Friday, September 28, 2012

Spectator Sport

Cross Vegas
"So I hear you are into cyclocross," said Martina from Clever Cycles as we chatted on the second day of Interbike. I responded with genuine amazement. "Me, into cyclocross? What makes you say that?" And then I remembered that I'd spent the previous evening live-posting a continuous stream of blurry snapshots from Cross Vegas - "the biggest cyclocross race in America." I gave up two other industry events to attend this thing. I guess it did seem like I was pretty into it! But as I was quick to explain, I am only interested in watching, not racing. In fact, of all the forms of cycling out there, cyclocross is the one I am least likely to actually take part in (it combines every aspect of cycling I am terrible at!). Moreover, I had never before been able to tolerate - let alone enjoy - watching sports of any kind. So what makes cyclocross so appealing?

Molly Hurford
As it happens, Molly Hurford has just written a book that seeks to answer that very question. It's called Mud, Snow, and Cyclocross: How Cross Took Over US Cycling. Having borrowed a copy from the Ride Studio Cafe library, I finished it just days before Interbike. Aside from providing historical context, Hurford's book helped me make sense of my own feelings toward this bizarre sport. As race promoters all over the country have discovered, cyclocross is in many ways the perfect spectator event. And so I thought it might be interesting to describe it from the point of view of someone who is purely a spectator - and a fairly clueless one at that.

Chris Kostman of AdventureCORPS, Cross Vegas
To do this, I will backtrack to last year's Interbike, where it all started. I had zero interest in attending Cross Vegas, but tagged along with Chris Kostman, who insisted I should at least stop by ("Come on, you can't go to Interbike and not see this!"). We drove to a giant field on the outskirts of town filled with tipsy people and flooded with electric light. In the distance I could see a colourful blur of bicyclists making their way through an elaborate obstacle course. As the sounds of cowbells and screams filled my ears, I remember wondering: "What am I doing here?" Five minutes later I was leaning over a barrier, ringing a cowbell and having a shockingly great time. And that's pretty much your typical "my first time watching 'cross" story. No one intends to like it, but inevitably they do.

Cross Vegas
This year we arrived to the spectacle of Elvis performing on stage before the start of the elite races. 

Cross Vegas
Visitors wandered around purchasing water, beer and cowbells. 

Cross Vegas
Cyclists rode around the grass warming up. Bicycles were being adjusted.

Cross Vegas
Before the crowds became too dense, I got the chance to survey the empty course. Winding around the grassy field, it did not look too technical, though there were lots of tight turns and a couple of short steep hills.

Cross Vegas
And, of course, these. I still remember how stunned I was when I first saw the riders hop right over them without breaking stride. How is this possible?

Cross Vegas
And then the race began. First the women's elite race; the mens would be next. Watching the hoard of riders charge cross the start line, the excitement of it all came back to me. I got goosebumps.

Cross Vegas
The thing is that at a cyclocross race, you can stand so close that you feel the energy of the riders wash over you like a wave.

Cross Vegas
And this wave is not some abstract poetic concept. It is very real, visceral. Even if you know nothing about race tactics and don't follow the background stories of any of the riders - just standing there and feeling so much human power and speed happening inches from your own body is a physical rush.

Cross Vegas
Watching track racing is more abstract in comparison, because the riders are further away. And with road racing you can only witness a small portion of the course at a time. But with cyclocross, all is laid out right in front of you in close proximity. The course winds around the spectators; it intertwines with them. There is a feeling that everything is happening everywhere, all at once.

Cross Vegas
Pressed against the barrier, I can see the riders' flushed faces, gritted teeth, twitching fingers, razor-burned legs. The physicality and rawness of it are overwhelming.

Cross Vegas
And then there are the technical parts that differentiate cyclocross from other forms of cycling. The obstacles, the vertical uphills, the dismounts and remounts, the bouts of running with the bike. No matter how graceful the rider, there is an intimate awkwardness to these struggles that makes us feel as if we are witnessing something private that perhaps we are not supposed to be witnessing.

