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The Cycling Trend That’ll Get You Dirty This Fall

Cowbells, mud, and even bacon make cyclocross different from your typical bike race.

Photo: Snowy Mountain Photography

Like a steeplechase or a Tough Mudder race on wheels instead of feet. A marriage of road and mountain biking. A spectator-friendly event along the lines of a tractor pull.

No matter how you describe it, the type of bike racing known as cyclocross has attracted a growing number of Midwest cyclists in recent years — from elite athletes to new riders, road racers to bike messengers, and juniors as young as 9 to masters age 55 and older.

“One of the biggest highlights for me is how great it is for people of different abilities,” says Rory Jack, 28, who’s been racing for nine years. “It’s enjoyable for everyone on the course.”

Jack happens to be at the front of the pack — he moved here two years ago from Seattle, which itself has a thriving ’cross scene. Last year, he competed in the Cyclocross National Championships. This year, he was asked to join an elite team, The Pony Shop, powered by KPMG.

But he points out that unlike road racing, cyclocross doesn’t involve moving at fast speeds in a large group. That can reduce the intimidation factor for less experienced riders, says Jason Knauff, lead director of the Chicago Cyclocross Cup. Plus, if you fall, there’s soft dirt to cushion you.

The sport was born in Europe as a way for road cyclists to stay fit and hone their skills in the off-season. Riders of similar ages and abilities start together on a looped mile-and-a-half to two-mile course, usually in a city or suburban park.

They ride bikes that are as light as road cycles, but have bigger tires and a few other mountain-bike-like features. That’s to help them navigate a wide range of terrain, from sections of pavement to dirt, mud, slopes, and stairs.

To top it off, race organizers set up hurdle-like planks or barriers that require hopping off the bikes to navigate. During these so-called portage sections, riders sling their cycles over their shoulders. Races are held throughout the fall and winter in a wide range of conditions — the gnarlier, the better.

If all this sounds a little messy, it is. So, riders can bring two bikes and a pit crew to each competition. “Course designers and promoters will set up a bank of power washers that the mechanic will run to, hose your bike off, get it ready, add some lube, and then toss it back to you,” Jack says.

Though it’s become more popular lately, cyclocross has deep Chicagoland roots: The very first U.S. National Championships were held in Palos Park in 1963. The local series Chi Cross Cup, as it’s known, began in 2004.

Around the time Knauff took the helm in 2009, participation increased by about 20 to 30 percent per year for several years. While it’s leveled off a bit recently, there’s still about 600 racers on any given weekend, and far more women and juniors than ever before, he says.

This year’s series kicks off September 29 in Caldwell Woods and wraps up December 8 in Montrose Harbor, with events in spots like Pulaski Woods, Wheeling Heritage Park, and at Pheasant Run resort in between, each sponsored and organized by an area cycling club.

The daylong events feature 15 races timed between 25 to 60 minutes, depending on the level and category. Those who complete the most loops in the period allotted win for that day (and receive cash payouts, for the most elite riders), along with points in the overall series.

The sport requires both aerobic endurance to pedal at a fast pace and the skills to handle things like riding your bike on wet grass and toting it as you scramble up a muddy hill or over a barrier.

“The experience is very intense because it’s so short,” says Maria Larkin, 31, who’s been competing since 2012, about two years after she moved to Chicago and bought a used bike to navigate the city. “People get done and they’re like, ‘I feel like I want to throw up.’ But then they’re like, ‘Let’s do that again.’ ”

Part of the fun is the crowd. The looped course and multiple events mean riders and their friends and families often make a day of it. Cowbells proliferate, and “hand-ups” are common — offers of booze, snacks, and even cash to those competing. “I’m not so happy with the bacon hand-ups, but the money I’ll take,” Larkin says.

For all its lightheartedness, cyclocross is a serious sport. Like Jack, Larkin rides for a professional team — Donkey Label Racing, powered by FkLaw — and competes internationally for her native Ireland. She’s won the silver medal at the Irish National Cyclocross Championships three times, and also represented Ireland at the World Championships in 2018.

With the Midwest scene exploding, though, she doesn’t always have to travel so far for high-level competition. Each year, the Union Cycliste International holds a series of high-level international races called World Cup events. For the 2019–2020 season, there are nine, most in European cities like Bern, Switzerland, and Koksijde, Belgium. But the first, September 13 to 15, was in Iowa City. “You wouldn’t expect that to be the center of cyclocross, but it’s a really great venue,” Larkin says.

And, in a full-circle moment, the sport’s national championships will return to Chicagoland next year — they’ll be held at DuPage County’s Cantigny Park in Wheaton.

“You can look at the fact that we’re hosting nationals here in 2020 as a sign that it’s a very well-established scene. They know what they’re doing,” Jack says.

Still, the Chi Cross Cup bills itself as “the best amateur CX Series in the country.” Knauff encourages riders of all levels to come spectate, then consider signing up themselves.

“It’s really enjoyable and addictive. You can see yourself improve because there’s so many skills involved,” Larkin says.

Getting outside during the long days of fall and winter — she’s raced in conditions as cold as 15 degrees; you warm up quickly with intense effort, she says — boosts her mood, as does getting a little dirty.

“It’s like playing in the mud as a child, except you get to do it as an adult. What’s not to love about it?”

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