By Craig Hill
Tacoma News Tribune
Published November 3, 2005
TACOMA, Wash. -- Cyclocross is kind of like mountain biking, except you regularly sling your bike over your shoulder and sprint up steep hills and jump over obstacles.
And it's kind of like road biking, except you regularly veer off the road and splash through the mud.
"What it is, is steeplechase on a bike," says Jerry Brown, the man known as Washington's godfather of cross.
Justin McGregor, assistant manager of Tacoma's Old Town Bicycle, says the best description he's heard is "Cyclocross is bike racing's punk-rock cousin."
Cyclocross, a cross between road and mountain biking, is growing wildly in popularity in the Northwest and around the country.
When the Emerald City Cyclocross Series kicked off its 10-race season at North SeaTac Park in SeaTac, Wash., at the end of September, there were more than 400 participants. In 1993, when Brown held the first race to raise money for the Marymoor Velodrome Association, he was happy to have 50.
"Now we're bursting at the seams," Brown says. "We are as big as we ought to be. We need people to start other race series around Western Washington."
Races are held on short courses, typically three miles, and the winner is the rider who covers the most laps in a predetermined amount of time, usually 30 minutes to an hour. Courses typically include road riding, trail riding, steep hills and man-placed obstacles you have to carry your bike over.
"It's basically, how much pain can you stand," says Woodinville, Wash.'s Dave Fette, whose 12-year-old son, J.D., is a reigning cyclocross national champion.
While some compete on mountain bikes, they are at a disadvantage. Cyclocross bikes are geared to go faster and do much better on the road portions of the course. And while they look like road bikes, they are sturdier, have stronger brakes and have more clearance for knobby tires.
"If you tried to use a road bike on the course, it probably wouldn't hold up," says Jerry Cutright, coach of the Kent, Wash.-based Oh Boy! Oberto youth cyclocross team.
Cross, as the sport is commonly called, started in Europe more than 100 years ago as a way for cyclists to train in the winter. When a rider got cold, he warmed up by jumping off his bike and running with it over his shoulder.
The sport has developed a huge following in Europe.
Its popularity has increased in the Northwest over the past five years, as have all bicycling disciplines thanks to Lance Armstrong's Tour de France dominance.
"All fitness activities like this are becoming more popular," Baker says. "It's the trend right now. ... But I think people are drawn to cross because it is really fun. It's inclusionary -- the entire family can participate."
Family that bikes together . . .
The Fette family bikes together. While J.D. is winning on the youth circuit, his dad is a competitive mountain biker and his mom, Michelle, competes both in road and mountain bike events.
"It's proven to be a great atmosphere to be in," Dave Fette says. "It's the type of people you want your family to be around -- high-quality people who are self-motivated, health-oriented and like to challenge themselves."
McGregor, 24, tried cross for the first time a year ago and found the challenge he was looking for as he pedaled through North SeaTac Park.
"It was the hardest ride I've ever done," says McGregor, a passionate road rider. "I remember getting done and being tired and sore, and I couldn't wait to do it again."
One of the things Mike Walters of Tacoma likes best about cross is that it gets kids outdoors. His son, Sam, competes on the Oh Boy! Oberto youth team.
"Sam will ask his friends if they've ever been to Mt. Rainier, and only about one or two out of 10 will say yes," Walters says. "It just blows me away. We've become a sedentary society. I hope as this sport grows it will help fix that."
Sam and J.D., like their teammates, also play more traditional sports through clubs and their junior high schools. Sam plays basketball and baseball, and J.D. plays soccer and skis.
Cross is different.
There are no parents whining in the stands that the coach should put their children in. In cyclocross, everybody plays.
There are no parents pushing their kids to earn scholarships. In cross, there are no scholarships.
"It would be misleading to say there are no demanding parents," Fette says. "But it is different because it's such an individual experience. There is not a lot of extrinsic gratification. You don't get your name in the paper or your face on TV, and there are no big award ceremonies."
And there's a lesson there, too. "There is a purity to cross that you don't find in a lot of other things," Walters says. "You do it for the love of the sport."