Cross Vegas
Equally intriguing, is when a group of riders is so synchronised in their movements, that the dismounts and remounts appear to be done in choreographed unison - like a staged ballet.

Cross Vegas
And of course there are things like this - at which point it is the crowd's chorus of gasps that seems choreographed.

Cross Vegas
Watching first the women's, then the men's race, I noticed differences. The men stuck in larger, tighter clusters while the women were more strung out after the first lap. There were also difference in demeanor and body language - too subtle to describe, but nonetheless there. Watching the two races were separate experiences.

Cross Vegas
As the lead group of riders made its way through the course, spectators would rush to position themselves in different spots. This too was interesting to watch.

Cross Vegas
Through the elbows of others, I could see the anticipatory face of each rider as they crossed the finish line. 

Cross Vegas
What struck me was how much they seemed to be savouring the moment, rather than rushing through it. There was a performative, theatrical element to it.

John Watson/ Prolly is Not Probably, Cross Vegas
Photographers were everywhere, capturing the action with impressive lenses and flash units. John Watson's Cross Vegas photos on Prolly is Not Probably are especially worth a look.

Cross Vegas
While my low-light snapshots are far from professional quality, they do reflect my experience of the event as a spectator: dark and chaotic, punctuated with bursts of light and blurs of colour. 

Cross Vegas
I am not sure whether any of this really explains what makes watching cyclocross fun. It is an evasive quality, but ultimately it is about entertainment - genuine entertainment. You don't even have to like sports or racing to enjoy it - though you might surprise yourself by developing a taste for beer and cowbells.

Cross Vegas
Accessible and awe-inspiring in equal measure, cyclocross strikes the perfect balance between a country fair, a bicycle race, and an alcohol-fueled block party. While the circus of Cross Vegas examplifies this more than typical races, it truly is the ultimate spectator sport.

30 comments:

  1. Thank you. Another fine piece.

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  2. It's a fun race too, it's intense and difficult, but it's over quickly, and you come out filthy, which appeals to my inner 12-year-old.

    I keep telling myself when I get back into racing (ie, when I finally find a job that offers medical insurance again) I'll probably start with 'cross.

    I've been meaning to check out Molly Hurford's book, she's a local girl, and I know her sister from the diner across the street from my shop.

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    1. 45 minutes isn't quick when you have to puke...

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  3. It's like a dirty crit but way better. Nice piece!

    "While my low-light snapshots are far from professional quality, they do reflect my experience of the event as a spectator"

    No one cares -- you got a shot of Krasniak. Yes I am objectifying. Sue me.

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  4. Now that you've seen the 'world's largest' others might disappoint in terms of the 'circus coming to town' kind of atmosphere but, no matter, they're still fun to watch. But, strangely, I think the more interesting races are the open races or cat. 4 kind of races where one gets to watch folks like you and me take their less than optimum, and greater variety of, bikes on the very same course and go for it!! No team kits, no pit stop helpers, same amount of mud, same steep stairs, same tight corners, and much more drama!! What happens is one starts to really root for certain riders...the cow bell is much more meaningful for them, you can sense their mind at work as they contemplate the next puddle or the steep, brief, ascent. It's really cool and I think that, alone, acts as an invitation to give it a try. It looks hard, but fun. In fact there were even 'beer pass offs' in one I recently saw. The riders, covered from head to toe in mud, were really enjoying it!

    The elites are, of course, amazing to watch simply because of their power, speed, and focus. Much more like machines.

    You should watch some criterium races sometimes. Same type of atmosphere, same accessibility in that one can wander the entire course and be up close and personal with the riders. The speeds and sounds are quite different, but the beer and food and spectator fun?....same :)

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  5. My first (and hopefully not last) view of cyclocross racing was 20 years ago in Portland, Oregon. My husband and I were out on a long road ride and stumbled into this bizarre scene: racing up and down hills in the cold drizzle, toting bikes on shoulders up steep inclines, hopping on the seats for downhills, all this taking place in an out of the way grassy banked public park. The sport was surely in its infancy then, but I recall being mesmerized by the spectacle.

