Cyclocross's Rise
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Credit: Photograph by Daniel Wakefield Pasley

You can only get so hurt crashing a bike at zero miles per hour. That was my revelation from the first of four wipeouts at the largest one-day cyclocross-racing festival in the U.S. Short, intense, and adrenalized, cyclocross races typically run for 45 to 60 minutes around a one- or two-mile loop that deliberately zigzags on and off dirt, grass, pavement, sand, and mud, tangling up with a number of hazards, including staircases and wooden-plank barriers that force you to dismount and run, carrying the bike.

Tough Mudder for cyclists would be an apt description, if that weren't so unfair to the deep history of cyclocross, a century-old European sport combining elements of road cycling, mountain biking, obstacle racing, and – when you throw in all the food trucks, beer gardens, and costumes – a dash of Mardi Gras. Cyclocross also happens to be the fastest-growing bike-racing discipline in America, with participation more than tripling in the past seven years, according to USA Cycling. Thousands of 'cross fanatics now show up at race festivals every weekend during the fall and winter, especially in places where the cycling weather is guaranteed to suck.

Compared with your standard road race, cyclocross requires less training, there are 90 percent fewer bike snobs, and, despite the harsh weather, it's better for spectators. "It is bicycle racing and it is really hard, but it's not as scary to give it a try as, like, mountain-bike racing, where you're going to be 50 miles out in the mountains and you've got to have your shit together," says Brad Ross, the director of the Cross Crusade race series. "Or, like, road racing, where there's all that peloton etiquette, and you'll get yelled at if you do something wrong. We're all just getting muddy and having fun, and everybody's crashing and getting up and laughing about it."

Crowding elbow-to-elbow in a mad sprint at the start of the Alpenrose Dairy Cross Crusade race in Portland, Oregon, the pack bolted a couple hundred yards before slowing to a near stop around the first sharp curve. As the course narrowed, we had to roll single file down a muddy slope so steep and wet that everybody rode their brakes, slowing to an anxious crawl. One after another, we all concluded that we couldn't possibly pedal back up the muddy hill on the far side. So we dismounted in the slop, shouldered our bikes, and ran slip-sliding upward in our mountain-biking shoes. By the time I got to the top, jumping back on my bike, the pack was strung out over so much of the course that my personal race shrank to a few riders behind and in front of me.

I followed one of these guys so closely, fixating on his back wheel, that I failed to notice an approaching muddy slope until I was halfway up. With my feet still clipped into the pedals and not nearly enough speed to get up the hill, I stood to crank hard but felt my rear tire slip. Forward motion stopped, sideways motion began, and I landed flat on my back in the soft, churned grass with a bike on top of me, nothing hurt but my pride.