It's a wonderful thing to have your long-held impressions pleasantly shattered. For instance, in every photo I'd ever seen of cyclocross...

Share story

It’s a wonderful thing to have your long-held impressions pleasantly shattered. For instance, in every photo I’d ever seen of cyclocross bike racing, there’s usually a rider lugging his or her bike, trudging miserably through mud.


As an avid cyclist and triathlete obsessed with constant forward motion, the faster the better, this didn’t appeal to me. Or maybe just a tiny bit more than, say, wasting a sunny spring Saturday watching “Poker Superstars” on TV.


Enter that impression-shattering Saturday a couple weeks ago.


There I was under dark, threatening skies at the Clif Bar/FSA Star-Crossed cyclocross race at Marymoor Park with 75 other riders, crammed together like cars at the Anacortes ferry terminal.


When the starting horn blew, we sprinted off down a muddy ribbon of trail that led to 35 minutes of the most ridiculously intense, heart-pounding, hang-on-for-dear-life fun I’ve had in a long, long time. My preconceived notions quickly evaporated as I found out first-hand what cyclocross was really like.


It’s pedaling across lumpy grass fields and curvy stretches of sand, shouldering your bike and running (as it were) and leaping (as it were) over foot-high barricades; it’s maneuvering down steep slippery slopes into squishy intestine-like turns, climbing log steps up a hill while carrying a bike that suddenly feels anvil-heavy; it’s sprinting all-out when the slightest gap opens up between you and other riders — and it’s getting soaked and downright filthy while doing it.


It’s everything your mother would never want to see you do. (In other words, it’s great fun.) And you’re doing it on a bike that looks like the 10-speed Schwinn Varsity you grew up riding.

“It was awesome,” said Seattle’s Nick Franzen after his first ‘cross race ended prematurely. Hopping off his bike to run over one of the obstacles, the 25-year-old stepped on the front rim of his bicycle, bending his disk brake.


“I’m bummed, but you know what, I’ll be back,” he said.


Tight quarters


Across the infield and around the perimeter of the Marymoor Velodrome, the 1-mile course weaves back and forth. It’s narrow, too, much of it only two bike-lengths wide, if that. Riders fight for position, especially near the start, and more than a couple aggressive pleasantries are exchanged.


“It’s shoulder-to-shoulder riding in there,” Franzen said. (To my nodding head.) “It’s not like mountain-bike racing where the riders get strung out and separated.”


If you go



Where


The Seattle Cyclocross holds the Emerald City Cyclocross Race Series from September through early December at various Puget Sound area parks. There also are training sessions Wednesday nights at the Marymoor Velodrome through Nov. 30. Races are $20, $5 for those age 12 to 18, free for those 2 to 11. Training sessions begin at 6:30 p.m. and cost $10 for adults, $5 for those 18 and under. Everything is open to the public.


Here’s the schedule. First race starts at 9:30 a.m.:


Oct. 23 — Kelly Creek, Sumner.


Oct. 30 — Fort Steilacoom Park, Lakewood


Nov. 6 — Donida Farms, Auburn


Nov. 13 — Fort Flagler, near Port Townsend


Nov. 20 — Evergreen High School, White Center


Nov. 27 — South SeaTac Park, SeaTac


For more information, go to www.seattlecyclocross.com.


In addition, here are some non-ECC cyclocross races in the region:


Saturday — Tour de Tunnel Cyclocross Festival, Fort Worden State Park, Port Townsend. Races start at 10 a.m. Cost is $20, $10 for those 18 and under. Information: www.ragnarokracing.com or call 206-291-7773.


Oct. 22, 29; Nov. 5, 19 — Pacific Cross at Pacific Raceways, Kent. Races start at 9:30 a.m. Information: www.buduracing.com or call 253-334-4433.


Free cyclocross training and instruction are offered Tuesday nights through early December at Kitsap Community Park in East Port Orchard. Sessions start at 5 p.m. and are open to riders of all levels. Information: andygreene@wavecable.com.


Cyclocross training is available at Cycle University, a Seattle bicycle training center. Two-hour cyclocross sessions start at 6 p.m. Tuesdays, through November at Genesee Park. Cost is $15 per class with discounts available. For information, check www.cycleu.com and click on “Cyclocross,” or call 206-938-1091.


