Cyclocross for the masses
Madison scene welcomes newbies
The rain fell in sheets, leaving no line safe for the bike racers to follow on the short and slick off-road course. Less than two miles long with some 50 turns, the course only grew sloppier with each lap the mud-caked riders struggled to complete. As the morning wore on, they spent more and more time pushing and carrying their rigs through and around the deepening ruts and puddles.
Welcome to cyclocross. Specifically, welcome to Day 2 of the U.S. Gran Prix Planet Bike Cup in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, on September 25.
Two inches of rain fell on Angel Park that Sunday. "Couple that with 650-plus racers and thousands of spectators and we created quite a muddy mess," recalled John P. "J.P." Ericsson, co-director of the event.
I was one of the onlookers that day trying to keep my camera dry and astonishment in check. Grime speckled the riders' teeth, both clenched and smiling. Honestly, it was hard for me to tell if the 'crossers were enjoying themselves or pushed to their absolute limits.
All I knew for sure was I wanted to be out there with 'em.
Apparently my masochistic reaction is not unusual.
It seems crazy that from late September through early January, cyclists would take to grass and mud with what look like road bikes, dismount on the run in order to jump barriers, then shoulders their bikes to climb steep hills. Yet the sight of all this is drawing riders and spectators alike to a booming U.S. cyclocross scene.
"There's lots of reasons" for the growing popularity of cyclocross, said Greg Ferguson, a member of the Wisconsin Cycling Association's Cyclocross Committee. "Mainly it's because you get to act like a 12-year-old and ride and run around in the park. At its core, cyclocross is just fun.'"
This was evident at the USGP event in Sun Prairie on Saturday when clearer skies and dryer conditions encouraged tons of spectators to press against the flimsy course barriers as they cheered and jeered their favorite riders. Some of the hooting spectators were riders between races. And some of the riders were only spectators shortly before the starting gun sounded.
"Cyclocross is accessible," Ferguson said. "It's easy to try and watch. You can see a whole race in one spot. And it draws a very welcoming group of people. They're social, friendly and open to helping new people get into the sport."
While the roots of the cyclocross lie in France in the early 1900s, a world championship has been contested since 1950 and there's been a U.S. National Championship held since 1963.
Cyclocross has served to extend the bike racing season in Wisconsin for years. But more and more cyclocross races are popping up statewide and throughout the region. (See sidebar "2011-2012 Midwest cyclocross races.") And now the U.S. Cyclocross National Championships is slated to bring 1,700 or more riders to the Madison area in January 2012 and 2013.
Ferguson said he doesn't think anticipation for the coming 2012 national championship has fueling the increasing interest in cyclocross among local cyclists. "But it might next year," he said.
In any case, a recent Wednesday evening cyclocross practice at Garner Park on Madison's west side drew more than 50 riders. ("We had about 25 people here regularly five years ago," Ferguson said.) On the east side, at the same time each week, a smaller crowd of veterans and newcomers to the sport ride at Yahara Hills Park.
About an hour before the 5:30 p.m. practices, Ferguson and another ringleader set out stakes and flags as course markers. At Garner Park, the courses of little more than a mile circle the soccer field and tennis court, cross the baseball field and sometimes even cut through the sand volleyball court. Three, one-foot-high barriers made out of PVC pipe are set up to be jumped as well. The assembled riders take a couple practice laps before two sets of three "hot" laps at race pace. After that, Ferguson will lead a skills clinic for those who want pointers.
Kate Konkle, 30, of Madison, attended three Garner Park practices before she jumped into a real cyclocross race at the Mitchell Park Domes in Milwaukee on October 1.
"It was my first race on a bike ever," she said, describing herself as "only a leisurely recreational road rider."
But Konkle had previously attended cyclocross races with friends and enjoyed the atmosphere. So although she felt anxious before her race, she knew to expect the mix of rowdy cheering and good-natured heckling she received. Although she said she crashed on her third lap, "I felt I was getting better with each lap."
Ferguson, a member of the Trek Midwest Cycling Team, said he eased into cyclocross racing eight years ago. And even though he's done road races, criteriums, triathlons and mountain bike races, he said, "cross is my favorite."
Ferguson said he rode a mountain bike in his first cyclocross races, which isn't uncommon. But he soon traded the weight of that bike for a lighter cross-specific bike, which resembles a road bike but with wider tires, lower gearing and more rear wheel clearance.
Although the technical aspects of some cross courses may suit experienced mountain bikers, their racing seasons tend to overlap. Ferguson said 'cross appeals more to road riders and triathletes.
The first time 57-year-old Tom Hartjes raced cross was at the USGP event in September. Just two weeks earlier he attended a cyclocross clinic, where he learned how to jump on and off his bike.
"For people like me, it got me over the fear," he said. "I don't mountain bike, so I don't have the technical off-road riding skills a lot of cyclocross riders have."
Yet he watched the Badger Cross Regional Championship held the previous December at Badger Prairie Park, which is within walking distance of his home in Verona, Wisconsin. By this September, Hartjes said, "I was bored with road riding. It was time for something different."
