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The Case For 'Cross

Cyclocross is a great way for beginners to experience racing. Thanks to Steve Balogh for his excellent local cyclocross photos. This is the Tailwind Fall Cyclocross Series race in Lower Huron Metropark, Michigan.

Wolverine Sports Club rider Mike Aderhold discusses cyclocross tire set-up with Mark Trzeciak of Bikesport, Inc..

Wouldn't it be great to have one bike that did everything? You could ride on the road- fast. You could ride off road and you wouldn't have to baby your bike. You've thought about trying bike racing but you don't want the embarrassment of being dropped, you're afraid of crashing and you don't want to buy a delicate race bike that is only good for one thing.

What if you could have one bike that worked as a road bike, touring bike, commuter bike, race bike, and even off-road bike? You could even bolt a pair of aero bars on it, put road tires on it and try the local triathlon or duathlon!

What started decades ago with the first World Cyclocross Championships in Paris in 1950 is emerging as the new Euro-rage in the U.S. Not yet a mainstream sport, cyclocross remains small but is growing rapidly. At a local cyclocross practice at Helm's Haven (Hines Drive and Outer Drive) in 2002, then-Wolverine Sport's Club Vice President of Racing (and cyclocross champ) the late Michael R. Rabe introduced 22 people to cyclocross. In 2003 The Tailwind Cyclocross series routinely attracts over 100 people for each race to their seven race series in Fall and Winter.
Cyclocross is an activity for people who want a lot of variety and don't want to worry about road rash. It's perfect if you want to try competition, but you're not too competitive. Cyclocross involves several laps of a course usually 1-2 miles in length that incorporates riding on pavement, grass and/or dirt and short sections where the rider has to run with their bike. Most cyclocross events are timed and last 45-60 minutes, or about 12 to 15 miles. Due to the terrain drafting plays almost no role, there is generally no pack riding. Instead, riders are mostly on their own or in groups of 2-3. Speeds are lower and the riding surface softer so falls are very forgiving and injuries are rare.

Barriers provide a unique challenge to cyclocross.

Cyclocross bikes are essentially extra-durable road bikes with wider, more comfortable knobby tires for off road traction, a more upright, shorter riding position (for most people) and cantilever or even disc brakes. To some people, cyclocross bikes resemble old touring bikes. Cyclocross bikes do triple (or even quadruple) duty as a touring bike, road bike (add narrower road tires if you wish), off road bike suited for all but the worst off road terrain and even part time multisport bike. You can race it, train on it, commute on it, do the local charity ride on it and take it up North to ride the back trails- all on one bike.

Cyclocross bikes are the go-anywhere, do-anything alternative to slow, clunky mountain bikes and ultra-lightweight, delicate road bikes.


Think Rally Racing for bicycles: The appeal of cyclocross is uniquely European.

The large tires on a cyclocross bike are the keys to its comfort and durability. Tires on a road bike are normally 23 millimeters wide, cyclocross tires are between 30 and 35 millimeters wide with a higher profile. Cyclocross bikes take any size road tire. You can put on wide 35 millimeter knobby tires for soft, muddy conditions and ride at 40 p.s.i., then switch to 23 millimeter narrow road tires with 110 p.s.i. for fast road riding. Many cyclocross bike owners buy two sets of wheels- one permanently set up for the road with higher, tighter gear ratios and another with gears for hilly terrain and fat, soft, knobby tires.

Natural run-ups give runners and triathletes an edge over bicycle racers. Roadies, mountain bikers, triathletes and casual cyclists can all benefit from skills learned in cyclocross.

Rider position on cyclocross bikes varies with rider preference but many of the same fit rules apply. In his excellent book "Cyclo-Cross Technique and Training" (Velo Press), author Simon Burney says "Ideally, you should use a position that is 1 cm. shorter in reach and the same or no more than 1 cm. lower in saddle height." In general, when we size a cyclocross frame for a customer at Bikesport, Inc. we go 1-2 cm. shorter in reach and 1-2 cm. shorter on seat tube than standard road geometry. The changes in the rider's position will depend on how the bike is going to be used. Casual riders and tourists will be more upright with shorter reach while racers will have a very road-like position.

Huge crowds pay admission to watch the European superstars in cyclocross races. Cyclocross is an enormous Fall and Winter sport in Europe.

