It might be the toughest sport you've never heard of. Just about the time that most people hang up their bicycles for the rainy season in the Northwest, a robust few begin training for cyclocross. Like steeplechase on bikes—or ballet on wheels—"cross" sets riders on an hour-long racecourse comprised of equal parts pavement, sand, dirt, log barriers and short, steep hills that require shouldering the bike and running. Mounted on lightweight road bikes equipped with knobby tires and powerful brakes, racers must balance riding, running, and coordination to dismount and leap over barriers at a high speed.
The hour-long cyclocross races are lactic acid-inducing, lung-searing affairs. Racers say if you don't feel the pain, you're not going hard enough. "It's like a war," according to one longtime participant. "You feel like hell for an hour, then suddenly you're done and it wasn't so bad. Then you feel great because everyone's congratulating you just for finishing. And then you're out here the next week doing it again." For years, the Seattle-Metro Cyclocross Series has averaged over 200 racers of all ages annually. Seattlelite Ann Grande leads a parade of local stars, with a fourth place finish in last year's World Championships to her credit.
Needless to say, fitness is a must for the cyclocross racer. But the sport isn't only for racers. The local cyclocross scene is very welcoming to new participants of all abilities. "The lack of snobbishness is what it's all about; that spirit is what brings people out," says Tim Rutledge, promoter of the Seattle-Metro Series and a two-time national champion. "We don't care who you are—just come out and ride."
There are regular races in a number of area parks, such as North SeaTac and Steilacoom in Tacoma. Racing, by age and skill categories, takes place Sundays until Dec. 2, from10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free; the only things that cost money are the hot chocolate, chili and prize raffles. Finding the best spectator spots is easy—just follow the ringing cowbells and madly cheering fans lined up along uphill running sections. If cyclocross racing is like ballet, spectating is like attending a carnival.
Beginning cyclocross classes (about two hours of coaching, with a practice race) are held at Marymoor Park and West Seattle's High Point Park at 6:15 p.m. on Wednesday nights; cost is $5. For more information, see www.marymoor.velodrome.org/Cyclocross.