Vicious Cycle: The Wacky World of Cyclocross Racing
In this strange sport of pretzel-like winding courses and extreme exertion, the only way to win is to "suffer the most"
President Roosevelt’s lion-hearted ode to “trying” has been applied to many, many endeavors over the years. But few activities embody the essence of Roosevelt’s words quite like cyclocross.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds .— President Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man in the Arena”
Cyclocross, a race-specific discipline of human-powered pedaling, was originally developed in cycling-mad Europe as an off-season training regimen to keep road racers fit during the fall and winter months. As such, cyclocross may be the ultimate “shoulder season” sport. Races are held regardless of what Mother Nature offers and how that affects the course conditions. Driving rain, sleet and snow are all fair game. And courses can feature a mix of terrain, including (but not limited to) dirt, mud, roots, rocks, grass, gravel, asphalt, slush and sand.
“That’s one of the things that makes it so awesome,” says Bicycling Magazine’s “Fit Chick,” Selene Yeager. “You really do feel like a kid again, just getting head-to-toe muddy and grimy and splashing and crashing through the slop.”
In fact, many racers believe the more horrendous the conditions, the more epic the race. Longtime cyclocross racer Derek Griggs of Seabrook and Team Recycled Sports, who grew up “in the swamps along the New Hampshire saltmarsh,” says he found that he had a “superpower” when the weather and race venues turn ugly.
“I’m most happy when conditions are less than ideal,” Griggs says. “Mud, snow, ice, anything that would challenge balance and handling skills seemed to reward me. Nearly all of the races where I’ve had success were muddy or had snow and ice.”
Few Americans have enjoyed as much success racing cyclocross — known simply as “cross” to many practitioners — as New Hampshire native Jonathan Page. The 46-year-old grew up in Tilton and has won nine national championships and a silver medal at the World Championships in Hooglede-Gits, Belgium, in 2007.
“I love the challenge of cyclocross,” Page says. “You can’t win purely on fitness. You have to be good in mud, snow, sand, whatever. And you have to be able to run stairs, hills, sand. There’s a lot to cross that makes it exciting.”
That’s right — run. What sets cyclocross apart from most cycling disciplines are its twisting, cloverleaf-style courses that feature a number of natural and man-made obstacles such as hills, stairs and barriers that force racers into the sport’s signature maneuver: a lightning-quick dismount, a mad dash while shouldering their bikes and a remount at race pace. Truth is, uninitiated spectators can be forgiven for thinking that, at their first sight of a cyclocross race, they’ve stumbled upon some sort of cycling mayhem, with racers pedaling and running furiously in all directions, separated only by ribbons of crime scene tape.
“If you watch a cross race, you really don’t have a clue who is in the lead,” says veteran racer Eiric Marro of Nashua. “It looks like everyone is in the lead.”
My own first encounter with cyclocross came two decades ago, at the national championships being held at an old Army base, Fort Devens, west of Boston. A biting December wind made the temperatures, which were hovering near freezing, feel positively arctic. The racers came chugging by — “the parade of pain,” said an announcer — their faces fierce and forlorn, their breath billowing with each exhale, their exertion both exhilarating and exhausting. Many racers wore what one onlooker jokingly referred to as “the snot mask.”
“Gives them that sexy, glazed-doughnut look,” he said.
I was awed by their resolve.
“A rider seldom participates in a cyclocross race without having the taste of blood in their mouth and a burn in their lungs,” says Jen Dial Santoro, a former two-time New England Cyclocross Series champion now living in Utah.
Due to the compact nature of many courses — a promoter once described a typical cyclocross venue as “a race course laid out in a supermarket” — the races can be held in a variety of settings, from urban to suburban to rural. To wit, New Hampshire cross races have been held in Nashua (Gate City Cross) and White Park in Concord, at Applecrest Farm Orchards in Hampton Falls (Orchard Cross) and at the Surry Mountain Dam (Keene Pumpkin CX).
“We have a course that has a little bit of everything,” says Peter Hills, who organizes the Keene Pumpkin CX along with race founder Tim Trotter, and is a member of the Cowbell Cycling Team in Lebanon. “It’s very spectator friendly,” Hills says. “And with it being on the lake in mid-October with the leaves changing, it’s perfect. People tell me all the time it’s their favorite race in New England.”
In reality, cyclocross racers grudgingly admit there’s no such thing as a bad course. The variety is part of the appeal. Most racers travel to venues throughout the Northeast every weekend of the fall and winter to line up and test their mettle, and their legs, against their peers. Racers are divvied up by age and ability to help level the playing field. But everyone, amateurs and professionals, experts and neophytes, race on the same course.
“I love the fact that the racing is a mix of speed and technical riding,” says Kerry Litka of Nashua, who races for the Massachusetts-based Soall Viet Kitchen Cycling. “Cross is not just about absolute speed or power; there is a certain amount of finesse in riding, and it’s something that allows me to use a variety of athletic skills.
