The gunshot incited a riot. A group of thirty or so riders broke for the straightaway, heaving from dead stop to wide open sprint, shouldering for position before the first turn. The grass course, marked on each side by thigh-high yellow police tape, dove into a series of sharp zigs and zags before delivering each racer to the first set of obstacles.
In one fluid motion the early race leader slid his right leg over his bike’s crossbar, hopped into a full sprint, and toted his bike across several foot-tall wood barriers. And so the race would go – riders sprinting to top speed, hopping off to surmount an obstacle, and jumping back on without hardly breaking stride.
This was the 7th race in the North Carolina Cyclocross 2014 season. Nearly 400 riders competed in categories separated by age and experience (Cat 1 through 5 with 1 being the most experienced/pro riders).
Born of road cyclists' desire to stay in shape during the offseason, cross, as it’s commonly referred, actually pre-dates mountain biking. Its roots go back to the early 1900’s with the first organized races taking place in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
What is Cyclocross?
When trying to imagine what a cyclo-cross event is like, it helps to think of it as cross country racing on a bike. Here are some of the basics:
- The bike – A cyclo-cross bike resembles a road bike with a few important differences. Narrow, smooth wheels are replaced by knobby tires. Different frame geometry and gear ratio’s allow for the slower speeds and varying surfaces of a cross race.
- The Course – It’s common for a course to be around 1.5 to 2 miles long with riders completing several circuits in a race. A race director may take riders through mud, grass, dirt and sand. The course might have sections of rooty single-track and will often include some short, steep hills.
- The dismount – Each race includes several obstacles. Some are natural but many are man-made. Most riders will find it faster to dismount and carry their bike over obstacles.
- The pit stop – Somewhere along the course there will be a pit area. Riders are allowed to stash extra tires and even an extra bike there. Should they run into trouble along the route, the rider is required to tote their bike to the pit area where they can swap or repair.
A most accessible sport
Cowbells echoed in the woods as the Cat 3 men’s riders made their way through the back of the course. When the group popped out into the open a couple dozen spectators hollered and rang more cowbells.
Some chants were encouraging. “You can make it. You’re killing it!”
Some were more familiar. “You better not die on this hill Rich or we’re all gonna laugh at you!”
It’s this friendliness and accessibility which brings so many riders and spectators to the course on race day.“For women, especially, it’s a great entry point for bike racing,” says Meredith Blake. She raced in the Cat 4 women’s 40+ group earlier in the day.
The relatively short course, with all its twists and turns, makes it easy to watch the race from multiple vantage points. A fan can see a group of riders tackle an obstacle, and then turn around 180 degrees and watch another group battling up a steep hill.
In between races, while participants warm up, it’s common to see kids riding parts of the course with their parents, or racing hopefuls giving an obstacle a shot. The event and the people involved are all interested in sharing their sport. “If someone wants to come out and learn about the sport, just ask one of the riders,” says series promoter Tim Hopkins. “They’re all pretty friendly and willing to help a new rider.”
Cross in Carolina
While the sport of cyclo-cross has been popular in Europe for a long time (top races there gather more than 50,000 spectators), it’s just now gaining traction in the U.S. Hopkins founded North Carolina Cyclocross (NCCX) 18 years ago and has watched the sport grow in recent years.
“For the first 12 years, if we had 100 riders (at an event) we felt like we were on top of things,” says Hopkins. “Now we get close to 400.”
The NCCX 2014 series is 15 races long. It began in mid-October and the series finale is in Asheville on Jan 18th.
On Sunday, Nov 23rd, the NCCX comes to Charlotte. The course, at Veterans Park on Central Ave, promises to be a good one.“Expect some steep run ups,” the British born Hopkins says. “The sandy area will also be very entertaining.”
The best places to watch the race will be at the start and then at any obstacle. Since the riders will make several loops during the event it’s easy to move to a different spot to see how they tackle another section.
If you’d like to try riding a race you can get a one day license. Preparing for a race requires a mixed bag of training.
“I mostly train on the road,” says Blake, who’s been riding in the series for three years. “But I’ll also ride some single-track and even find a volley ball sand pit to ride through.”
Or, if you don't want to ride, just come out to watch and ring a cowbell. Everyone can use more cowbell.