On the surface, cyclocross (cross) racing appears to be nothing more than racing road bikes off-road, a quirky, counter-seasonal form of bike racing. On closer inspection, cross is more than that. It's a party both on and off the race course, a celebration of cycling, of weirdness, of beer, of being, well, quirky.
And now the party cum racing comes to Bend for the U.S. National Championships December 10 - 13 on a course that starts and finishes in the Old Mill District.
What's cool about cross racing from the spectator standpoint is that, unlike most traditional bike races, you can stand in one place and see most of the racecourse. That, and the races are short in duration, ranging anywhere from a half hour to an hour - depending on the competitive class. The not-so-serious racers go for short time periods and the serious (pros) go for longer stretches.
And for an added value there's the people watching. Look for costumed riders and spectators. Often at a cross races, it's as if the cast of a vintage Fellini film has decided to show up at a cycling event on a cold winter day.
As pro cross racer Carl Decker notes, "I was amazed at the party atmosphere at the first big cross race I saw in Belgium, but I think we do them one better here at our Oregon races."
Speaking of Belgium, a bit of cross history is in order:
Legend has it that cross began in the late 1900s when French road racers began racing their road bikes town-to-town across farm fields, down dirt roads, through bogs, carrying them over fences and other obstacles as a way to beat the boredom of winter and stay in shape.
Up until the '50s, cross was a sport practiced almost exclusively in Europe. After a mid-1950s migration to the States, small pockets of domestic interest sprang up. By 1975 there was enough interest in cross to hold a national championship in Berkeley's Tilden Park. A year later, the championships were held, surprise, in Sunriver.
Now the championships are back (They were held in Portland in 2003 and 2004) in Oregon and will be conducted here next year as well.
Current U.S. national cyclocross champion, and Bend local, Ryan Trebon, who's living proof that tall guys can ride well, will be on hand to defend his title in the pro category. Alongside Trebon will be local cyclists and irreverent fun hogs Adam Craig and Carl Decker.
"Cross is a like big homecoming events for nerds," says Decker, "and it's as much fun racing as it is watching. Having good bike handling skills is a must as the turns on grass get your attention, and then there's the mud to deal with and the inevitable falls," Decker added.
And there's the crowd to watch out of the corner of your eye. Decker recalls one race where a group of spectators were, "sitting around a portable hot tub in Speedos heckling us as we went by."
National Championships race director Brad Ross admits: "the thing I like about cross racing is it's an excuse for adults to act like nine-year olds."
Those adults-as-kids will compete on a short- 2.5 to 3.5 kilometer course that is 90 percent rideable. The course will be three meters wide to allow for passing. At some point, it will have closely spaced 40- centimeter (roughly 16-inch) barriers that riders have to leap over with their bikes on their shoulders. They also might opt to run with their bikes up slick hills.
Cross bikes, while they have the look of stock road machines, are lighter, have more clearance, simpler (single-ring front and ten-speed rear) gearing and use wider, knobby tires - though not as wide as a mountain bike tires. Brand names are not a big deal with cross riders so expect to see a lot of one-off and limited production custom bikes at the races.
Also expect to see a few mountain bikes in the mix as they are favored by a lot of riders new to the sport. And expect to see pit crews trying to get bikes gummed up with mud or dinged in a crash back on course. Substituting a fresh bike for a bum one during a race is also allowed.
Close to 2,500 racers (a quarter of them women), pit crews, crazed spectators, mud, crashes, beer, cycling mayhem, costumes - it's there for the taking at the Old Mill.
2009 Cyclocross Nationals Schedule
All races and awards ceremonies take place in the Old Mill District.
Thur. Dec. 10
7:30am - 3:30pm B-Women and Masters Men Races
7:30am - 3:30pm Juniors and Masters Women Races
Sat. Dec. 12
7am Course Open
7:30am - 10:30pm Masters Men and Junior Men
1 - 3:30pm U-23 Men, Masters Men
Sun. Dec. 13
7:30am Course Open
8:30 - 11:15am Collegiate Men and Elite/ U-23 Women
1pm Collegiate Women
2:30 pm. Elite Men