In the biking family, cyclocross comes off as a bit of a wild child — ready to get messy, take some risks, and do it all again if necessary.
Right down to the messy part, that was the playbook last weekend in Crystal at one of the premier events of the Minnesota cyclocross season.
The Fulton Star Cross is one in a series of weekend races that cyclocross riders have circled on their calendars when the season arrives in late August. By the time riders went over, up, down and around Lions Valley Place Park in Crystal, many had their bike legs. The weekend series began Sept. 9 at the All-City Intercontinental Championships at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis.
In the two-day event, Sunday might have lacked Saturday’s free Fulton beer garden and the heckling that is cyclocross etiquette, but it had all the mud, grit and wheeled acrobatics.
In this sport, competitors deal with twisty courses (at Lions Park, switchbacks on a downhill, too). They might deal with thick muddy sections, like they did Sunday, forcing some to hop off, shoulder their frames, and pick up with the ride. It’s a delicate dance best not underestimated.
After his race, Matt Leizinger was peppered with brown chunks up and down his black All-City X Fulton Racing team kit.
“I personally had a lot of fun. I like racing in the mud, in stuff like this,” said Leizinger, 35, of Richfield. “I don’t like the aftermath, going and tearing your bike apart and cleaning it up, but that’s just part of it.”
Star Cross featured six races (or really, start times) both days, with 22 categories of riders taking part. Each start line is a mosaic of multiple riders of different skill levels, genders and ages who will find themselves all off at the same gun. Kind of like a race within a race. Individual riders have their category, or “cat” in cyclocross vernacular, based on their ability. In general, their category improves as they gain experience. Over the two days, 347 riders competed.
Sunday’s first race time featured cat 3/4 men and cat 3/4 men 35 and older. Mixed in was the women’s single-speed race and women’s cat 3/4s. Leizinger was in the field, and he clearly enjoyed the intensity of the racing. Light rain and wind and mid-30s temperatures gave the morning a bite.
“I like courses that put a premium on handling a bike and that are technical and not about speed,” he said, noting that the course ran differently when the weather was dry Saturday.
Cyclocross, aka CX and ’cross, bears the marks of similar off-roading such as mountain biking and fatbiking, that began with a focus on fun and developed a passionate following.
Race director Andrew Barlage said Star Cross began five years ago in Minnesota. He also is president of the Minnesota Cycling Federation, which oversees the sport of cyclocross along with road, criterium and track races.
Barlage said cyclocross participation has “taken off significantly,” as riders soured on road racing in the wake of Lance Armstrong’s drug admissions. He said there are other factors at play, too.
A big one: good times. Back in the day, cyclocross was considered a way for cyclists to have a lark and stay in shape after a summer of road riding. Yet, they kept at it, and encouraged others.
“[CX] has kept the fun persona … where it was road racers and mountain bikers goofing around. Now we’ve got cyclocross specialists that this is their season, but they are still out there having a good time.”
Equipment needn’t be a barrier either, Barlage said. All manner of mountain bikes, gravel bikes, and fatbikes show up at the starting line.
Finally, the weekend ’cross races — and even the Wednesday Night rides regarded as practice — have events that cater to the gender, size, skill level and gear of participants.
“The goal is to find somebody a place where they can fit in and have their race and have their time and create that kind of correct level of competition,” Barlage said.
Races typically last from 30 minutes to an hour depending on the rider’s skill level on the looped course.
Today, cyclocross is a sport with underpinnings for continued success: It still attracts newcomers, while feeding the competitive drive of its elites, Barlage said.
“At ’cross, it’s ‘Hey, great. You’re here. Have fun.’ ”
Back on the course Sunday, Josh Weigel of Oronoco, Minn., stood outside the taped boundaries and implored his twin daughters to dig deep.
“Power, power, power!”
Lauren and Ragan, both just 12, race among cat 4 women. Pumping against gravity, wind and the clock, they would finish second and third, respectively. It would be one of four races for the twins over the course of weekend.
“Power” is the key word — the Weigel twins don’t roll in junior races with others their age, but rather compete with women two and three times their age. The dynamos started road racing at age 9, and took on cyclocross not long after. They ride for North Iowa Spin Devo, a junior cycling team based in Mason City.
“Just riding, racing in general, is super fun,” said Lauren, after sister Ragan had rattled off what she likes about the sport: the other riders, “mud … when it’s warm out,” hills and switchbacks.
Their mother, Melissa, said the girls don’t miss traditional sports. They get their fix on two wheels, and, what’s more, support from women on the circuit. “I don’t think you see that in very many other sports,” Weigel said.
The twins will ride in the cyclocross nationals in Louisville, Ky., in early December.
They are part of the family dynamic knit over time within the Minnesota cyclocross community that appeals to other riders, too.
Jennifer Nowlin, of Plymouth, grinded her way to the top in the women’s single-speed race for all categories Sunday. Then, she found a coat and something hot to drink, and watched her three sons ride. Evan competed in the junior race for ages 13-14, and Nigel and Gerik in the 9-12.
Now, a few years in, they all have found an easy rhythm balancing more traditional sports with the daring of cyclocross, said Nowlin, 43.
“I support the boys in soccer in summer, and they come and play with me in the fall,” she said, smiling through the dirt and sweat of her race, as her boys churned on by. Headed up a hill and their own race-day adventure.