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For the Love of 'Cross

Weekend warriors feel it. Pros get it. ‘Cross is the delicious itch that gets under your skin and must be scratched—a brief flash of joy ahead of a fast approaching winter. In this series, we explore the essence of what makes us love the discipline of Cyclocross so much.

NAMUR & HEUSDEN-ZOLDER, BELGIUM

UCI World Cup #5 & #6

They come. Donning their rain boots, puffy jackets, and scarves they arrive in droves, seeking sanctuary in the Temple of Cyclocross. Faces bright against the grey day, they are momentarily subdued, saving their voices for approaching sermon. Scanning the assembled riders, they seek glimpses of their idols—riders they follow from weekend to weekend, race to race, result to result. The air is fat with anticipation. Soon. Soon they will release their urgent cries to the frigid sky, bleating the names of those they worship. They will be loud and boisterous in their revelry; a chanting, waffle-fueled choir rejoicing in the spectacle. They say Belgian cyclocross fans are crazy, but don’t all religions look like that to outsiders? Hush. The service is about to begin.

The riders assemble, jostling at the start like loosely bridled horses. With professional road and mountain racing obligations met for the season, they're free to indulge their passion for ‘cross and play in the mud, puddles, and snow. In this moment, they are focused and ready, thinking only of this first lap. Of surviving the start. Surviving that first corner. Surviving the chaos. Knowing that should they end up in front, called to the pulpit, they will let their quads do the talking.

The first lap is always about fighting, getting your elbows out and trying to just defend your position or trying to move up as fast as possible. Like the first lap—sometimes it's a little bit like a war, but a nice war.”

Christine Majerus, Boels-Dolmans and ‘cross addict

The crowd tos-and-fros on course. Like flock of murmurating starlings, they are ensnared by the rhythm of the race and surging toward the action. Riders pass and for a brief moment, hands are released from toasty jacket pockets to cheer. Mustached men, faces lined with decades of race memories, talk of form and chances. The party goes on. The congregation is united in their ecstasy—they know that soon, a hero will rise.

The collection plate is out and riders’ offerings begin to clang into the bowl. Skill. Luck. Fun. Hunger. Contributions are made and a rider is blessed. Who will it be today? There's an overwhelming sense of togetherness in the sand and muck—after all, what is for one is the same for all in these conditions. Lap after lap, riders pull chutes to drift unceremoniously off the pace while others surge on. The herd thins, until finally, it is done and the victorious hands of this week’s anointed one are raised. With a puff of relieved air and a cheer from the sidelines, the service is over.

The saying goes that if it’s not fun, you’re not doing it right, and with all the slow-motion video and epic photography often presented from cyclocross races, it’s easy to forget that the primary reason everyone gives for loving it—at all levels—is precisely that. It’s fun. Big, playful, competitive fun. It’s fun for riders. It’s fun for spectators. And who wouldn’t love a religion based on that?

Next up—UCI World Championships. Let us pray.

If you do an interview after the race, they [the winner] are probably going to say ‘Oh, I had a lot of fun,’ and the last one will also say 'Ah, this was awesome, I had a lot of fun!’ and that's not necessarily something you have on the road. I mean, don't ask the last one in a road race how the race was. They’re probably gonna say, ‘Ah let's forget about it.’

WEST SUSSEX, UK

Round 8, London X League

It’s cold outside, but you get out of bed anyway and shuffle about in your warm flat, collecting your kit while munching on warm toast. Later that morning, while loading your bike onto the roof of your car, you notice the sky looks mildly menacing—hmm, is rain in the forecast? You’re already thinking about tire pressure and post-race clean up. You head out of the city, winding through Sunday streets until houses begin to thin out and you find yourself in countryside. Rolling up with plenty of time to spare—your race isn’t until 2PM—you park. Like-minded souls have already gathered here, and as you sit in your car with the heater softly purring, you smile. “These are my people,” you think, watching familiar faces go through their pre-race routines. The parents, the kids, and the friends. This community—to you they are like a second family.

You switch the engine off and puff warm air into your hands. HTFU. Go time. You exit the car.

[Sometimes] I'll be racing people around me, I won't be racing for the top 10. […] There's always someone to race with, which is really cool.

Rudy Melo, 5th Floor

“One of the main things that appeals to me in ‘cross is just the community behind it,” explains Rudy Melo, co-founder of the cycling collective, 5th Floor. “It's very relaxed, but you can also take it really seriously if you want to.”

Seriously competitive or not, with multiple levels of experience in every race (there are no category rankings in this league, just age and gender groupings), there’s always someone to race against—even if it’s just your own inner demons.

“If you're not doing as well as you wish, [then] you're racing against yourself, or to do your best every lap, or you're racing to do better than your previous race, or you're racing to catch the guy in front or to stay away from the guy behind.” It seems no matter where you are in that precious 60 minutes of racing, the tussle is real.

