Cyclocross taking off in U.P., by Matthew Williams

Five years ago, a couple of guys armed with rakes walked into the woods near the old landfill behind Pioneer Road in Marquette. They scratched out a winding trail through leaves and underbrush and dragged a few big logs over the path as obstacles.
They jokingly called it a psychlo-cross course and charged their bicycling buddies two bucks each to race laps around it until they puked.
The fastest rider took the pot, and with that informal race, the U.P. Cyclocross Series was born.
“It kind of started as a clandestine event,” said Greg Potvin, vice president of the Kichi-Mi-Kana Cycling Club that now organizes the fall race series.
Standing at the Al Quaal Recreation Area pavilion in September, Potvin marveled at the line of bike-loaded vehicles arriving for the first 2007 race. Back when it was a bunch of cyclists playing around in the woods, the founders didn’t anticipate it would grow to an annual event with a national sponsor that draws sixty-plus riders each week, he said.
No doubt, the handful of families out for an autumn stroll that day eyed the lycra-clad riders tooling in and out of the woods, around picnic tables and through a sand volleyball court, and wondered about these people descending on their park. (The Al Quaal regulars may have recognized these same cyclists from the annual Ride for Glory mountain bike race, another unique event organized there each summer by the Range Mountain Bike Club.)
Cyclocross, also known as CX, is a little bit of bicycle motocross (BMX), short-track mountain biking and steeple chase rolled into one. Anyone who has ever cut through a neighbor’s yard on a bike, hopped a fence or slalomed through trees has tried it.
“Cyclocross is not too brutal in terms of rocks or extreme hills like in mountain bike races,” Potvin said. “It’s a great sport to practice bike handling skills.”
The sport originated in Europe a century ago. Professional road cyclists looking for a way to train during the off-season raced from one town to the next. There were few rules. Riders could take the shortest path and were soon cutting across farm fields, lifting their bikes over fences, leaping streams and running through mud, or sometimes pig slop with their bikes slung over a shoulder.
In 1910, Tour de France winner Octave Lapize attributed his victory to off-season cyclocross training and gave the sport legitimacy.
CX courses today usually are one-mile loops that include pavement, grass, dirt, sand and sometimes stairs. There are switchbacks, off-camber corners where the ground slopes away from the turn (the opposite of a banked turn) and single-track trails. There are short-but-steep hills where riders must dismount and carry their bikes to the top. Courses also include wooden barriers—sixteen-inch hurdles. The racers must lift their bikes over the barrier. Some races include crossing a creek or leaping fallen trees.
Skilled riders can dismount, run, leap hurdles and remount their bikes in one graceful motion.
“We try to make it fun and use natural obstacles when we can,” said Andy Gregg, a mountain biker, former BMX racer and one of those original Pioneer Road riders. He picked up the sport while living in Chicago in the mid 1990s.
Gregg said the courses are designed not only to challenge bike handling skills and fitness, but also to be spectator friendly. Courses usually turn back on themselves and unlike road or mountain bike races where the riders disappear from view for long periods of time, fans can see the cyclists through a large part of the race. A lap typically takes four to six minutes.
Gregg and other racers back in 2002 were flying under the radar of landowners and parks and recreation groups. That’s no longer the case.
“We’re not underground anymore as a result of the KMK cycling club,” he said. “That network of riders and the communication that goes with it has been very helpful.”
The U.P. Cyclocross Series became legitimate last year and when it did, race entrants jumped from a handful of riders to an average of thirty each race. This year it’s double that.
KMK now insures the races through a partnership with the Noquemanon Trail Network, something that was necessary to receive municipal approval. KMK also has worked with departments of parks and recreation in both Marquette and Ishpeming to obtain permission for racing on city property. The races are advertised and riders must sign a liability waiver to participate. National sponsor Hammer Nutrition Products provides race prizes and sports gels for all competitors.
“How can you go wrong?” said Potvin. “It’s a cheap and fun afternoon for both racers and spectators. The $5 entry fee is less than the cost of a movie. The entire family can participate. The courses are spectator-friendly. The events are short. You can come out, get your competitive fix or your workout, and be home two hours later.”
Indeed, the growing interest in cyclocross means several Marquette-area bike shops carry cyclocross specific bikes this year, something not seen prior to 2006.
However, specially-designed bikes—those that look like a road racing bike with knobby tires—are not necessary. Any bike will do. Potvin estimates at least half the racers ride mountain bikes. Most youth racers use BMX-style single-speed bikes.
Riders need only a bike and helmet to participate. Racers this year have ranged from five-year-olds to those in their mid-60s.
“This is great,” said Houghton’s John Gershenson after his first CX race September 30. Gershenson rides with the newly-formed Red Jacket Cycling Club based in the Copper Country. The club is named after Calumet’s 1900-era Red Jacket Athletic Club. The Red Jackets bring their own bus—and gas grill—to races and through mid-October had placed several top finishers.
“Not bad considering we’re just a bunch of people who like to ride bikes,” Gershenson said.
At the KMK-sponsored races, adults can choose between a 30-minute “B” race and 45-minute “A” race—usually six and ten laps respectively. Youth have the option of two- and four-lap races or they can join the adults for the longer duration.
Standard professional races are one hour.
Because the race time is shorter than most road or MTB races, the intensity is cranked up a notch for those with a competitive streak. It’s common to see the top finishers draped over their handlebars unable to speak after the race, then, in the masochistic way of some cyclists, later boast about the lactic acid bur—hence the term psychlo-cross.
But Potvin emphasizes not everyone races to exhaustion and as in all events, cyclists can choose the intensity they wish to ride the course.
Providing an event where bicyclists have fun and can socialize while staying physically active is the KMK club’s main goal.
The U.P. Cyclocross Series begins at the end of each September.
“We looked at the calendar and most of the summer running and summer bike races were done and there wasn’t much going on until ski season,” Potvin said. “We thought it would be a great time to add an event.”
Being a fall sport in the U.P. also means weather can add to the fun, or the difficulty, depending on your viewpoint.
“The truth is I can’t wait until the weather turns bad,” Gershenson said. “We bought long-sleeved jerseys for our team expecting that.”
Gregg said it’s not uncommon to see snow in cyclocross. His first-ever race in Chicago was through five inches of snow. He also recalls a race along the Lake Michigan shoreline when high wind pushed waves over a part of the course.
While most riders prepare for wet and cold conditions, record high temperatures set the bar on October 6 this year, driving a handful of overheated racers from the course at River Park Sports Complex in Marquette. That, however, shouldn’t be a problem at the U.P. Cyclocross State Championship set for November 3 at the site of the former Nordic Bay Lodge in Marquette.
“A little slush, a little snow, a little goo—inclement weather makes it more interesting,” said Potvin, showing that at heart, cyclocross still is an event for a bunch of riders who like to play in the autumn woods.
—Matthew Williams

Author’s note: For details about the U.P. Cyclocross Series or KMK Cycling Club, visit www.kmkcycling.com
For details about the Red Jacket Cycling Club based in the Houghton/Hancock area, e-mail Chris Schmidt at cts@xmatic.com

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