If you’ve heard of cyclocross but don’t know quite what it’s all about, I hear you. The sport didn’t fully register with me until I watched video from the UCI Elite Cyclocross Championships last February. In hindsight, I wonder what took me so long. Cyclocross looks like a blast.

It’s also the nation’s fastest growing cycling sport, according to USA Cycling. Participation jumped from 32,000 to 80,000 in the last 5 years, with juniors and women playing an important role. You don’t have to be a hard-core racer or “cyclo-boss” to participate: Cyclocross is a good way to stay fit and have some fun outdoors over the winter months, when, let’s face it, you might otherwise be indoors.

With the cyclocross season, which runs from October through February, revving into high gear, I’ve been taking a closer look, so I thought I’d share an introductory overview.

Many Sports Rolled into One

According to USA Cycling, cyclocross is officially the nation’s fastest-growing two-wheeled discipline. During the last five years, participation jumped from 32,000 to 80,000, and many of the new riders are women and juniors. – See more at: http://bb.teamevergreen.org/cyclocross-the-nations-fastest-growing-two-wheeled-discipline/#sthash.ebrYU8UI.dpuf

Rolled Into One

Think of combining skills of mountain biking, road cycling and criterium racing into one challenging, crowd-pleasing sport, and you’ve got cyclocross. It’s bike racing that lasts for 30 minutes to an hour on a closed, twisty circuit of 1 1/2 to 2 miles. The course surfaces consist of pavement, grass, dirt and sand peppered with obstacles, such as steps and barriers. Participants must conquer these by rapidly dismounting and carrying (portaging) their bicycles while running, then remounting on the fly. Aerobic endurance, bike handling skills and even tire pressure are key factors in achieving victory. The messy conditions brought on by variable winter weather often make for a slippery mudfest, as documented in countless image galleries online. A friendly and festive atmosphere reigns, with beer, food, sometimes outlandish costumes, and cowbells a part of the scene.

Special bicycles used for cross racing draw on characteristics of other cycling sports: Like road bikes, cross bikes are lightweight with drop handlebars and skinny tires. But, as with mountain bikes, the tires are knobby for traction to grind up hills, the frames are stronger, and cantilever brakes are standard issue. (The UCI recently sanctioned disc brakes.) The bottom bracket, fork and seat stay clearance are more generous to contend with muck and debris on the course. You don’t have to own a cross bike, but if you get into the sport, you’ll welcome the features of a dedicated ride.

Origins in Steeplechase

The sport originated during the early 1900s as steeplechase — races between towns, in which off-road shortcuts across the countryside were permitted. This later evolved into an off-season training technique for road cyclists. It spread from France to the Netherlands and Belgium and other bike-racing hotbeds in Europe, and has continued to gain popularity in the U.S. since the 1990s. The championship that I viewed last year — from Lousiville, KY — was the first ever held outside Europe.

I like the race highlights video from that event (below) for its brief and articulate introduction to the rules of the sport and to the characteristics of cyclocross bikes. If you’re time-pressed watch the first 4 minutes:

If you ride a road or mountain bike now, and particularly if you hear the call of competition, I’ll delve next Tuesday into 8 reasons why you might want to try cyclocross, or at least attend a few races as a spectator, this season.

Cross in the Northeast

In the mean time, here are some resources to help you learn more about cyclocross and the cross scene in our area:

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