Thursday, December 13, 2007

STL Today Post Dispatch Story

Cyclocross: Mud, sweat and gears
By Kathleen Nelson
The travel industry coined the term "shoulder season" to define the weeks just before and after a peak in tourism.Cycling has its own, clever spin on shoulder season: cyclocross.Stretching from October through December, cyclocross includes elements of road racing and mountain biking, natural and man-made obstacles and varied terrain that includes stretches where riders carry their bikes on their shoulders."The training for road racing is monotonous," said Mike Heffernan, a test engineer at Boeing by weekday, a bike racer by weekend. "Cyclocross is the fun part. It's like being a kid again. I get to be a 35-year-old who plays in the mud."
Participants and organizers love the races for myriad reasons, which has led to a boom in their popularity. Kansas City is hosting the national championships this weekend, and more than 2,000 cyclists will compete in 40 races over four days. When the city hosted nationals in 2000, about 600 riders participated.So, cyclocross must have more going for it than mud.First is duration. Each race lasts 45 minutes to an hour, compared to the four to six hours of a road race. But the schedule can be spread out over one or several days. The nationals in Kansas City begin Thursday and include about 40 races for riders in age groups and with varying degrees of expertise.Races are staged on a circuit course, ranging from one to two miles, on which riders complete six to 10 laps. The course often includes grass, mud, sand, brief stretches of pavement and short, steep hills. The route also includes man-made barriers, sometimes a flight of steps, other times a set of barricades about a foot high, spaced closely enough that a rider has to get off and carry his bike, rather than bunny-hop the obstacles.Courses often are laid out so that fans can move from one part to the other or so they can see most of the race from one vantage point. "It's getting a lot more popular with spectators," said Matt James, head mechanic at locally owned Mesa Cycles. "It's nice to get out and have people screaming in your face."Like NASCAR, the layout also features a pit lane, where riders can switch tires or bikes or make quick repairs. Heffernan estimated that he had mechanical problems in about 30 percent of the races he entered, as do many competitors. "In cyclocross, you're laughing at each other's misfortunes," he said.Unlike road races, where speeds can exceed 40 mph, cyclocross riders must maneuver twists and turns, so speeds are slower. Crashes are frequent, "but you're hitting grass at 12 mph, rather than asphalt at 35," said Russ Murphy, manager of Mesa and a racer in the masters classification.And, as Heffernan said, "when I crash, the bike is more banged up than I am." Which brings us to equipment. Elite riders spend more than $7,000 for a cyclocross bike, similar to a top-of-the-line road bike. With its drop handlebars and similar frame and wheel size, a cyclocross bike looks like a pared-down road bike. Looks can be deceiving. The cyclocross bike has wider, knobby tires for better traction. Brakes are wider to allow for bigger tires, clumps of mud and for better stopping power. The frame is a bit sturdier — heavier — than a road bike because of the rugged terrain. The crankset is mounted higher for better clearance over mud and obstacles.Many competitors, though, even some at nationals, will modify a road or mountain bike."There comes a point where money is an object," Murphy said. "Since 'cross season is short, a lot of people don't see the need for another bike."Like other forms of cycling, Americans entered cyclocross late but are catching up. The sport began in northern Europe in the 1940s as a way for road racers to stay in shape and to hone their bike-handling skills in the offsesason. The region remains a hotbed; the world championships often are held in Belgium or the Netherlands. Races are broadcast live on television and can attract hundreds of thousands of spectators.American men have begun to crack the top 10 in European races, including Ryan Trebon, who is expected to compete in Kansas City. Katie Compton, who is ranked second in the world, also will compete at nationals.Mike Weiss, owner of Big Shark Bicycle Co., said he organized his first cyclocross race here eight years ago. It attracted 30 riders. This year, the store sponsored a series of 10 races, each of which attracted about 90 to 100 riders. Seventy-nine Missourians have registered for nationals. Weiss also noted that he sold more cyclocross bikes each year, in part because they also make good touring and commuting bikes.And success breeds success. Jeff Yielding organized the Missouri State Cyclocross Championships last week in Hermann. Yielding, who will compete in Kansas City, said city officials in Hermann saw the crowds that the Tour of Missouri attracted and were eager to help host the state cyclocross races."Cyclocross was the easiest of the races to organize and promote," said Yielding, who has organized and promoted road races in the past. "I'm ready to do it again next year." 314-340-8233

1 comment:

  1. Jeff - nice article. I think it took too long to get to the important part.
    See you this week end.