It’s winter. In a season of hearty soups and comfort food, ‘cross is like that go-to bowl of soul-restoring, chunky stew—familiar, tasty, and immensely satisfying. Every week, you find yourself lining up at the start line, joking around with the people you’re going to be battling against for the next hour—maybe more, maybe less. You will ride, and ride hard. You will ride until your lungs burst and your face is contorted with the effort. You will race against whomever is next to you, behind you, in front of you, and fight for the scraps of victory. And when the finish line comes, you will slump over the bars, breathing hard and sucking in oxygen in big, hearty gulps. Before going home, you will swap your war stories, complain about the cold, clean all your gear, and pack up. And come next week?

Come next week, you will come back for seconds.

Los Angeles, California

'Cross Crusade #2: UCI CXLA

You’ll find them in local parks on weeknights as dusk creeps in, practicing their moves on the soft grass. One, two, three, step, and one, two, three step. In this dance—the dance of ‘cross—rehearsal is important. Repeated step-back dismounts followed by drills of the more advanced step-through dismount. There’s the smooth “do-si-do your partner” as they swing bikes onto shoulders and charge up a hill. The weekend is coming and they're resolute in their practice. Unclip, step-off, hop, launch the legs and swing ‘em high to land without damaging their delicate undercarriages. There are beginners, new to the moves, plus the old hands, working on refining the tempo of the dance. And then there are the lords of it.

Of course, Cody Kaiser would never describe himself as a lord of anything, but there’s no denying there was a moment in time, U23 U.S. Cyclocross Nationals in 2014 to be precise, when fans saw him be a lord of a particular skill—riding up stairs. The video of him rounding a hairpin bend and bunny hopping up the stairs in a rhythmic pump track motion broke brains and melted the Internet for a hot minute. But don’t kid yourself—to do that, Cody practiced the move over and over and over, just like those riders practicing in parks on weeknights. To master the dance, you have to know the steps.

“It’s all about rhythm and speed,” he says, describing how to not end up on your ass. “[On that day] Everything just lined up. It was super rhythmic, and the pace of the race was right. […] You definitely have to be in a rhythm, and if you lose your focus for a split second, you're [running] into the next step.”

[In ‘cross] You don't have that ability to be out in the middle of nowhere and just have your thoughts to yourself. It's sort of like a heavy metal show, all in a bike race.

Cody Kaiser

Cyclocross is fast, short, and fun. And the more you ride and race, the stronger the muscle memory for skills required to succeed at it, becomes. The dance and its choreography become second nature as you learn how to plumb the mysterious depths of a sand pit without floundering, or negotiate sloppy mud fests. Carrying momentum into the mount and dismount becomes effortless, and slowly, those "Joey’s OK" moments that once threatened your every race, fade. And then, one day maybe, just maybe, you do something so rad at a race that there’s an expectation that you’ll do it every time. Like Cody Kaiser and those stairs. There’s no pressure but…

“People expect me to ride all the steps and hop all the barriers, and if there's gonna be a dismount, then they're expecting me to stay on my bike.”

The weekend is coming. See you on the dance floor.

Portland, Oregon

'Cross Crusade #1

“Ride it!”

The bellowing taunt from the heckling hordes fills your ears as you approach the off-camber right-hander. This slope has a high probability of screw up—and that’s exactly why the horde has gathered here. No pressure. You point your bike down and hoist your leg outrigger style to ensure you stay upright. The mud—a kind of sloppy, oatmeal'ish mess—has other ideas and you lose it, ass-tobogganing with your bike down the hill. The horde cheers enthusiastically at your misfortune. Laughing at the utter ridiculousness of the moment, you remount and slog on. This is Portland’s 'Cross Crusade season opener and conditions are at once both awful and absolutely freakin' perfect.

I always joke, ‘Yeah, we race for 45 minutes and then spend four hours cleaning all our shit afterwards.’

Cindy Lewellen, Poler CX Team

A cyclocross race is the mullet hairdo of the cycling world—business at the front, party in the back—and it's joyously on display at Alpenrose. At the pointy end of the field, Crusaders charge hard and duke it out, while at the back, riders are pushing their limits and having a blast. The whole thing is a gamble, and anyone could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It’s obvious to all, however, that everyone is having the best time on a bike, like ever.

“We all race in the single speed category,” says Poler CX team’s Ryan Barrett, talking about the Portland scene, “and there really aren't any rules up here for the single speed class. So you'll find a mix of people who are dedicated racers and people that are off the back taking beer handoffs, people that are jumping, and you just see a lot of smiling and good vibes.”

Purists will sometimes curl a lip and say: “Yes, but it’s not Belgium” (although the conditions often do a pretty good impression), but no one racing here would claim that it is anyway. Cyclocross in the Pacific North West is its own thing, just as it is on the East Coast, just as it is in Australia, in the U.K. or…wherever. 'Cross? 'Cross is wherever you make it.