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What Is Cyclocross? Drinking, Eating, and Racing … In That Order

In general, bike racing is a pretty foreign subject to many people on this side of the pond. It’s fairly safe to say that outside of le Tour, the yellow jersey, and “Big Tex” Armstrong himself, the wide and wonderful world of two-wheeled pedal competition is not well known or understood around these parts. So when you take a sport that involves people running and riding with bicycles around a snow- and mud-covered obstacle course, the head scratching seems justified. Welcome to cyclocross.

Above Photo By: Tommy Chandler

To understand what this cycling discipline is all about, we must take on the Belgian perspective for a minute—a view from the country that arguably birthed all things ‘cross. We apple-pie-loving, football-chucking Americans are familiar with the local county fair that rolls into town each year, right? Well, European cyclocross is sort of like a carnie brigade that never really leaves the neighborhood, with the pleasant merry-go-round replaced by a living and breathing swarm of people racing each other on bicycles. The Belgians obviously know what constitutes a good time.

belgiancross-inarticlePhoto Credit: Ben Kuhns

Traditionally, these circuit races are fast—often filled with crashes and nasty weather conditions, which, along with the large spread of fried foods and cold beer served to fans from local vendors, make it some good ol’ fashioned entertainment for the whole family. And while the origins of these spectator-friendly amenities are as muddy as the European countryside upon which the races were first held, a few things are certain: cyclocross has always been heritage heavy and never lacking in terms of a good time. Without going into the technical aspects of CX racing, know that when you show up to a race, you might not know exactly what’s going on, but you surely won’t be disappointed.

For certain parts of the U.S., ‘cross racing has become synonymous with fall (borrowed from the European race calendar), marking the end of the road season and the grand opening to cool weather, good friends, and a bit of partying. The Pacific Northwest is one region in particular that goes a little ‘cross crazy around this time of year, as was witnessed firsthand by yours truly for the Cross Crusade season opener at Oregon’s Alpenrose circuit last October. I was there on a photo assignment with cycling photographer Dan Sharp, who was working on a film project about a local pro racer.

True to form, the day’s races were fast-paced and filled with good riders swiftly maneuvering through the tricky course. The food trucks also made a strong showing, lined up en masse and serving up oversized portions of frites, waffles, brats, Belgian beer, and a host of other artery-clogging fare that seemed to contradict the ultra-fit folks (who were, however, indulging themselves). It was just a glimpse of things to come for the season, and with the energy level on par with that of an outdoor rock festival, there’s no doubt even the purest Belgian ‘cross fans would have nodded their heads in Euro-worthy approval.

Want to learn more about cyclocross racing? Read Up Your Beer Tolerance (and Other Ways to Prep for ’Cross Season).


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