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  6. One thing about watching cyclocross or criterium racing is the fact one can move about so easily. View a straight away with maximum speed or a corner, holding your breath as riders bunch up and somehow maintain balance and speed-wow! Standing in awe at some technical point, or potentially dangerous point, and witness the action. And of course there's watching people which, for me, is part of the entertainment. Fancy bikes, shaved muscled bodies, happy interesting people, pets. and free admission!!

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  7. This may seem like a stupid question, but why are the riders running over those low obstacles instead of bunny hopping (8th and 15th photo)? Just curious.
    Thanks

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    1. As I understand it, they get trapped/tricked into reducing their speed by the riders in front, which prevents them from gaining enough momentum for hopping the barriers. It's a tactic. Either that, or they're like me and can't bunnyhop : )

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    2. The placement of these obstacles along the course also would have something to do with whether a rider might choose the bunnyhop option. If coming after a tight corner it'd be tougher. That said, I watched Jonathan Page bunnyhop during the elite race, even in a crowd...awesome!!

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  8. just curious, would you want to race if you had the ability?

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    1. Yes, but I'd want to race track. In another lifetime maybe.

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  9. Racing on English lawns in the desert? Under a couple megawatts of lighting? OK it's Vegas but still.....

    The part about being right next to the racers, seeing the face and hearing the breathing - that's all bicycle racing. Contact with blood and other body fluids is a risk that goes with spectating cycle sport.

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  10. I bugged out when I learned a few years ago that we have a big-league 'cross event right here in the Pioneer Valley: The Cycle-Smart International, every November (this year on the 3rd and 4th) in Northampton. I was hooked from my very first race, and have gone back various times. Despite being UCI-sanctioned and attracting the best national riders, it's very low-key and fun. I agree with the comment, above, that watching the Cat 4s is more fun. They're more real, trying harder, have less to lose. And besides... wipe-outs are fun!

    It's worth a day. If you go, let me know, maybe we could meet up. :-)

    http://www.cycle-smart.com/csi/

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  11. I have always liked the design of cyclocross bikes but never cyclocross itself, as either participant or spectator. I love especially cantilever brakes, knobby tires, and generously-spaced frames. The idea of having a bike that I could over my shoulder at a moment's notice always appealed to me also. And yet, the one cyclocross event I witnessed left me thinking that the whole affair was a mismatch between environment and technology. Mountain bikes are much better adapted to muck and mire, and bump and bog.

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    1. Isn't that the whole point of cyclocross? Ie, basically riding a road racing bike on horrible dirt? The terrain and conditions certainly don't slow the pros down!

      The concept is perverse in a way, of course, but I think that is its very point and consequently the fun of it -- the fun of watching it, at least.

      If I didn't need hugely fat and soft tires for our local sand, I'd seriously consider getting a cross bike for my offroad riding. (No desire to race or ride in mud, tho'.)

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    2. I am more scared of sand than of mud currently. Only because I seem to have figured out how to ride through mud, but with sand I'm not there yet psychologically. I see it and something just makes my legs go "no, I am not pedaling through that, it's impossible!" I am talking about deep sand I mean. Maybe next year I'll get over it!

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  12. You know, after watching these kinds of events it's not surprising to see that bike shops cater to the energy and excitement of it all, I mean this is sexy stuff and like your last post revealed, sex sells!

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  13. Another lovely post. Like you, I love to watch cyclocross, though I would likely never do it. There is a cool series in New England. The course in Maine is fun as it often veers into wooded paths that offer an amazing vantage point.

    My nitpick for the day: horde (a large group), not hoard (to stash, collect, accumulate, etc.). Please take my nitpicking as a compliment, it means I'm reading closely!

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  14. +1 from me on cross. It's the best bike racing for spectators for all the reasons you so elegantly detailed. You should definitely check out local races. Cross Vegas is fun for its size, but the courses of local races are often more interesting.

