Cyclocross's Rise
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Credit: Photograph by Daniel Wakefield Pasley
Cyclocross got started in the early 1900s among European pro bike racers looking for some off-season competition – racing each other, village to village, through forest and pasture. Carrying bikes over streams and fences started as a necessity but was central to the sport's identity by 1950, when the first cyclocross world championships took place in Paris. Belgium currently reigns as the spiritual home of cyclocross, but the United States is coming on strong. Permanent cyclocross parks have been built in California, Colorado, and two Kentucky cities, including Louisville, where the world championships were held in 2013, the first time that event occurred outside Europe. Americans didn't exactly dominate – no man placed higher than 19th – but American sales of 'cross bikes have spiked so dramatically that the major manufacturers are radically expanding their offerings. California-based Specialized, to cite one example, went from carrying three cyclocross models in 2011 – sturdy road bikes, in essence, with narrow knobby tires – to 15 for the current product year. In a beginner's race, of course, any old mountain bike will do – or you can just slap knobby tires onto your road bike.

Part of the appeal, as I confirmed in my second crash of the race – speeding too fast into a muddy straightaway, losing my line, getting face-to-face with a grassy berm – is that cyclocross bears a high risk of bruising and scraping and almost no risk of death or maiming. "The fastest anybody is going here is 15 miles an hour, even these elite guys," said Brad Ross, when I stumbled up to his trailer after my race. "It's not like you're going 50 miles an hour in a road race descent and if you crash, a helicopter is coming." Pointing to a nearby white tent, he said, "We have two medics and they've been banging it all day, and the worst injury we've had is a dislocated kneecap."

It also helps that you don't have to live near great mountain-biking trails, or burn whole Saturdays on epic road rides down highways choked with cars and trucks. Cyclocross races are so short that you can get fit enough for the mellower heats through spin classes or just cycling to work – carrying your bike over curbs and up your office building's stairwell, maybe ripping through some dumpy local park on the way home, tearing around the baseball infield. Plenty of guys train ferociously hard for cyclocross, but it almost doesn't matter once you're in a race: The grunting of guys behind and in front of you combines with the constant mental stimulus of turning, stopping, starting, and dismounting to create a roller-coaster level of engagement and excitement, regardless of how fit you are.

"It's frantic and urgent from the minute that whistle blows," says Sean Estes, a Specialized regional team rider who competed at Louisville. "It's a scramble-mob mentality, almost a fight-or-flight thing, and you know every second counts and you just go into attack mode." Elite riders, as a result, tend to combine the horsepower of track-cycling sprinters with the technical abilities of BMX and mountain-bike racers.

Cyclocross has its own unique skill set, learned by trial and error in the race or from outfits like CX Nation of San Francisco. It offers cheap courses on how to dismount and remount without losing momentum and how to carry the bike. Putting a bike on your shoulder takes some getting used to, but according to USA Cycling, the committee that oversees official cyclocross events, one lap on the course has to be "at least 90 percent rideable," meaning you won't be forced to spend more than 10 percent of the time on foot. These courses also offer a slew of tricks for handling the terrain. CX Nation's Brian Staby, for example, teaches riders how to approach hairpin turns wide and then go tight around the inside before exiting wide again. He also counsels looking for the least slippery line on muddy and slick straightaways, especially if they slope to one side – advice I failed to take during my third crash that day at Alpenrose, when I ripped through a down-slope course boundary tape and tumbled ass-over-ankles onto a wet lawn.