, however, Hopkin argues that, really, the deal is a steal.
“Having an entry fee is not uncommon,” Hopkin adds. “At the World Cup Cyclocross race in Las Vegas, I paid $13 or $14 for just one evening.”
Given the dedicated following of family members, friends, and fans in western North Carolina alone, attendance numbers for the National Championships are expected to reach 6,000 with anywhere from 1,600 to 1,800 competitors throughout the week.
The Biltmore’s course will be one for the books. Spectators will be satisfied with easy access and onsite amenities like restaurants and hotels, while racers will endure steep elevation changes, barriers, and likely lots of mud. For western North Carolina riders, this is simply par for the course.
“There is a bit of suffering involved but that suffering is short and quick and very satisfying,” adds Hopkins.
“Everyone loves to play in the mud at least on some level,” Whitmore says. “The classic analogy that people use is that cyclocross is like a mullet. Business at the front and party at the back,” which translates to a community of cyclists who ride hard to play hard and take their beatdowns with a smile.
“Cyclocross is really cool because it combines the best elements of all forms of cycling,” says Hopkin, “the tactics of criterium racing, the skills of mountain biking, and in general the great camaraderie and friendship amongst all of the racers.”
Diehard fans looking to get the best view of the course can start with course-side lodging at Biltmore, which is being offered at a group rate. For the rookie cyclocross spectator looking to get a taste of what’s to come in 2016, check out the NCCX’s marquee event, the North Carolina Grand Prix, which takes place from December 12-13th at Jackson Park in Hendersonville, N.C.
Stay tuned to BlueRidgeOutdoors.com for real time updates on the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships.