'Cross my heart, hope to die
The grueling sport
of cyclocross declares
a turf war in Chicago.
It ain’t for Sisyphuses Last year’s Montrose portion of the Cup series forced riders to shoulder their bikes up the slippery slopes.
Chicagoans know that cyclists here are a breed apart. We’ve seen two-wheelers taking it to the street through the worst of conditions. Hell, there’s even an annual ride celebrating (if that’s the right word) the coldest day ever recorded in Chicago (-27°F on January 20, 1985).
So we shouldn’t be surprised that some local die-hards have extended the traditional bike-racing season into the late fall and winter by importing cyclocross—a steeplechase of sorts for cyclists—from the Old World.Legend has it that, around the turn of the last century in France, Pierre used to challenge Luc in cannonball runs to the next town over, cutting through farm fields, harassing livestock, hopping fences and employing every shortcut in the book.
While American cyclists on the coasts have been paying homage to this Old World sport for decades, the annual Chicago Cyclocross Cup series is only in its third year. The first two events of the four-race series took place October 15 and November 4 in Carpentersville and St. Charles, respectively; the next two are in Chicago: Sunday 12 in Jackson Park, and December 3 in Montrose Park.The courses are designed by fiendish devils like Greg Heck, a member of the xXx Racing Team (a racing and cycling club), who lets out a dirty, little chuckle when we ask what he’s got in store for Sunday’s challenge. Although hesitant to reveal much, he does cite, for the sake of comparison, the course used for the first race, which made use of a kiddie sandlot. The obstacle proved a daunting hazard for racers, many of whom took a nosedive, but a boon for spectators, who relish a good spill.
The Chicago Cup organizers typically close off portions of parks to set up courses. The terrain traversed segues from grass to pavement to dirt (the latter of which often turns to slop at this time of year). Courses are also dotted with natural barriers (hills or creeks), and with 12- to 18-inch-high barricades that more experienced riders might bunny-hop, but which force most to dismount and carry that steel horse over and onward.
While many in the sport laud the growth they’ve witnessed, Heck is at somewhat of a loss to articulate the attraction it holds for its adherents.
“I’ve raced pretty much every other type of bicycle racing, and this is by far the most painful,” Heck says. “I’m not sure why people do it.”
Whereas road and track racing might give you a chance to catch your breath, cyclocross is go, go, go for a half hour to a little more than an hour, depending on your category. Newbies will always get a category-four tag (the lowest); experienced riders will have theirs assigned based upon previous races. Still, the sport is attracting the cream of the crop. Robbie Ventura, a former teammate of Lance Armstrong on the United States Postal Service squad, took first place in the inaugural Chicago Cup race this season.
Heck says most any bike will work for ’cross, and competition is open to all (men, women and even kids) who spring for the $15–$25 entry fee and a $5 one-day license from the United States Cycling Federation (basically a cover-your-ass technicality for the insurance men). That results in a lot of cross-pollination among entrants, with road- and mountain-bike racers mixing with a few ’cross specialists. Just remember: Whichever bike you bring, you’ll schlep it for about 10 percent of the race, so keep it light.
And if you’re getting in on the series late, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out of contention. Extra points are awarded to racers who volunteer at a race with setup or takedown. And at next month’s finale, points will be awarded for cross-dressing riders. Who knows—ladies, sport that fake Burt Reynolds ’stache; dudes, pull out your best RuPaul—and you just might claim the golden cow bell, your prize for first place in the series.
The Chi ’Cross Cup keeps rolling Sunday 12 at Jackson Park.