My boyfriend Ryan loooooves bikes – all types of bikes. In our tiny troll dwelling (English Basement in a rowhouse on Capitol Hill), he has 2 BMX bikes, a road bike, a mountain bike, a GIANT beach cruiser and his cyclocross bike. While we are at it, let’s throw my one bike into the mix. For all the math whizes out there, that is a grand total of 7 bikes in our little space. So yes, he loves bikes. He started out with BMX and mountain bikes when he was a kid. Here in DC he got into road racing a few years ago. This summer he discovered what has become his favorite bike medium – cyclocross. I will say that it is far and away my favorite from a spectator standpoint.
If you are like I was, and I imagine most of you will be with me on this one, you have no idea what cyclocross is. Cyclocross, or just cross, started in the early 1900s in Europe (imagine that) as a way for road racers to stay in shape in the off season. Thus, races are typically held in the autumn and winter months. Often, the races were “steeple chases,” because riders could cut through fields, forests, streams, etc. to get to the finish which would be in a neighboring town. Usually as riders raced, they would keep the only visible landmark–a church steeple–in sight so that they knew where they were going.
Cross became popular here in the US in the 1970s and many of the features of cross hearken back to its earlier roots. Courses now are off road and on grass, dirt, sand, mud, snow, etc. Each course also has at least one spot that is a run-up where the rider must dismount the bike and run with it.
There are also barriers that require dismount.
Most of the barriers and run-ups are placed around the areas where fans can see…mainly, the beer and food tent/pavilion. Partially due to its European roots and probably also because it’s so cold during the race season, most of these events have some sort of beer sponsor…
…and usually have Belgian foods (sausages, waffles, frites) and other food too. Why Belgian food? The Belgians are big into cross, and cycling in general, and have been fairly dominant in cross racing. So, many of the traditions in American cross are taken from Belgium. This explains why you will often see Flemish flags at cross events.
However, at one point the Swiss were big contenders on the cross scene as well and as far as cross culture goes, they made a big contribution – THE COWBELL.
At any cross race there will be numerous cowbells that people ring as racers come by. According to this account, the cowbell was a cheering aid that the Swiss cross team borrowed from Swiss skiers. Then, the idea was imported into the US when the Saturn-sponsored team decided to give out cowbells as a gimmick. And now, cross races have a fever….and the only prescription is…more cowbell! I know, I know, easy joke but I guess it had to be made.
In addition to the awesome food, beer drinking and frantic cowbell ringing, cross just has a cooler vibe. It’s more relaxed. And to be honest, from the spectator standpoint, it’s just way more fun to watch. There are the barriers which add an element of interest and an opportunity for debacle. If America’s Funniest Home Videos teaches us anything, people generally find some sort of enjoyment, amusement or entertainment when other people get hurt. I’m not afraid to admit that my favorite part of that show was always the rapid-fire montages of people getting hurt. So, the barriers are a great spot to hang out, snap some good photos, and see if anyone trips up.
Plus, you still have the elements of most sports-watching that people love – you can dress up, be belligerent and cheer loudly (again with the cowbells!). For most sports, people don’t necessarily dress in “costume” but really, when you have your team colors painted over half of your body with some crazy colored afro wig, you aren’t exactly in everyday attire. Unless you are a clown by trade, in which case I apologize. In cross, people wear whatever costumes they feel like wearing.
Even the riders themselves sometimes don a costume…
There are even some races that have a TANDEM race category. Whoever thought of a tandem bike is nuts. Even on what should probably be “leisurely, fun” rides with a significant other, these bikes obviously bring out some sort of inner demon in people. We just aren’t meant to be attached – it’s unnatural! I mean, the tandem is nicknamed the “divorce horse.” Sounds disastrous to me. But, in the races, it’s usually teammates or friends on the bikes. Maybe slightly less detrimental to the riders home life, but stressful nonetheless. The tandem course is not modified so the riders must navigate the dismounts and barriers while trying not to kick each other in the face and be able to handle the bike through tight turns on the course.
Bottom line is people are loving cross, fans and riders alike, and it’s becoming more and more popular. I’ll be off to the cross nationals in Bend, Oregon this December so I will be sure to do a follow-up post then! In the meantime, there are many websites devoted to cross, but one blog in particular seems like it would be informational and entertaining to someone who is new to the sport. Plus, I like the name: Mud and Cowbells. If you ride a bike, you should look into racing cross. If not, convince one of your bike-riding friends to take it up so you can go throw on a costume, drink tasty beers, watch some cross, and of course, ring some cowbells!