Just yesterday this race wasn’t a real thing at all, merely wooden stakes in the back of an SUV somewhere, ready to be planted, on the fly, into the soft ground of a holler in rural central Ohio.
And as soon as that perimeter is established, a vibrant world unfolds within it: blurry, colorful creatures zip through the periphery, sliding and diving between the taped off course markers—guilded in spandex and all headed toward a common goal: a communal movement toward a growing Columbus subculture. But first, the finish line.
This is cyclocross, and it’s beast of its own within the competitive cycling world. The races are based on laps completed during a fixed time on an outdoor track, and that track is the starring character in this sports story. Its natural scape requires the cyclists to dismount in order to run through mud, jump over hurdles, and scramble up rocky slopes, all while carrying their bikes over their shoulders—hence the ephemeral nature of the arena.
This sport and its athletes don’t follow a paved path.
And often they’re competing on a path that GPS doesn’t follow.
The roots of cyclocross stretch across the Atlantic, to Belgium, where road cyclists would maintain their fitness in the off-season by challenging themselves to tackle off road terrain. The practice speciated into its own sport, and the gear evolved along with it. Cyclocross bikes are specific to the field, resembling lithe Frankensteins. Bits of the simple machines correspond to road bikes, such as the svelte frames and drop-style handlebars. Other parts harken back to mountain bikes, like the thick, nubby tires. The track is a pop-up, put together the day before the race. The location is carefully considered. This spot is ideal due to its proximity to the Veloscience shop location in New Albany, as well as the natural terracing and gravely run-ups.
“There’s supposed to be one obstacle in every event that will force the majority of riders off their bikes. Some of the elite men can bunny hop them and not get off the bike. If you don’t make it, it can be somewhat catastrophic. I choose to take the safe route and jump off. So you have to run and have some course training and all around fitness.”
Racer and promoter Larry Hughes, who reps Veloscience Bike Works in New Albany, is a perfect embodiment of the communal feel of Cap City Cyclocross. A street cyclist, he entered less than four years ago at the beginner level (5) and quickly worked his way up to a level 2 (The upper echelons of level 1 are reserved for the professionals). It’s that type of inclusive structure that appeals to him.
“I come from a road (cycling) background, and the first time I came out, I was definitely intimidated. When you line up (at the starting line) there’s that tension that builds. I would sit on the line and think ‘I don’t even belong here, this is ridiculous.’ And then they blow the whistle and you’re off.”
Where much of cycling culture can be perceived as exclusive, Cyclocross welcomes new members with open arms. The only criteria being that you can keep up with dudes that carry their bikes as they climb up rocks and jump hurdles in a field. For fun.
On this day, the kick-off of the annual fall season (a nod to its off-season roots, Cyclocross stretches through the winter and is often witness to snow-covered tracks) a crowd of 100 or so people—primarily family members and cyclists waiting to race—cheer on the riders on the track. Races begin with a whistle, and the riders shoot out onto the track together. They slide across grass, and seamlessly dismount their bikes to jump over hurdles. A spandex clad man with a megaphone stands outside the taped off track. He shouts as the riders fly past.
That’s the thing about Cyclocross that’s just like any family: friendly ball-busting is involved. Heckling isn’t just encouraged, it’s part of the circuit’s personality.
“NICE BIKE! Your shoes match too? Ya ya ya ya ya!”
The riders remount without losing speed, only to hop off again when confronted with a rocky dirt slide called a run-up. The herd resembles mountain sheep, quickly leaping up the crumbling foot holds in turn as they race to the second tier, where another track is roped off, snaking around a grassy clearing.
The spandex man aims the megaphone up the hill.
“Not destructive heckling,” Hughes says, chuckling at the amplified burns, “but almost like you’re hangin’ around with your buds. It’s a fairly tight community. Even with the people that don’t know each other, it’s kind of expected. It’s all in fun. But it’s a tough sport. To do well, you have to suffer through the whole race.”
And it is tough. Cyclocross competitors are keenly aware of their heart rates, and they discuss its rise and drop in relation to the tough spots on the track. In a race where riders are continuously pushing themselves to their limit, a healthy ribbing can let the air out of an otherwise intense situation.
While Cap City is proud of their small but strong following, they’re hoping to push that inclusion note, expanding in ways that other Midwest cities have outpaced them.
“If you look, Cincinnati has a much bigger cyclocross scene than Columbus,” Hughes said. “They have a pro elite field there, and they’ll pull in some of the best riders from across the country. We want to put on a race because we want to support the community, and the only way to do that is through having these events. If we don’t do it, then these events don’t happen and there’s nowhere for people to go and compete. I think it’s good to have that goal of competition, and have people get out. It can be a little intimidating, but it’s a welcoming community. You can see in the (beginner ranks), they’re the largest numbers. It’s beneficial for us to bring people in to these events, because that’s how we can grow. And the higher numbers you have, the more fun it is because you have more competition.”
The competition Hughes speaks of is more advanced than his humble demeanor would suggest.
“Two years ago, we did Everesting, which is where you pick a hill and ride up and down it until you’ve achieved the amount of climbing from sea level to the top of Everest. We did it out by Kirkmont Hill, near Zanesfield. That was 15 hours.”
But it’s not all mountains and endurance tests.
“A few years before, we did the single speed world championships. You have to be on a single speed, costumes are encouraged, and there’s drinking for shortcuts. So like if you come upon an intersection, if you take a shot, you can cut the course. By the time it’s over, it’s a big party, or melee. We are trying to promote and be open to other people.”
The strength of Cyclocross seems to lie not only in the legs and lungs of the riders, but the communal ties between them.
On the track, one in the series of races is finishing, and the riders are trying to push through their last laps before the bell. They move like a flock of birds in mid-air, careening around the hairpin turns, leaning so sharply that their shoulders touch. They emerge from the track all sweat, dirt, and climactic smiles. Hughes breaks away from our interview to compete in the next race. Regardless of where he places today, Hughes, along with this small but growing community of riders, are leading the pack.
Catch three different CCC events this month. For more, visit capcitycross.com.