The best way to see how cyclocross became the most popular form of bicycle racing in the Northwest is to enter a race.
I’d sworn I was going to do this for nearly a decade, but each fall I put it off, using what race organizers tell me are the standard excuses.
I don’t have a cyclocross bike. I was pretty sure I’d finish last. I was even more certain I was going to wreck. And, most concerning of all, races often conflict with Seahawks games.
“You hear all those concerns and they usually last as long as the first race,” said Zac Daab, director of the state’s most popular race series, MFG Cyclocross. “Then they’re gone because they’re having so much fun.”
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So last month, when Cross Revolution, a Seattle-based racing series, came to Graham, I decided to stop making excuses. I dusted off my mountain bike (a perfectly acceptable substitute to a cross bike for newbies), set the DVR to record the Seahawks-Kansas City fiasco and headed to Frontier Park.
For good measure, I invited a friend to join me. Rick Beitelspacher frequently logs 5,000 miles per year, and he’s a substitute spin instructor, but he, too, was new to cross.
A teacher and football coach, he can almost always be counted on to put the moment in perspective.
“Remember,” he said as we rolled our mountain bikes up next to guys straddling sleek cross bikes at the start line. “The goal is to have fun, finish and not get hurt.”
Even in the beginner race, the chances of being seriously competitive seemed pretty low for us. Our bikes were heavier and noticeably slower on the flat section, although we probably would have had an advantage on the trails if we had any significant mountain biking experience.
With that pressure off, we were free to focus on Beitelspacher’s three-point plan.
The course was about 2 miles over grass, dirt, loose gravel and pavement. Logs, a pair of shin-high hurdles and a steep hill required riders to dismount and continue briefly on foot with their bike slung over their shoulders. The race would go three laps.
I barreled out ahead of several guys on cross bikes, but one-by-one most of them passed me, each time at one of the obstacles.
As I approached a log on the second lap I hit the brakes, hopped off the bike, carried it over the log then saddled up again. The entire process took about five seconds. Glacial by cross standards.
A guy wearing an Eatonville Outdoor jersey barely slowed down as he hopped off his moving bike then, in about three strides, hurdled the log and jumped back on his bike.
“Nice move,” I shouted after him as I restarted from a complete stop. I stayed on his tail for awhile but then we caught a pack of teenagers from a heat that started a minute before ours. He deftly zipped past. I timidly waited for a wider opening. I never saw him again.
By the final lap I was feeling comfortable and having a good time. I set my sights on a pack of four racers I was going to reel in by the finish.
But each time I got close, we inevitably reached an obstacle and my pathetic dismounting technique cost me the time I made up. I slipped on the final hairpin turn before the homestretch.
As I crossed the finish line the announcer said I was 10th (out of 14), but the final results said I was 11th, 3 minutes, 28 seconds behind the winner.
Beitelspacher finished 13th, 7:41 behind the winner, but to be fair he probably would have been more competitive on a Big Wheel tricycle than the rigid 1990s era mountain bike I’d procured for him.
Most importantly, we’d checked off all three of our goals.
A few weeks after the race Beitelspacher told me his next bike just might be a cross bike. He said what he enjoyed most was the supportive atmosphere and the cost.
The entry fee was $15. Good luck finding even a 5K fun run at that price.
After the races, I talk to two women who’d just finished.
It was the first race for Shari Larson of Tacoma and the eighth for Autumn Rockwell of Mukilteo.
Both illustrated why cyclocross has become so popular. (Daab said cross races are twice as big as the state’s largest mountain and road biking races.)
Larson’s 8-year-old son, Luke, started racing this year and her husband, Randy, has been racing for four years. She believes the sport owes its popularity to several factors: The races are close (There were at least seven South Sound races this fall), short (30-60 minutes compared to several hours for a road race) and “they offer something for everybody.”
Old men. Kids. Ultra fit. Folks testing the maximum elasticity of their spandex. Experienced racers on bikes that cost nearly as much as their cars. Newbies on ancient mountain bikes. They’re all there almost every week.
The biggest race each year, an MFG event at Woodland Park, draws 1,300 riders. Sometimes the beginner field has more than 100 people. “It’s a family atmosphere where everybody can race and have a good time,” Daab said.
Autumn Rockwell of Mukilteo raced the entire MFG series and some races on the Cross Revolution circuit.
She raced on her mountain bike and says she was last in every race. And she loved every minute of it.
“My goal is just to finish,” she said. “I just love the atmosphere. It’s so encouraging. I’m enjoying being out there, having fun and being healthier.”
She joined the Auburn-based Epic Racing team and says the sport has inspired her to be more active and lose weight.
“I went from being a couch potato to being healthier,” Rockwell said. “... I’m having a great time.”
The races are definitely challenging, but really only as challenging as you want to make them.
“Really,” Larson said, “the hardest part is showing up.”