They pedal, push and scramble their way through mounds of mud and storms of dust. Welcome to the messy world of cyclocross.
When we drive into Marymoor Park just outside of Seattle, a foggy mist is starting to settle over the velodrome up ahead. Something about the scene doesn’t feel right. The Pacific Northwest has been hit by a drought all summer long: surely fog can’t settle in temperatures like this? But as we near the racers speeding around the track – as dirt-encrusted eyes and mouths come into focus – it soon becomes clear that what we’re dealing with here is not fog but dust. A storm-load of the stuff. The blazing sun and throngs of cyclocross riders snaking and looping their way through the city park have combined to kick up a dust storm of epic proportions, one that moves and sways with the riders themselves.
Cyclocross has taken hold in the US with a grip that’s not about to let go. Until the late 1960s, this rugged off-road strand of cycling was most prevalent in Belgium, where muddy, frozen races, usually held in early winter, were used as a training ground for competitive road-racers. It quickly gathered a following, with thousands coming out to cheer on their countrymen while scoffing down sausages and pints of Belgian beer. And it’s easy to see why. With one-hour races broken up into short, fast laps, cyclocross is a great spectator sport. But here at Starcrossed, the emphasis is on participation – best exemplified during the ‘kiddie cross’, a real crowd-pleaser that sees parents wheeling their children out, complete with crooked helmets and tiny bikes, and pushing them off gently to navigate a short course on their own.
So, what is it that makes cyclocross unique? Unlike their tarmac-trained counterparts, riders cover a mix of on- and off-road terrain – hence the need for a steed that marries a road bike frame with sturdy tyres that could rip a mountain to shreds. The courses themselves vary in length but tend to stick to a pretty small footprint, usually around venues like school grounds, city parks and possibly a state fair or two. Obstacles may be placed in the racers’ way, ranging from 40cm-high wooden barriers to run-ups so steep that riders are forced to dismount, sling their bikes on their shoulders and scramble up the route.
Events tend to vary from place to place. Typically, the East Coast takes things a little more seriously than the West, where men racing in drag is a common sight. Some are confined to a small region, like the Verge New England Cyclocross Series. The US Gran Prix of Cyclocross (USGP), on the other hand, is a series of eight races scattered across the country in places like Fort Collins, Colorado and Louisville, Kentucky – the latter being the home of the season’s pinnacle event, the Cyclocross World Championship, which takes place in January.
Starcrossed lies somewhere between the big races and the smaller, local events. Aside from a great atmosphere, it boasts two unique features: the course includes a velodrome, and the whole thing takes place at night.
It’s 6pm and the beginners are blasting around the track. The race kicked-off in a parking lot, then wound it’s way through the park, making rough, large loops around the exterior of the velodrome before dipping down its banked sides and heading into the grassy infield. Next up is a sharp turn in front of the beer tent, then a quick dismount and scramble over some wooden barriers – all before heading out of the velodrome and onto the next lap.
As the sun sets at Starcrossed, the bright halogen bulbs of the velodrome pop on to guide the Elite Field – a line-up of semi-professional competitors who constitute the fastest racers of the day. Some riders make a living out of cyclocross, like Rapha-FOCUS rider Jeremy Powers and Tim Johnson who rides for Cannondale/CyclocrossWorld.com. Others, who must make a living elsewhere race alongside their nine-to-five. The Speedvagen team, based out of Portland, is a mix of serious racers and go-fast near-professionals. Their newly converted armoured van-cum-team vehicle speaks of their general ethos; as a team, they value humour and good times above actual race results.
Daisuke Yano owns the Yatsugatake Bicycle Studio in Japan, but often travels with Speedvagen to races around the globe. “Japan used to follow the way Europe did cyclocross, aiming for high-level racing and not necessarily growing the sport,” explains Daisuke. “Today, Japan references the US’ style of cyclocross races; amateur racers are encouraged and races have a high entertainment value. The venue atmosphere is similar to that in the US.”
Jeff Curtes also rocks Speedvagen’s blue and green skinsuit with pride. As a seasoned photographer with deep roots in the snowboarding world, he had his own reasons for entering the cyclocross world. “After a long winter of watching pro snowboarders do their thing, cycling has always been my time to get in there – my fifteen minutes, so to speak,” he explains. “And growing up the middle of three brothers, the competitiveness made racing almost inevitable. All it took was one Cross Crusade – Portland’s huge local series – which I went to as an observer, and I knew it was on. I love everything about cross: the sexiness of the machines, the shit weather and terrain, and the every-man-for-himself dynamic of how the races play out. You don’t need a team to be on top.”
At Starcrossed, the final race has come to a close. Hacking coughs hang in the air as the racers stand around hugging and clapping each other on the back. Dirt and dust has caked itself into their smiles and in between their teeth. They drift over to the start area to claim the water bottles they left behind when the gun went off. Jeff Curtes lets out a primordial scream as he drags his bike across the line – something malfunctioned and he was forced to ride the last few laps with only one gear instead of the usual ten. His voice bounces off the banked sides of the velodrome as he yells, “That was awesome!” Nothing, not even a broken bike can quell the rush of adrenaline that comes from having just pedalled, sprinted, jumped, crashed, turned, smashed, bumped, grabbed and raced your way through another cyclocross course.
Next stop: the USGP in Louisville, Kentucky. With the World Championships right around the bend the racers will check out the course (and their competitors) in what will be the most heated contest of the season. There will be battles in Belgium and France, but for the first time, the final decider will take place on US soil. And everyone is hyped.