Lonny Mahoney lost his lead on the sixth lap of the race, skinny tires spinning on grass, brakes squeaking as he slowed through a turn. It was a Wednesday evening, a gray sky arching over Buffer Park in Hopkins, Minn., where a squad from the Minnesota Cycling Team meets to train on a quarter-mile-long course through a field.
“Go, go, go!” yelled a rider on the sidelines. Mahoney whizzed by, eyes fixed on the course ahead. Then, at the base of a hill, Mahoney dismounted, shouldering his bike to leap a small wooden hurdle, shoes digging in, turf flying as he chased his opponent uphill and on foot.
ABOVE: Grinding through the grass at Grumpy’s CX race last November in Blaine, Minn.
This is cyclocross, an upcoming cycling discipline where off-road courses with tight turns, muddy slopes, steep banks, sand pits, and manmade obstacles make up the medium of the sport. Riders tuck and pedal hard on straightaways, then skid through turns. They get on and off their bikes multiple times per lap, leaping pre-placed barriers on foot before re-mounting to pedal back into the pack.
Cyclocross bikes eschew suspension, trading rigidity and bumps for a faster ride. Drop-bar handles and road-bike geometry foster further speed. Skinny tires with knobby tread saw the ground for grip.
“It’s a bit bizarre, kind of a fringe thing still,” said Kevin Lennon, captain of the 30-member Minnesota Cycling Team. “But cyclocross has gotten big.”
The number of competitive cyclocross riders in the United States more than doubled in recent years, growing from about 17,000 registered racers in 2004 to nearly 40,000 last season, according to USA Cycling, a Colorado Springs, Colo., organization that sanctions competitive cycling events. Hundreds of races are held each autumn in the U.S., from Oregon to Colorado to Maine. USA Cycling’s ’08 Cyclocross National Championships are December 11 – 14 in Kansas City.
Internationally, competition is administered by the Union Cycliste Internationale, the Switzerland-based organization that oversees the Tour de France, the Mountain Bike & Trials World Championships, and other major professional cycling events. “There’s a strong scene here all of a sudden,” said Lennon, who attributes the sport’s rise to its fast pace and ease of accessibility for road riders and mountain bikers alike.
ABOVE: Hopping a hurdle.
With short, multi-lap courses, finish times for ‘cross races hover in the 45- to 60-minute range. The venues are spectator-friendly: Crashes, breakaways, mud baths, hurdle leaps and all other action is often visible from bleachers or a central viewing area. “Unlike mountain biking, where riders are off on long, remote laps, in cyclocross you can watch the whole race,” Lennon added.
Speed, power, technical bike handling on off-road terrain, and mental toughness are required skills in cyclocross, which was invented nearly 100 years ago in Europe as an offseason training regimen for road racers. Hurdles or barriers create the unique get-off-the-bike-and-run transitions that visually define the sport.
“You pop off the bike, jump, and run — it’s one fluid motion,” said Stuart Thorne, a former professional rider from Wenham, Mass., who now operates the online publication CyclocrossWorld.com. “The best riders hardly slow down.”
Top ‘cross riders mix skills from mountain biking, criterium racing, track cycling and road riding. Huge aerobic output is required, as cyclocross provides few opportunities to rest. “Courses are technical and relentless,” Thorne said. “I can rest on a downhill section while mountain biking, or in road biking you draft in the pack, but in cyclocross you push yourself as hard as you can for the duration of event.”
At Buffer Park, where the Minnesota Cycling Team trains, the course is short but sufficiently cruel: A sprint on an adjacent sidewalk leads to a matted grass lane that swerves and climbs a 15-foot rise. The course dips and turns back on itself, then runs into a short wall of plywood, the first of three barriers on the loop.
A climb back up the hill, a banked turned, a slalom through trees, then a log dragged from the woods are encountered further along, forcing constant attention, constant motion, constant braking, turning, and leaping on and off the bike three times for every two-minute lap.
ABOVE: Dismount. Jump. Remount. The cyclocross routine.
After an hour of intervals and practice time, the riders decided to race. “Let’s go!” yelled Mark Mettler, as the group started a 10-lap face off.
Mettler, Mahoney and rider Dan Cleary took just one lap to break away from the pack. They pedaled and braked and leapt barriers in close succession, breathing hard, but staying calm, keeping pace.
Cleary dropped back by lap No. 5. Then Mettler passed Mahoney. “Come on Lonny!” someone shouted.
But Mettler widened the gap, spinning the pedals in a quick cadence, jumping on and off the bike without pause.
ABOVE: Mud pits are no match for skinny tires moving fast.
On lap No. 10, Mahoney fumbled a final barrier, skidding to a near-stop, scrambling off the saddle, and wheeling his bike frame over the wood almost out of control. Mettler pedaled on to win.
“That was it,” Mahoney said after the race. “I was going to pass on the last tree, but I couldn’t unclip [my pedal] in time.”
Near a barrier where the team gathered, Mettler was breathing hard, leaning over on his handlebars for a break. “That was intense,” he said, shaking Mahoney’s hand. “I just kept pedaling, I knew you were there, but I didn’t want to look back.”
(Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eleven U.S. newspapers; see www.THEGEARJUNKIE.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog, and an archive of Regenold’s work.)