For a good part of the past decade I have spent a lot of time riding and racing my bike. That is, up until the last few years, when starting both a career and a family finally brought an abrupt halt to my bike racing schedule. Long, daily training rides and weekends on the road traveling to races simply no longer fit into my lifestyle.
As this past summer waned, I began to get that competitive itch again. I had been hearing a lot of buzz about cyclocross, a no-holds-barred, off-road race that several of my friends talked about constantly. I noticed a flyer for a local fall race series near Asheville. What the heck, I thought, the races are relatively short, so how hard could it be? Like it or not, I was hooked already, before I had even lined up at the start.
A few years back I had bought a cyclocross-style bike off of E-bay for the gravel roads near my parent’s home. At the time it had seemed like a good bike for rambling around on Sunday afternoons. Little did I realize that I would soon be hammering that bike across a muddy field, wheel to wheel, handlebar to handlebar with other riders.
Fast forward to late September. I was lined up with several dozen other intrepid souls in a grassy field north of Asheville. The first timers exchanged nervous glances, each wondering what the next half hour would hold. I reminded myself that I was under no pressure to be competitive, after all, this is only for fun, right?
Bang! The start gun interrupted my moment of inner reflection. Like a shot we are off, 40 racers scrambling for position up a grassy incline, wheels rubbing and shoulders bumping as we jostled for position before the first of many tight turns.
The course repeatedly wound back upon itself in a myriad of snake-like, 180-degree turns. I slammed on my brakes as we hurtled into the first turn, almost coming to a complete stop to negotiate through the U-shaped path. Once through the turn, I immediately stood on my pedals and gave it everything I could muster to keep up with the surging field of racers.
Almost as soon as I got up to full speed, we hit another tight turn. The dirt path we were racing on was slick thanks to the ever present drizzle hanging in the misty fall mountain air. Boom! A skinny dude on a sleek looking race bike hit the muddy deck just in front of me, taking down two others with him. Immediately they sprang off the ground and begin running with their bikes as I churned past them up the first of several short, but steep climbs around the course. “Welcome to cyclocross,” I thought in my head …
As you read this, you’re probably wondering, “What the heck is this brutal event called cyclocross?” You aren’t alone. Until recently, many Americans had never heard of it. It originated in Europe, where road biking is a popular sport — think Tour de France. Most road races are held in the late spring or summer to avoid cold weather. Cyclocross began as an outlet for bicycle racers to train and have fun on their bikes during the off season.
Races are held primarily off road on specially designed courses with tight, twisty turns and a variety of obstacles such as mud, sand, stairs, and wooden barriers that require the rider to dismount from the bike and run for short distances. It is these obstacles that truly make cyclocross different.
Oh, and did I mention the weather? Because of the seasonal aspect of cross racing, the weather can be nasty! Rain, snow, mud—anything goes. The nastier the weather, the more cross aficionados love it. Cross races seldom get cancelled due to the weather.
One thing that makes cross racing so unique is the sheer intensity. Cyclocross races are short, generally only running from 30 minutes to an hour in duration. There are no breaks in a cross race so racers give it full gas for the entire race.
Either you are sprinting out of a corner, jumping over obstacles, or carrying your bike up a flight of stairs at a full run. In the simple words of one of my racing cohorts a few weeks ago, “that was freakin’ hard!”
Some ‘cross racers use mountain bikes to race, but the primary steed of choice for serious cyclocrossers is a skinny-tired bicycle with drop handlebars, very similar to a road bike. Although similar to a road bicycle, it has unique features such as knobby tires, mountain bike style brakes, and extra room for muddy tires to clear the bike frame.
One last element of ‘cross racing can’t be overlooked — the party. It’s impossible to show up at a cyclocross race, either as a spectator or a racer, and not have fun. At the larger races, spectators line the race course, clanging cowbells and yelling encouragement at the participants. Usually the event has a beer sponsor, which always adds to the revelry. For many of the enthusiast level racers, the post-race libations are as much a part of the event as the race itself!
My own personal half hour of pain wasn’t getting any easier. I felt like my heart was going to explode as my lungs strained for gasps of dirt-filled air. I continued to mash the pedals around each turn and up every climb.
“One lap to go,” yelled the race announcer! I put my head down and pushed on. Around the turns and through the mud, then one more time over the barriers. “Stick a fork in me, I’m done,” I thought to myself as I rounded the last turn. Despite the pain, I somehow found just enough in reserve to sprint for the finish line, surprising myself as much as the three racers I passed at the end.
After the race it was it was all handshakes and laughter as the muddy racers gathered together. Each of us had our own personal stories about “turn three” or “that little, steep climb at the back.” Someone shoved an ice cold can of beer in my hand and asked if I would be back next week. Would I? Absolutely.
— By Jamie Arnold • Guest writer