Like lacrosse, for years now cyclocross has been slowly creeping toward the us from the east. And for all we know, in its beginnings cyclocross was also a noble yet brutal game invented by northeastern Native American tribes. Also like lacrosse, it appeals because it requires us to purchase specialized equipment and because its version of suffering seems uniquely cruel.
Unlike lacrosse, there seems to be little risk that cyclocross is going to compete for and deplete the ranks of our young soccer players and thereby hamstring U.S. chances in future World Cups. In fact, if you aren’t lining up yourself, it isn’t hard to go a year or two here without even noticing cyclocross season. But then, some years, in that tired pause at the end of summer, you will notice that a field of stakes and fluttering tape has appeared in a park or along a riverbank, suddenly and overnight, like crop-circles.
When your kids do not have soccer games or birthday parties, you go to watch the races. You walk the grassy slopes next to the racers’ girlfriends, who have been doing this long enough that they can text and ring their cowbells at the same time, and try to figure out which side of the tape you are supposed to stand on. The fields in this part of the country are often small, usually something fairly close to the number of bike shop employees in the area. To casual observers, racing divisions appear to reflect the eccentric devil-may-care spirit of the sport, and many seem to contain a single racer each. There is the impossibly ethereal skinny guy. There is the mom, and the 11 year old boy. Locally, we have a waxed-mustache division as well as a Clydesdale class for beards weighing more than six ounces. And they all show up and race as if cyclocross were the season to harvest the gains of all their years’ mileage.
It does not look easy. Compared to watching a pro climber in top form or a local expert cleaning the berms on your favorite trail, there is no mistaking what goes up the stairs and over the barriers of a cyclocross course for anything other than gasp-inducing pain that your body will try to get you to regret later. Many of us ride because it creates in us the illusion of a grace that we do not find elsewhere in life. We cannot break a defender down with our crossover. We sit out the “Electric Slide” at weddings. But if we can pass just one person on the Mitchell Road climb, and even if it is just barely, and that person is our wife, we feel a sense of power and imagine that we are dancing on the pedals. From what we can tell here, cyclocross is a form of cycling that shatters such illusions. You have to touch the ground. The bike even rides you for important stretches of the race. It is an especially feral form of bike-racing that I will never, never try, but will go to cheer every time a course pops up in my city.