For most Coloradans fall is synonymous with super-sweet apples, the Western Slope grape harvest and groves of golden aspen. But to a growing number of cyclists, fall means the start of cyclocross season.
Merriam Webster defines the sport as “racing bicycles over rough terrain that usually requires carrying the bicycle over obstacles.”
Imagine riding your bike so hard that your lungs are on fire, then dismounting while in motion, throwing the bike on your shoulder, jumping over knee-high wooden barriers, running up the loose dirt of a short, steep hill and quickly leaping back on
the bike. Repeat for 45 minutes and you’ve done an amateur cyclocross event.
Races typically last 45 minutes to an hour and consist of laps on a one- to two-mile course that includes sections of dirt, grass, pavement, steep hills, loose sand, hairpin turns and obstacles. The courses are about 90 percent rideable but the short duration of the races makes for a lung-searing workout.
“It’s the most painful 45 minutes of your life,” said Chris Grealish, a Colorado-based race promoter. “I think it makes you tougher as an athlete, for sure. If you can do ‘cross well, you can do a lot of the other bike sports with relative ease.”
In addition to a handful of road events, Grealish puts on CrossVegas, a nighttime event that takes place during Interbike, North America’s largest bike-related tradeshow; and the Boulder Cup, a two-day, internationally-sanctioned ‘cross event that features amateur and pro races.
Though he admits he likes it Euro-style (think big crowds, amazing athletes and a festival atmosphere), Grealish does enjoy the community, every-man aspect of ‘cross.
“I think the popularity of cyclocross is a testament to all the small, grassroots activities around the country,” he said. “The races are typically centralized in urban areas, where there’s a large concentration of people. It’s incredibly easy to watch. As a racer you can get lapped and people can’t even tell if you’re winning or in last place. The humility factor, after the initial spanking, is pretty low.”
The numbers of people who entered USA Cycling-sanctioned ‘cross races, as well as the number of USA Cyling-sanctioned ‘cross events, more than doubled between 2004 and 2006. For the 2008-2009 season, the United States hosted 41 internationally-sanctioned ‘cross races — more than any other nation.
“People want to know why cyclocross is growing so quickly, and there’s really no one answer to that,” said Andy Lee, spokesperson for USA Cycling. “It comes at a time where the mountain bike and road seasons are over, so if you want to compete as a competitive cyclist anytime between September and February, ‘cross racing is your only option.”
Considering the bikes, which look like roadies with knobby tires and burly brakes, ‘cross seems a mountain and road racing hybrid, something dreamed up recently by a bored cyclist. But ‘cross has been around since before the Tour de France.
There are many stories as to the beginnings of cyclocross, but we do know that Frenchman Daniel Gousseau organized a French national cyclocross championship in the 1902/03 season, slightly before the inaugural 1903 Tour de France. It’s been said that young Gousseau enjoyed riding his bike through the forests so much that he invited friends, and thus cyclocross racing was born.
With races usually taking place in the fall and winter, ‘cross grew among road cyclists as a popular method of off-season training. And when Frenchman Octave Lapize credited his 1910 Tour de France win to the sport and the training it provided,
‘cross began catching on across Europe. The first world championship took place in 1950, and by the mid-1970s U.S. cyclists were in on the action.
Coloradans certainly aren’t missing out. Cyclocross races are held along the Front Range nearly every Saturday and Sunday from mid-September through the beginning of December.
“(Cyclocross) is a way to bring all the cycling disciplines together in a non-threatening environment,” said Grealish. “And everyone gets to experience that same capillary popping in their own little private hell. It’s just awesome.”
If You Go
Most cyclocross events offer beginner categories for new racers. Because they take place on a short loop, they’re also great for spectators. For a list of Front Range events, visit the American Cycling Association’s calendar at www.americancycling.org.
From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.