    Here in NorCal, we have sandpits, loose dirt, logs and strange pavement/dirt transitions because the courses often wind through a former garbage dumps or equally strange locations. And with the smaller crowds you can move to a different location after each lap to see how they handle the next challenge.

    I love cross. Just writing about it almost makes me want to race again. Except for the fact that you end up riding so hard you feel like puking.

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  15. Cyclocross seems like loads of fun, and something I might have competed in if things had been different(no major car accidents or later accidents, or becoming afraid of getting hurt). It's easy to watch, it's accessible to follow the race and festival like. You cheer everyone on.
    My step daughters boyfriend is a pro downhill guy, and you can't watch the races unless you sit in the bushes somewhere along the way. Plus it is over in seconds. You just see them at the bottom, pretty boring. She follows him to the different races and just sits around. boring! cross country is similar. I like that cyclocross is so technical yet can get so silly.
    A funny thing, I live in mountain biking heaven with a heavy down hill scene, some of the world's top players live here, there are kids up the road living in style on red bull sponsorships. But there is no cyclocross presence at all.
    Cross Vegas seems pretty corporate compared to most races that are out in fields with forest and mud, and more mud.

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  16. Oh God how I love Racing. I've never been very good at it and as I get older and slower it gets harder and more humbling, but every time I go do a Tuesday night timetrial, a local XC Mountain Bike Race or one of our club 'Cross races I just want MORE.

    When I was 20 I thought I'd be able to race forever and that I'd get serious about it later when my life wasn't so crazy. Now I'm, like, a hundred years old and realize that racing is one of the things that helps one cope with a crazy life and that I should have been racing 30 times a year instead of thirty times over 10 years.

    Youth is truly wasted on the young.

    Spindizzy

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  17. Bikes, sweat and booze - sounds like my perfect night out!

    Thanks for sharing, lovely Velouria.

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  18. I love cross, every fall I feel the pull to race again in the grass, leaves and the mud.
    I haven't raced cross in over ten years, but those hard efforts of past races against yourself and the courses are what makes cross so deeply etched in my memory. I miss the feel and rhythm of a successful dismount and remount, the feel of negotiating a muddy downhill corner, and duking it out for 7th or 8th place with the guy that just beat you in the in last race.
    Then my wife reminds of the aftermath of those races...

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  19. What exactly qualifies you to say that no one intends to like cross, though they inevitably do? Other than being a form of racing that you don't want to participate in, what would make it so unappealing that the typical first time spectator would go to a race with the intention of not enjoying it?

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    1. I think you are taking me a little too literally. Read Molly Hurford's book; there is an entire section about people's reactions when cyclocross is explained to them. Funny stuff.

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  20. I've not watched cyclocross except for the pros on Youtube or the occasional video link, but what amazes me -- I am thinking in particular of a couple of races, one on a very a muddy course, the other on a very sandy one -- is how damn' **fast** the riders are on such winding, hilly, and muddy or sandy terrain, and how **exceptional* their bike handling skills are. And to add the occasional flawless bike-to-foot-to-bike transition is jelly on the pudding (or something).

    It's nothing I'd care to do, but it is amazing to watch. The closest I get to it is admiring my next-door-neighbor's cross bike, which he uses to ride the same routes that I do on my Fargo (westside Albuquerque bosque and volcano area trails). His bike is about half the weight of mine -- makes me want one ....

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    1. Yes. The course was all grass in Las Vegas, but the Ride Studio Cafe plays videos from New England and I did not even know if was possible to ride like that through deep sand and mud. The switching of bikes and remounts on the same bike - learning that technique without destroying one's crotch is commendable!

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  21. I really do need to get out an watch a race. I really like several cross racers, but cannot think of a cycling discipline I'd enjoy much less. Short race, tight pack, lots of mud and getting on and off the bike relentlessly. Sounds like pure hell. Put me on a bike for 12 hours straight and I'm happy as a pig in shit.

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  22. What a pleasure to read! Fresh, atmospheric, enticing.. thank you.

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