This story is taken from Sacbee / Outbound / Cycling
Grueling cyclocross has a relaxed vibe – that includes some of its choices for race venues
Published Thursday, Jan. 06, 2011
They say cyclocross, a hybrid of road racing and mountain biking, is a hang-loose, laid-back sport in which competitors try not to take themselves too seriously.
This, however, may be taking that notion to an extreme:
Saturday's races will be held at Laguna del Sol, a clothing-optional spa and resort tucked away outside Wilton.
Bike racing in the buff? Now there would be something different.
"We've been joking about that," said Bruno Pitton, the points leader in the eight-race Sacramento Cyclocross Series. "But I'll definitely be wearing my skin suit."
By that, we hasten to add, Pitton means a tight-fitting outfit made of Lycra. All the competitors promise to be fully clothed – and most likely will be covered with an added layer of mud shortly after the starter's horn sounds. And don't worry, cyclocross fans – all spectators will don garments.
But holding a race at the Sacramento area's noted nudist colony seems to fit the quirky, unconventional gestalt of a sport that has long been popular in Europe and is making inroads in the United States. Two previous races in the Sacramento series, for example, were held at Lange Twins Winery in Acampo.
Wine, then nudism? What's next, a race at a shooting range?
"It's true about the cyclocross scene," said Linda Elgart, one of the nation's top Masters woman racers. "It's so friendly, supportive, relaxed and fun. Whereas in road racing, it's very head-to-head and competitive. In cyclocross, you're spread out all over the course, and it's a feeling, like, we're all in this together."
Elgart and her husband, John, who also is a national Masters division champion, launched the Sacramento race series eight years ago and ran it for five years. At first, getting 25 entrants was considered a decent field. But participation steadily grew under the leadership of Rich Maile, an elite racer, and now is thriving under its new promoter, Brian Joder of BicyclingEvents. com.
Joder said most races this fall and winter (the season ends Jan. 22) have drawn 300 riders, with most of the growth coming in the "C" (novice) and Masters events (age 40-plus) groups.
"It's great to see this many new people jumping into the sport," Joder said.
That's not surprising to the Elgarts, who saw the potential of cyclocross early on.
"It's become very accessible," Linda Elgart said. "I've seen a lot of people competing in cross who've neither done road nor mountain biking. The races tend to be close to home, in a park, so you can bring the family.
"It doesn't really matter how you do. People spectating can't even tell who's first or last on the laps. Plus, it's like playing in the mud like a kid. That appeals to everyone."
At the elite level, of course, competition can be fierce. There's more pride than prize money on the line, though the winner of a Sacramento Cyclocross Series event usually gets enough dough to buy the first round of beers at a post-race gathering.
Cyclocross requires a high level of fitness and power output to the pedals, combined with technical bike handling over uneven terrain and a certain tactical savvy. Plus, you'd better be happy to get a mud bath, because most races feature trails that get sloppy in January.
Competitors use a modified road bike with thin, knobby tires and drop handlebars. They traverse what usually is a 2.1-kilometer track (about 1.3 miles) for about 10 laps. A race lasts only about an hour, but the intensity is such that riders are pushing their maximum heart rate throughout – while periodically dismounting, running and lifting the bike over barriers, then remounting.
A 2009 feature on the sport in Men's Fitness magazine called it a "demolition derby on two wheels, combining flying elbows, mental cunning, fried thighs, seared lungs, the recurring prospect of carnage and furious sprint finishes."
Where's the laid-back accessibility in that?
Well, there is competition in cyclocross. It is a race, after all. But what separates cyclocross from road racing is the more welcoming vibe at the venue.
"I used to road race a little, but I got tired of it," said Pitton, a Winters resident. "Road racers, they're all uptight. Everyone at the start line is super-serious. In cross, the attitude seems better.
"At road races, there's a lot of trash talking. Everybody thinks they're the fastest out there and their team is the greatest. I don't know why it's different in cross, but it is."
