Do you think that Tour de France riders have it tough when they ride up the French Alps?
At least they can navigate a road up the mountain, and there aren’t any obstacles that would force them to dismount their bikes.
Cyclocross riders don’t have it so easy. They’re trying to conquer off-road courses with sharp turns, steep hills and man-made obstacles with a modified street course racing bike that uses a wider tire.
The hardest part about cyclocross is keeping your focus and maintaining your composure, said Chris Doyle of Albany. `The race is so [visually] stimulating that if you lose your focus for a moment, you can wipe out.`
Doyle and approximately 250 other cyclocross riders descended upon Troy’s Prospect Park last weekend for the New York State Championships and Uncle Sam Grand Prix. The course was laid out over a hillside with plenty of hairpin turns and a pair of areas where riders had to dismount so they could navigate obstacles on foot.
`You need a lot of fitness, but you also need a certain set of skills because you have to mount and dismount quickly [at the obstacles],` said race co-organizer Pete Avitable of Albany.
The goal in cyclocross is to complete as many laps as you can in the time allotted. During last Saturday’s state championship race, elite riders had to circle the course for an hour, while riders in the junior, masters and citizens divisions navigated the course for between 30 to 45 minutes.
`I’ve never raced a bicycle before in my life,` said Doyle, who finished second in the citizens division. `I’d say [participating in a race] is the best way [to get acclimated].`
Riders also need a sense of humor to navigate the course. Spectators have a tendency to heckle the riders at the obstacles, though it’s always a good-natured heckling since the spectators are usually fellow riders and friends.
`That’s part of the whole community thing,` said Doyle, who works at Serotta Bicycles in Saratoga Springs. `It’s all about having fun.`
`It’s like a subculture of a subculture,` added Gavi Epstein, an elite division rider from Englewood, N.J. `You definitely have your cyclocross fanatics.`
For some riders like Epstein, cyclocross helps them train for the road course season, which takes place in the spring and summer.
`The thing is in the fall, there’s no road racing,` said Epstein, who competed in the elite men’s division. `This is a good way to change things up and practice my balancing skills.`
For others like Dwain Walters of Brooklyn, it’s a break from the ordinary.
`I’ve done some cross country-style mountain bike racing before, so it was nice to get dirty again,` said Walters, who was participating in his first cyclocross race.
Cyclocross is not a new sport. It was developed in the early half of the 20th century in Europe as a fall and winter sport, and it gained popularity in parts of the United States in the 1970s.
The New York racing series started five years ago when Avitable and his bike racing friend, Eric Schillinger, started NYCross.
`Me and Eric were sitting around one day and said, ‘We should do this,’` said Avitable, a former bike racer.
Avitable and Schillinger found several town parks willing to let them hold their events including Prospect Park and Bethlehem’s Elm Avenue Park, which will host the annual Bethlehem Cup Nov. 15. Saratoga Spa State Park joins the list this year when it hosts the Saratoga Cyclocross on Sunday, Oct. 25.
`It’s cold enough [when the races are held] where the grass hopefully doesn’t get chewed up [by the bikes],` said Avitable.
The course may not get chewed up, but the riders often feel as if they’ve been chewed up when they’re done.
`It was hard to keep my rhythm through [the course], but otherwise it was all right,` said Walters.
But the challenge of competing in cyclocross doesn’t dampen these riders’ spirits. If anything, it makes them want to do it again.
`I think that cyclocross is the ultimate evolution of bicycling,` said Doyle. `I think it’s what bicycling is meant to be.“