Cyclocross was a novel sport to me last year when I went to watch friends participate in the U.S. National Cyclocross Championships here in Bend. As a road racer, I had a vague perception of cyclocross as a sort of sideshow in the world of competitive cycling. Racing hurts and when I heard 'cross racers sometimes wear costumes while they're competing, it seemed like people just didn't take 'cross seriously enough to really suffer on the bike.
Of course, that ignorant notion was shattered when I saw my first cyclocross race in person. I was incredibly impressed by the racers' fitness, technical ability and the willingness to turn themselves inside out so publicly. I was even more blown away by the energy of the spectators and the sheer number of them. More than 7,000 people turned out to watch last year's elite championship races on Sunday.
"It was great last year," said local professional cyclocross racer Ryan Trebon, who competes internationally. "I think it was one of the best races we did. It was a loud, rowdy crowd - especially by Deschutes Brewery - it was so loud."
It's not unusual to see fans with painted faces jamming foam fingers into the lens of a close-up camera at a football game. But at a bike race? It takes a lot to generate a crowd of enthusiastic spectators, especially in freezing temperatures, to stand around and watch bicycle racing.
"It was amazing," said Brad Ross, the promoter for both this and last year's national 'cross championships in Bend. "I've been doing cyclocross for 15 years, and I go to world championships and world cup races in Europe," Ross said, "Last year's race here in Bend on Sunday was one big party. The amount of people was off the charts."
The intrinsic appeal of cyclocross for spectators - and the racers themselves - is the exuberance surrounding the events. There is something avant-garde about racing quasi-road bikes on dirt, slogging through quagmires and jumping off to carry the bike over barriers. The renegade attitude transfers to the fans, who ring cowbells, cheer, heckle and sometimes even don costumes and run alongside the course to torment racers.
As part of a larger sport that can sometimes take itself too seriously, cyclocross is a fresh look at competitive cycling. It's tough and unpretentious. Add the tribal rhythm of a drum corps, brisk air and a festival atmosphere and a 'cross race can trigger the memory of a really fun high-school football game.
And when the promoter constructs the course with safe spectator access to the beer garden, it's obvious there's a high value on having fun.
"We've redesigned the course more for spectators than anything," said Ross, "We built a big sky bridge on the course that the racers will ride over and spectators can walk under."
One of the most endearing things about cyclocross is its inclusiveness. Riders of all ages, makes and models participate. While the painfully thin cyclist (like the hero of The Triplets of Belleville) has his day, the more meat-on-his-bones sort of rider also has his. The Clydesdale Cyclocross Championship of the Universe, a special race exclusively for those men who weigh 200 pounds or more, and women who weigh 160 or more, will draw the diesel engines of the sport out to compete on Saturday night. Riders will be seeded based on weight, with the heaviest competitors scoring a starting position at the front of the pack.
"People are so jacked up about cyclocross," said Kevney Dugan, the Sports Development Manager for Visit Bend. "They are literally taking their holiday vacation and coming to Bend for the race."
My friend Lesley McShane is doing just that. She and her family are traveling from Louisville, Ky., for the second year in a row to attend 'cross nationals with 15 junior racers.
"We're insane!" she laughs, "We're 'cross crazy people."
The McShanes, who have traveled extensively this year to cyclocross races around the country, are looking forward to arriving in Bend. "We're excited about coming back," says McShane, "We really love it there."
Riders from almost all 50 states visited Bend last year for 'cross nationals, according to Dugan, translating into $1.08 million in direct tourism spending and $1.3 million in total sales.
"Last year's event raised the transient room tax 22 percent (what the city collects from hotels)," explained Dugan. "That number alone says the event had huge impact."
"This year it's going to be even bigger because a lot of people didn't really understand cylcocross last year. All the best athletes will be here, and they'll be on their very top form, so it's going to be great racing," said Ross.
Three Things to Bring
to a 'Cross Race
1. Noise. Cowbells are the most prolific. Bonus points for an air horn or snare drum.
2. Flag or a sign. Costumes show a deeper level of dedication to 'cross.
3. Beer money.