At 7:30 p.m. Oct. 21, “Pure, Sweet Hell,” a documentary about cyclocross racing will be shown at the Blue Mouse Theatre, 2611 N. Proctor St., Tacoma. For information, call the theater at 253-752-9500 or Old Town Bicycle, which is sponsoring the screening, at 253-573-9400. Admission is $6. The film’s Web site, www.cyclocrossfilm.com, includes a clip of the film.


Cyclocross originated in the early 1900s in Europe as a means for bike racers to train and compete in the winter after the road cycling season ended. Gradually the sport made its way to the U.S. and since the 1960s has enjoyed a somewhat underground fringe following in places like Seattle and Portland, New England, Northern California and Colorado.


In recent years, probably due to both the Lance Armstrong effect — where all things cycling-related have become more popular — and the ubiquity of mountain biking, cyclocross is bigger than ever.


More than 300 riders participated in the Star-Crossed event, six races in all, and almost 350 raced the following day at an Emerald City Cyclocross Race Series event at South SeaTac Park. ECC holds nine races from September to early December. Four years ago, 171 people showed up for the season’s first race; this year, participants numbered more than 450. Attendance at the group’s Wednesday night workout and training sessions is up, too.


“Our practices have gone from being an intimate group of friends beating up on each other to upwards of 80-plus people showing up,” said Seattle’s Matthew Hill, a cyclocross instructor who also races for Gregg’s Cycle/Redline.


Widespread appeal


Besides the popularity wave it’s riding, cyclocross has several other things going for it. Accessibility is one. Most events feature six or more races for riders of all ages, skill and experience level, so nearly everyone can find a category or race. There’s even a category for kids age 2 to 11.


“The kids are so inspirational,” Hill says. “They’re like those little 4 and 5 year olds you see bombing the slopes at ski areas, only these kids are bombing through the cyclocross course. Some of them are even on training wheels.”


Races are short — 35 minutes to an hour — and are the most spectator friendly of all bike races. After my race (Men’s C), I stood on a rise above the velodrome and 90 percent of the course was laid out in front of me or just behind — and I nearly went deaf at the same time from the noise from some of the nearly 1,000 fans, many of them ringing cowbells.


(Along with disc-jockey-spun thumping tunes and wise-cracking announcers, the X-Games-ish event boasts a beer garden.)


You don’t need a cyclocross bike to participate. I borrowed one for the day, but mountain bikes are allowed, too. (With their dropped handlebars and skinny tires, cyclocross bikes look like road bikes, but the frames are more sturdily built and their tires have a more aggressive knobby tread. Though built tough, they’re not mountain-bike heavy, which is important when you have to run while carrying your bike 20 to 30 times during a race.)


“Cyclocross is very beginner friendly,” Hill says. “In some ways, it’s so ridiculous that it’s impossible to be embarrassed. A beginner can be comforted by the fact that everybody looks as silly as they do.”


Speaking of silly, back in the race, I was beginning to feel a bit silly and tired and wondering when my race was going to end. It was supposed to have been 35 minutes long or until you’re lapped by the leaders, neither of which had happened, though my watch showed that I was closing in.


Never having done cyclocross before, I had started out easy figuring that it would be just like 5K foot races — a lot of people start harder than they should then pay for it later.


Aggressive start


I got comfortable with all the crazy turns, the steep bridge climb and descent, and dialed in the rhythm I needed to run through the obstacles — jump off my left foot and kind of gallop right over them. For a couple of laps, I rode aggressively, reeling back in some of those folks who started too fast.


But the last lap or so wasn’t pretty. I was tiring and my legs were a little wobblier each time through the hurdles. I was beginning to fear a fall. Earlier, I’d barely avoided a couple of ugly pileups when riders went down near me. It hadn’t looked like fun.


So when this young skinny rider passed right by me with ease, I wasn’t exactly disappointed. He was the leader, so the race judge ushered me and another rider who’d also just been lapped off the course. We found ourselves, along with about 30 others, in kind of a corral of the vanquished, a taped-off area just across from the beer garden.


I was exhausted but it was that terrific kind of exhaustion. The music was blaring, there was a constant din of hysteria — whoops, hollers, cowbells — and I was feeling that I’ve-just-discovered-something-special rush.


And I was across from the beer garden — not exactly a bad place to be.


Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “Day Hike! Central Cascades” (Sasquatch Books) and “A Falcon Guide to the Mount Baker-Mount Shuksan Area” (Falcon). He can be reached at mikemcquaide@comcast.net.