So he raced at USGP as a Cat 4 Master. "I went down hard once and soft once," he said. "But I succeeded at my goal, which was to not go home bleeding so my wife could say, 'No, you're not doing that again.'"
Hartjes did not race the following Sunday in the rain. That's when the weather and ongoing riding combined to really gave the course at Angel Park a beating. The mess required immediate raking and reseeding by volunteers, which is a routine practice after a cyclocross race in a public park.
"While most of the racers wore huge smiles as they slopped around in the mud, we always had in place a plan to get the park back in shape after the event no matter what Mother Nature dished out," event co-director Ericsson said.
A few weeks later, he said the grass was already coming back in some areas. But the damage still required the hiring of professional landscaping company "that is up to the task of making the park looking better than new."
Ericsson added, "For almost any cyclocross race, even a muddy one, if you show up the following spring, you'd never know a muddy race had taken place there three months prior."
Wet conditions will prompt cancellation of the weekly practices in the Madison parks, Ferguson said. And "course repair parties" are held "to clean up after exceptionally muddy events," Ericsson said.
While the fun to be had at cyclocross events is considerable, so too is the need for organizers and participants to taking responsibility for the damage that may be done. The fact that Garner and Angel park continue to welcome cyclocrossers indicates that responsibility is taken seriously.
For more information on the Madison and Midwest cyclocross scenes, check out madcross.org, a website run by Ericsson's co-director Renee Callaway. The site includes helpful "how to" links and an email list through which updates on practices and races are disseminated.
Joel Patenaude is the editor of Silent Sports and looks forward to racing cross this winter.
2011-2012 Midwest cyclocross races
The cyclocross season tends to start in late September and runs through early January. What follows are the upcoming events set for November, December and January throughout the upper Midwest.
Wisconsin Cycling Association Crank Daddy Cyclocross Series
• Nov. 5: ESTABROOK PARK CYCLOCROSS, Milwaukee, WI; firstname.lastname@example.org
• Nov. 12: UW-MADISON CYCLOCROSS, Cam-Rock Park Area 2, Cambridge, WI; email@example.com
• Nov. 13: SILVER LAKE BORDER BATTLE, Silver Lake, Salem, WI; firstname.lastname@example.org; teamwisconsincycling.org
• Nov. 20: WISCONSIN STATE CYCLOCROSS CHAMPIONSHIPS, Hales Corners, WI; www.wicycling.org
• Dec. 4: WIZARD CROSS, Madison, WI; www.wicycling.org
• Dec. 10-11: BADGER CROSS MIDWEST CYCLOCROSS REGIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS, Badger Prairie Park, Verona, WI; www.badgercross.com
Also in Wisconsin
• Nov. 12: HOGSBACK CROSS ATTACK, Bradley Park, Tomahawk, WI; www.hogsbackcx.blogspot.com
• Jan. 04-08: U.S. NATIONAL CYCLOCROSS CHAMPIONSHIP. Badger Prairie Park, Verona, WI; www.madisonsports.org
Chicago Cross Cup Series
• Nov. 12-13 HILTON INDIAN LAKES RESORT CYCLOCROSS, Bloomingdale, IL; chicrosscup.com; www.bikereg.com
• Dec. 4: ILLINOIS STATE CYCLOCROSS CHAMPIONSHIPS, Chicago, IL; chicrosscup.com; www.bikereg.com
• Dec. 31-Jan. 1: NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTION, Bloomingdale, IL; www.bikereg.com
• Nov. 19: NORGE SKI JUMP CYCLOCROSS, Fox River Grove, IL; www.bikereg.com
• Nov. 25-27: JINGLE CROSS ROCK, Johnson County Fairgrounds, Iowa City, IA; www.jinglecrossrock.com
• Dec. 10: IOWA CYCLOCROSS CHAMPIONSHIP, Lions Park, Altoona, IA; www.zealousracing.com
• Nov. 13: STONY CREEK CYCLOCROSS, Stony Creel MetroPark, Shelby Township, MI; email@example.com; www.tailwind-racing.com
• Nov. 20: BLOOMER PARK CYCLOCROSS, Bloomer Park, Rochester Hills, MI; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.tailwind-racing.com
• Dec. 4: SPRINGFIELD OAKS CYCLOCROSS, Springfield Oaks Park, Davisburg, MI; email@example.com; www.tailwind-racing.com
• Nov. 5: BEHIND BARS VELOCX, National sports Center, Blaine, MN; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.mcf.net; mncyclocross.com
• Nov. 11-12: MILL CITY CYCLOCROSS WEEKEND, Bayport MN; email@example.com; www.mcf.net; mncyclocross.com
• Nov. 19-20: MINNESOTA STATE CYCLOCROSS CHAMPIONSHIP WEEKEND, Bassett Creek Park, Crystal, MN; MNchampsCX@gmail.com; www.mcf.net; mncyclocross.com