It's happening this weekend in Louisville.
Men. Women. Mud. Lots of mud. Cold mud. Wet mud. Frozen mud. Stick-to-everything-you-don't-want-it-to-mud. Mud, mud, mud, mud, (to the tune of Monty Python's spam song), mud, mud, mud, mud.
Maybe a better song lyric is Robert Cray's classic Forecast (Calls For Pain):
I can hear approaching thunder
I can feel chills run up my spine
I've seen love freeze before
And I know I'm on borrowed time
The forecast calls for pain
Just substitute the word "love" for "mud" and you can pretty much sense the anxiety of the world's top cyclocross racers as they prepare for their grueling championship event. With temperatures between 31 and 37 degrees and a 50% chance of snow flurries on Saturday and a spread between 27 and 40 with sunshine on Sunday, it's nearly impossible to predict what the course will look and feel like by the time any given race commences.
That, my friends, is only part of what makes cyclocross racing so exciting, yet at the same time, difficult to explain to the uninitiated.
Think of 'cross (as we affectionately call it) as bicycle steeplechase. The love child of mountain biking and road cycling with enough recessive genes that you're never sure if you have a genius or a lunatic on your hands. A criterium raced on grass with randomly placed obstacles, hairpin turns, and short, steep hills that force racers to dismount, sling their bikes across their shoulders, and sprint on foot in very uncomfortable shoes. Double Dare with mud in place of slime.
Cross is raced on - you guessed it - a cyclocross bike. CX bikes are road bikes with knobby tires and either cantilever or disc brakes to minimize the effects of mud buildup. Cross bikes have evolved since Bianchi introduced the first model - the Volpe - to a nascent market in 1986. The original durable steel bikes with great tire clearance and center pull brakes with wide brake pads are now used more for commuting, touring, and backroad adventures while racers opt for superlight carbon fiber framesets, deep dish carbon wheels, tubeless tires, hydraulic disc brakes, and electronic shifting. Pro and amateur racers are willing to invest whatever it takes to have a technical advantage on the race course.
Every course is different. Imagine a high school cross country running course taped off in a wide open field. The unique topography dictates straightaways for sprinting, hills for climbing (or dismounting), corners for momentum change, and barriers for speed reduction. A particular course's degree of difficulty is only limited by the imagination of the race organizer. No two courses are ever the same. Even the same course will change from one race to the next based on how it was ravaged by the weather and the prior group of competitors.
One of my favorite courses - Cross Vegas - features a 90-degree turn, a row of foot-high-ish barriers, and a short, steep hill with a 180 at the crest. Some riders dismount, shoulder their bikes, leap the hurdles on foot, roll their bikes uphill, and hop back on the saddle as they turn and roll back downhill. Others remain in the saddle, bunny hop the barriers, climb, corner, and descend without ever clipping out of their pedals. Each rider's particular set of skills and each course's unique layout dictate the best way for the race to be run.
And run at maximum heart rate for up to an hour...
Cyclocross racing is a timed event ranging from 30 minutes to a full hour based on the rider's racing category. Courses typically measure between 2.5 and 3.5 kilometers, so the average lap speed will determine how many laps will be completed during the time limit. Riders are continually notified of time and laps remaining while slower riders who get passed by the lead riders (also known as being lapped) are usually pulled from the race. While the race will be decided at the front of the pack, watching the pack negotiate each segment is worth the price of admission.
Vantage point is key for spectators. While the course is too vast to view the full action all at once, fans can pick a section, line the fences, and cheer on their favorite riders with catcalls and cowbells. Fans have even been known to hand off cups of beer and dollar bills as the racers pass by. After taking in the various techniques riders employ as they navigate a particular obstacle, spectators are free to walk to a different section of the course and bear witness to an entirely new torture session.
Cross is grand prix with gladiators. Men and women racing full tilt, relying on athletic conditioning, cunning, and mad bike handling skills to conquer the course, the elements, and their competitors. It's unlike any other form of bicycle racing and just this side of The Amazing Race in terms of unpredictable challenge.
If you can't hop on Megabus and head down to Kentucky this Saturday and Sunday, you can tune in to live coverage at Cyclocross Magazine's website. I'll be there watching it with a couple of my work buddies and dozens of friends from the bike industry, but don't count on me for lap-by-lap tweeting.
My fingers will be frozen to my cowbell. Less commenting and more cowbell!
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Keep riding and be safe.