Joder, who promotes road, mountain and cyclocross races, said the three cycling cultures differ.
"Roadies are very cliquey and domineering and egotistical," he said. "Cyclocross is definitely a notch or two more relaxed, and the mountain biking crowd is even more relaxed.
"I'm a roadie myself, and part of the reason for that is that you're on the hard road going quite fast, in tight packs – you can get hurt really severely if some guy's jumping in your group who doesn't know what he's doing. And there's always been more money in the road stuff. Cross isn't there yet."
Cycling veterans say road racers are attracted to cyclocross as off-season training when paved roads are too slick for safety. They say they leave their egos at home at cyclocross races because fitness and endurance don't count for as much.
Mountain bikers, for their part, are attracted by the prospect of showing off bike-handling skills forged by navigating rocky terrain. They, mostly, have no ego to leave behind.
But John Elgart said he's noticed a new breed of cyclist – the cyclocross specialist – who eschews any other type of racing.
"You don't even need to do cyclocross races to enjoy the fun of riding on trails," he said. "The bike gives you a sense that you're just flying over the terrain. It can be addictive."
It's an inner-child thing, Joder said. But relatively safe, too.
"You're like a kid going out to play in the mud with your buddies," he said. "If you can remember how to do that, then you'll have fun out there. If you're a recreational rider, it's all about the camaraderie, the fun and the war stories.
"Cross has a lot of falling going on, but very little injury compared to mountain biking or road (racing). It's slippery. Instead of hitting the ground and going thud, you hit the ground and slide. Mountain biking has firm dirt – and road, of course, is asphalt."
Cyclocross courses sometimes include stretches of pavement. But they're mostly grass and dirt – mud, if it rains – offset with short, sharp hills and erected barriers as high as 18 inches.
It's at those barriers where riders often are forced to dismount and carry the bike to surer footing. Riders adept at quick dismounts and remounts gain considerable advantage, experts say. Another key to cyclocross success is knowing where, on a muddy or rock-strewn course, to guide your wheels.
"Finding the right line is the thing," Pitton said. "Watch guys like Rich Maile. He doesn't take the line everyone else is taking. He's somewhat unorthodox. When it's real muddy, sometimes you take lines that are well off to the side. (The trail surface will) be slightly more packed. I've ridden the grass on the side and it's helped me."
Being a good runner can help, too.
"Once you get used to the mud, it's the same (tactics as other cycling disciplines), except maybe there's more running," John Elgart said. "At (the) Lange Twins (winery race near Acampo, Dec. 18), the course became progressively more unrideable. By the end, people were running quite a bit.
"But that's OK. Everybody respects everybody else because they're all out dealing with the elements."
And playing in the mud.
SACRAMENTO CYCLOCROSS SERIES
• The next race in the series is Saturday at the Laguna del Sol resort off Dillard Road near Wilton. The first race begins at 9:30 a.m. Cost to race is $30 for first-timers; $25 for each race thereafter. Juniors are $20 the first time, $15 thereafter.
• The final race of the series is Jan. 22 at Willow Hill Reservoir, 1655 Iron Point Road in Folsom.
For more information: www.bicyclingevents.com/SacCx
Cyclocross melds mountain biking and road racing. Competitors use a road-bike frame with tires that are wider and knobby, though not as wide as mountain bike tires.
What's a cyclocross race like?
Racers compete on all sorts of off-road terrain strewn with obstacles. Competitors occasionally dismount and carry their bikes, hoisted on their shoulders, to elude obstacles. Most courses are a series of laps, usually lasting about an hour.
When did cyclocross start?
By most accounts, it began in France in the early 1900s, though the Netherlands and Belgium also lay claim. It was originally a way for road cyclists to stay in shape and work on bike handling during the rainy off-season. In the United States, cyclocross began in the 1970s.
Where in Sacramento can you race cyclocross?
Each fall and winter, Sacramento Cyclocross holds an eight-race series at venues at parks and other open spaces throughout the area.
– Sam McManis
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