“I’m not a big, powerful, fast rider, and in a straight-up drag race sprint or time trial, I will lose every time because of my size,” she says. “But on a cross course, I can use my skills and strategy to gain an advantage, which makes the sport a lot more dynamic for me.”
Wildly popular overseas, cyclocross has developed a small but fanatic following in the U.S., especially in pockets like New England, Colorado and the Northwest. Races can draw hundreds of adrenaline-addled masochists each weekend.
“In the States, cyclocross is this weird niche sport within a niche sport,” says Litka, 46. “The people who go to watch the races are there because they know someone who is racing or are affiliated with the sport in some way.
“In Europe, cyclocross is like football or baseball here — the fans are just ordinary people, and going to the races is like going to watch a Red Sox game or tailgating in the parking lot before a Patriots game,” she says. “The pro racers there have entire fan clubs and supporters, and the races are packed with people. I don’t think bike racing will ever get to that level here, but if there is one discipline that could do it, it’s cyclocross.”
Races may be ridiculously painful but are mercifully short — 45 to 60 minutes long — which translates to competitors pegging their heart rates to the max from start to finish. That’s the one thing that cyclocross competitors all share during a race: Everyone hurts.
“Cyclocross is that near-perfect blend of suffering and constant self-reflection,” says Marro, 62, who rides for the Sunapee Racing Team. “You struggle against your opponents, the terrain, the weather, but most of all yourself. Everyone suffers, the winner and the guys and gals coming in 15th place. Nobody is spared.”
Marro, a high school teacher, waxes almost poetically about these existential exercises, which he’s participated in since 1989. The races, he says, are like Shakespearean dramas, or Greek tragedies, or in some cases, Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” come to life.
“If there are 50 people in a race, then there are 50 different internal struggles and dramas unfolding,” Marro says. “Everyone looks like they’re riding to their maximum, because they are. Everybody works. Everybody suffers. It’s a community thing. That’s why cross riders help each other.”
The winner of each race, he says, is usually the competitor who “suffers the most.”
“Quite frankly, when I don’t win a race, it’s because it hurts too much. I can’t maintain the effort. I have to back off,” Marro says. “As much as it pains me to back off, no pun intended, I have to back off. There’s no excuse. Everybody has that point. That’s why cross is a great equalizer.”
And the reward? Well, for most, there’s the inevitable endorphin rush. Then there’s the unmistakable, puritanical “struggle builds character” vibe. Or, to quote philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “To live is to suffer, and to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” But perhaps Auburn’s Jack Chapman, who ran the Sucker Brook Cyclocross Race for a dozen years, captures the attraction best.
“One hour of suffering won’t kill you, and it makes the post-race beer taste that much better,” he says with a laugh.
Marro’s teammate on the Sunapee Racing Team, Tim Shea of Amherst, agrees, saying that the sport’s camaraderie has a certain “misery loves company” allure. Shea started racing bikes in the mid-1980s and entered his first cyclocross race in 1998.
“Cross has become my favorite discipline,” says Shea, who estimates he competes in more than a dozen races each year. “The initial attraction was the camaraderie, as many of my friends started racing cross. I like the races where it’s about the race and the socialization, food and beer.
“Even as a mid-pack guy like me, who never wins a road race, in cross there are always ‘my guys’ who I race against week after week,” he says. “The competition isn’t for the win but to better my peers. And with Masters racing, we generally run earlier in the day so we can hang out, cook some food, have a beer and watch the better riders race afterwards.”
Another key component, racers will tell you, is the crowd. Fans line the courses within inches of the racers, cheering them on and often clanging cowbells.
“You definitely hear the crowd pulling for you during races,” says Griggs, before adding with a laugh, “I’ve been a sales rep in the bicycle industry since 1998, so I know a lot of folks around New England. I hear plenty of encouragement — and some constructive criticism as well — from the bleachers at nearly every race. My customers in the bicycle industry have seen me at my best, and worst, every fall.”
According to Nathalie Poirier, a native of Canada now living in Derry, the spectators can make or break a race for competitors.
“Cross racing hurts bad. You have to dig deep no matter how hard you have prepared for it,” says Poirier, 55, the mother of three teenagers. “The family members, friends, bystanders scattered throughout the race course, cheering relentlessly lap after lap, give you the oomph you need to keep pushing.
“You often find people gathered near technical sections, so you better have your act together,” she says. “That’s no time for a faux pas. Inevitably, the crowd pushes you to win that obstacle over and maintain your dignity.”
There’s little doubt that most racers finish with their dignity intact. The sense of accomplishment in simply entering the arena is enough, they say. Whether they know it or not, each cyclocross racer embraces Roosevelt’s words, since they “at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Intrigued by cyclocross? To find a race near you, visit BikeReg.com and search “New Hampshire.”