Cyclo-cross racing is thought to have started in Europe in the early 1900s, originating in France and quickly sweeping through Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Spain and Italy. Roughly 70 years after its nascency, the rugged autumn/winter sport crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the United States of America.
It has continued to gain in popularity throughout the country that now hosts roughly 50 cyclo-cross events annually that are sanctioned under the sport's governing body, the International Cycling Union (UCI). Furthermore, the US is scheduled to host the UCI World Cyclo-cross Championships for the first time in Louisville, Kentucky in 2013. As part of the agreement for hosting Worlds, the Louisville venue will also be used for the Masters Cyclo-cross World Championships in 2012 and 2013.
Below is a the first of a two-part snapshot of some of the nation's greatest 'cross events scheduled to take place from September to December this year. It is a mix of races that range from the oldest to the newest, the wackiest to the most epic and everything in between.
CrossVegas: The Show Stopper
The UCI registered C1 level event, CrossVegas, will kick off the Interbike trade show on September 22 in Las Vegas, Nevada. With thousands of bike-industry stake holders and media corralled in one location it is no surprise that the fourth annual ‘cross bash has become a wild success.
"I love Vegas, it's not that the course suits me but I love the venue," said Jeremy Powers (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com). "I love the crowds. One thing that makes me want to perform is the crowd, then you add the music, the lights and the fans.
"I love the atmosphere we all create together at the event with fans, friends, racers and media. That's what it's all about. Making something special that everyone looks back and says, ‘wow, that was awesome racing and we had a great time.'
CrossVegas is a stand alone event held on a Wednesday night, nestled between the first weekend of the North American Cyclo-cross Trophy (NACT) series at StarCrossed and Rad Racing Gran Prix held in Seattle, Washington and the start of the US Gran Prix of Cyclo-cross (USGP) series at the Planet Bike Cup held in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin - two of the nation's marquee series.
"Our race is at a wacky time of the year," said CrossVegas promoter Brook Watts. "I think part of what makes our race attractive is that we are able to get the unique spot on the calendar which suits the Europeans and others who can't come to the USA during the heart of the cyclo-cross schedule.
"The entire week gives riders an opportunity to get points, meet sponsors, get home, get over jet lag and dive into the heart of their own season overseas. The wacky and counterintuitive time of the season really works for us."
Its prime mid-week slot on the UCI calendar, sandwiched between two major series' events and run in conjunction with Interbike are no doubt three major factors that have led to its massive success. Another undeniable factor is location, location, location. The bustling nightlife of Las Vegas brings a show stopping energy (and the show girls) to the typically unruly crowds that distinguish cyclo-cross from other cycling disciplines.
"Why else does the event work? Las Vegas! Where else could you get away with something like what we do," Watts said. "We are over the top. This year we will use ring girls, a girl who comes out in a boxing ring wearing scantily clad clothing, she'll hold a lap counter. In a typical Vegas sort of way we will be over the top with a high heeled girl walking around a cyclo-cross course, where else but Vegas.
"First and foremost, it is one of the top destinations for foreigners. It has an appeal to the European riders that come here because they know they are satisfying a couple of itches, an American 'cross race and an iconic American city."
Jamey Driscoll (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) and reigning US National Champion Katie Compton (Planet Bike) won their respective events in 2009 and are slated to defend their titles this season.
Gran Prix of Gloucester: The New England Nationals
The 12th annual Gran Prix of Gloucester, affectionately known as "the New England Nationals", is never lacking in competition and attracts cyclo-cross racers from around the world who dare to take on New England's natives in a battle on their own turf. The pair of UCI C2 level events mark rounds three and four of the NACT series held on October 2 and 3 in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
"I have to say that as a pillar of the season race, it would have to be Gloucester," said Tim Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com), 2009's NACT series champion. "The crowd (is biased), the fields are filled to the brim with riders that are excited to be out on their bikes and it's close to home."
New England has produced some of the most revered cyclo-cross specialists in the country that include brothers Frank and Mark McCormack, 2007 World Championship silver medallist Jonathan Page, US National Champion Tim Johnson, Jeremy Powers, Adam Myerson, Jamey Driscoll and Maureen Bruno-Roy, among many others.
The races are held on a breathtaking venue along the eastern seaboard's Atlantic shoreline at the Stage Fort Park. The course offers an array of obstacles with a lengthy sand pit, a steep ride-up (that often turns into a run-up in muddy conditions), off-camber twists and turns and strong winds along the shoreline.
Jonathan Page (Planet Bike) and Natasha Elliott (Garneau Club Chaussure Ogilvy) won their respective events in the Gran Prix of Gloucester's first round last year. The following day Elliot repeated her win in the women's race and Johnson topped the podium in the men's race.
Alpenrose Bike Challenge: The Coolest
The 12th annual Alpenrose Bike Challenge is the first event of the Cross Crusade's eight-round series held on October 3 on the western seaboard in the city of Portland, Oregon. It is famed for being one of the only cyclo-cross circuits to include laps of a track at the Alpenrose Velodrome, where the race starts and finishes.
"This race feeds off itself," said Cross Crusade director Brad Ross. "The more popular it gets, the more popular it gets. It's run on dairy cattle land in downtown Portland but there are no cows there anymore."
Cross Crusade was born in 1990 and was once America's largest cyclo-cross series. Several of its races have graced the UCI calendar. Alpenrose was also the final event of the more recent USGP series for the first three seasons. Although it is no longer a UCI-sanctioned event, diehard cyclo-cross lovers continue to flock by the masses. In 2009 the race capped out at 1,390 participants and it is expected to exceed that number this year.
"My favorite ‘cross race of all time is the Alpenrose in Portland," said Barry Wicks (Kona-FSA). "It is where I did my first ever ‘cross race and has been the site of Super Cup races, USGP events and countless Cross Crusade races. The venue is very small and intimate. It almost always incorporates the legendary and fearsome 43 degree banked Alpenrose Velodrome and it is usually muddy as hell.
"All those things combined along with massive numbers of spectators, lots of beer and waffles and cut throat racing makes it my all time favorite cyclo-cross race."
2009 USGP champion Ryan Trebon (Kona-FSA) and Wendy Williams (Hudz-Subaru) won their respective events last year.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of "A Taste of American 'Cross"