This last Saturday in Louisville, Ky., the world championships of cyclo-cross were held for the first time outside of European soil. This was a big move for the traditionally European (particularly Belgian) sport and a recognition of the immense and growing popularity of cycling in the United States and worldwide. That's all very well and good, of course, but the next questions you may ask are probably "What is cyclo-cross?" and "Why do Belgians like it so much?"
The standard description is that of a mix between road riding and mountain biking, but more apt would be to call it that plus gagging on a smothering stew of lactic acid and hypoxia while manhandling an ill-suited bicycle around a public park strewn with mud, sand, wooden barriers, and heckling, often drunken, fans.
Welcome to cyclo-cross.
Cyclo-cross initially began as off-season, off-road training for professional road riders in Europe in the early part of the 20th century, but over the decades developed into a sport in its own right. To truly excel at cyclo-cross, top professional riders dedicate their seasons to it and typically only participate in road races to gain endurance and conditioning for cyclo-cross later in the year. Elite races are generally a very intense one hour and so the type of speed and conditioning required to be successful over such an intense, but short, period are very specific. Compared to, say, a road race in which the bunch, or peloton, will start out at a leisurely pace and steadily gain intensity toward the finish line hour later, a cyclo-cross race begins with a mad sprint for positioning and does not relent until one has crossed the finish line.
A cyclo-cross course is generally something else when there is no racing going on. The traditional image is of a Belgian farmer's field, transformed for one magical day a year into a roaring stadium of cyclo-cross and then quietly returning to its usual state after the last team vehicle has pulled away and the last beer can has been picked up. In the United States, public parks are often called upon for cyclo-cross duty, including San Diego's own Balboa Park, home of the San Diego CX weekend races in October. Courses usually feature a mixture of grass, dirt, sand, mud, and man-made wooden barriers. Some courses feature actual staircases! In the United States in particular, a further, non-physical component of the races is good-natured heckling by fans, many of whom are likely your fellow racers from other categories. Don't take it personally.
Needless to say, a cyclo-cross race is an exhausting effort; a rider can expect to dismount and remount his or her bike many times, as well as run while carrying their bikes; being able to do so quickly is one of the most valuable skills in cyclo-cross. Many races also feature skills clinics early in the day for those who would like hands-on instruction.
Cyclo-cross is gaining in popularity every year in the United States. For those who live in San Diego, SoCalCross is the regional cyclo-cross organization and hosts races throughout Southern California. The season generally runs from September until January. Rental bikes are generally available and mountain bikes are allowed in races for those who want to get their feet wet without investing in a cyclo-cross bike. Give it a try, if for nothing else than the chance to get heckled by total strangers in a public park on a Saturday morning!