If you want to try cyclocross, be warned:
— You will get cold and muddy.
— You’ll have to get off your bike and carry it over barriers — or up a muddy hill or set of stairs.
— Spectators will heckle you.
But they also might hand you candy, money or a beer. You’ll talk with other cyclists afterward about how hard it was. You’ll have fun.
Cyclocross is a fall and winter sport that originated in Europe, with road cyclists racing each other across farm fields to stay in shape during their offseason.
It is bike racing on a closed, loop course (which must be roughly 1.5 to 2 miles long, if the race is sanctioned). Races last from a half-hour for beginners to an hour for experienced racers and pros. The course might include some pavement, but the majority is off-road. Cyclists might ride on grass, dirt, mud, gravel or sand. Courses are characterized by obstacles such as wooden barriers or hay bales to go over, or steep, muddy hills or stairs to climb, where riders will have to dismount and carry their bikes. Some sections of the course might be unrideable because of thick mud or sand, forcing racers to run with their bikes.
“Traditional cyclocross is a very muddy, cold-weather sport,” said Melinda Higley of Champaign, who started racing cyclocross a couple of years ago, and who is a serious mountain bike racer as well. “There is some kind of draw to toughing it out through the conditions. You warm up into it, and after a while, whatever it is isn’t so bad. After you settle in and warm up, you start having fun.
“It’s like a Tough Mudder — goofy, self-induced, ridiculous suffering.”
Despite the suffering through cold and mud — or maybe because of it? — the sport has greatly increased in popularity in the last several years. The Chicago area hosts many races, including the Chicago Cross Cup, which started in 2004.
Karl Crapse, a Rantoul road racer with the local Wild Card Cycling team, went to a few Chicago-area cyclocross races, then decided he wanted to host a central Illinois race. He and Wild Card started the Patriot Cyclocross race, held in early September in Rantoul. The first year drew 45 racers. Last year, there were 55, and this year that number doubled to 110.
Crapse said one reason is the ease of getting into the sport.
“You can use almost any kind of bike you have,” he said.
Most race with a bike similar to a road bike, but with bigger tires.
“It’s road bike geometry but with knobbier tires to give you grip on multiple kinds of surfaces,” Higley said. “Riding in a road bike-style position off-road is so much fun.
“I love anything off-road, so that is what initially appealed to me about (cyclocross).”
“I like the challenge of negotiating the technical aspects of the course,” she said. “My favorite part of most races is the off-camber sections. There is almost always a route on the course around the side of a hill. I really like using balance and technique on the off-camber sections and slick areas and muddy areas.
“A lot of times there is a curb or something to get over. I really like moving my weight around on the bike to do that stuff as quickly and smoothly as possible.”
Another factor in the popularity of cyclocross is the spectators. Races are more interesting for viewers because they can see most of the course, unlike in road racing or mountain biking, Higley and Crapse said.
And the spectators are part of the festival atmosphere of cyclocross races.
“Heckling is very popular,” Higley said. “Every single cyclocross race, if it’s being done right, will have people heckling you. Usually it’s at the hardest spot on the course.”
Crapse said the heckling is friendly, not mean, and usually is directed at the less-experienced riders. Spectators may yell: “It doesn’t look like you’re working very hard,” or, “My grandpa can race faster than you.”
And there is the tradition of “hand-ups.” Spectators will hand items to racers — usually those in the lower classes who aren’t racing as fast — as they pass by, from Twizzlers or Halloween candy to $1 bills to beer. Crapse had some stocking caps from a sponsor, and spectators handed those to racers at the Patriot Cross.
Crapse talked with other central Illinois cyclocross race directors this year to start the Heart of Illinois Cyclocross series, which included the Patriot Cross in Rantoul, races in Peoria, Hannah City and El Paso, and the final race, the Miller Chill Cyclocross on Dec. 15 in Bloomington.
Crapse hopes to add points and prizes to the race series next year. He said cyclocross riders in Decatur and Springfield are interested in adding races, and Crapse would like to add a race in Champaign-Urbana.
Photos: Top: Melinda Higley carries her bike over a barrier at the Patriot Cyclocross race in Rantoul in September. Bottom: John Telthorst of Mahomet rides down a muddy hill at the Planet Adventure Cyclocross race in Indianapolis in October. Photos provided by Melinda Higley.