Set-up of cyclocross bikes is a mystery to most U.S. bike shops. They are still unfamiliar with the dual brake levers, occasional reverse cable routing (for better dismounts) and drivetrain/chain line issues. Gearing selection is tricky also with many cyclocross bikes only using a single front chainring and a wide ratio rear cog. "We do a lot of cyclocross set-ups here so we have learned how the bikes need to be built" Said Nate Griffith, Bikesport, Inc. Manager. Griffith recently returned from his first U.C.I. cyclocross race, a world-caliber event where he placed in the top 20. He has scored impressive results in his last four cyclocross starts, including one third place and one overall win in the elite category. Former Michigan 40+ State Cyclocross Champion Michael Rabe used to say, "You have to understand, the set-up takes some practice- it varies from frame to frame. But the nice thing is that we can easily customize the set-up to each customer's preference."

"The man most responsible for us learning about cyclocross is the late Michael Rabe of the Wolverine Sports Club", says Bikesport, Inc. owner Tom Demerly. "Right now in the store we have ten cyclocross bikes being set up for this weekend's race in the Tailwind Series. Michael R's practice nights have put the sport on the map during 2002 and on into 2003 Nate Griffith and Mike Aderhold are continuing the legacy that Michael R. Rabe started." It's a tall order. Rabe was an enthusiastic promoter of cyclocross before a cycling accident claimed his life on May 2nd. The first ever UCI sanctioned cyclocross race held in Michigan has been named in honor of Michael R. Rabe. He would have approved.

Cyclocross seems like a natural for entry level riders: The speeds stay low because the majority of the terrain is grass. Riders rarely go over 18 m.p.h. Cyclocross teaches good bike handling skills on all surfaces. For riders nervous about being in a tight pack cyclocross is an ideal introduction to racing. For mountain bike riders tired and bored with the same old weekend trail ride cyclocross adds variety.


The start can be crazy but...

Packs never last long in cyclocross racing. Here Jonathan Card races at the Tailwind Fall Series Cyclocross race in Riverside Park, Michigan.


The unique feature of cyclocross is the mounts and dismounts. Riders are forced, either by terrain or barriers, to dismount, run with their bikes, and remount as quickly as possible. Watching top riders perform this seemingly chaotic ballet is a study in elegance. Good cyclocross riders loose no speed over the barriers, literally moving the same speed on foot as while riding. Their dismounts and mounts are smooth and lightening fast. In recent years, top riders have generated controversy by simply jumping the barriers- without dismounting their bikes. "Bunny-hoping" has been banned in some competition but others allow it as it is a sensation for spectators. Nate Griffith of Bikesport, Inc. jumps most barriers. "I'm comfortable on the bike and it saves a lot of time" says the acrobatic Griffith.

The departed master of cyclocross set-up, the late, great Michael R. Rabe (former Michigan State Cyclocross Champion) works with Bikesport Manager, Nate Griffith, on translating a road bike position to a new cyclocross bike for Colin McMahon during the 2002 season.

The growth of cyclocross in the U.S. is definitely underway. Pockets of interest exist on both coasts, the Northeast and Midwest. For now the sport is limited to mostly bike shop employees, mountain bike and road racers and a few enterprising beginners.

The masses have yet to discover the sport. "I'm not sure if this will catch on with consumers, but we are seeing increased momentum and interest in 2003. " Says Tom Demerly.

"Everything about cyclocross makes sense, you can use the bike for road riding, off road riding- everything. Mountain biking is not practical for most people since they have to drive 45 minutes each way to the trail. A 1-hour ride effectively takes almost three hours counting drive time. Mountain bikes are slow and heavy- no fun on pavement, which is where most people live. With a cyclocross bike you can ride the roads, the parks, the trails. I go on rides in the evening linking trails, roads and parks together here in Dearborn. In one hour I get a great ride in through three parks with a lot of variety right off my front porch. Especially in the off season, this is perfect."

Some cyclocross bikes use a simple single chainring with chainguard keeping the bike light, dependable and durable.

Demerly added, "Consumers are weird, they don't make intelligent buying decisions, they make decisions based on emotion, appearances and whatever is fashionable in the mainstream. Mountain bikes are mainstream. They are accepted. A person will walk right past a cyclocross bike to buy a full suspension mountain bike then de-tune the suspension to ride it on the street or easy trails. It makes no sense. They pay for suspension parts they don't need and de-tune them. Mountain bikes aren't practical in the real world, but that is what people think of when they want to buy a versatile bike. Customers don't understand the advantages of cyclocross yet. It is still at least two years from mainstream acceptance. Consumers have to accept it at their own pace, the bike shop guys are already doing it- they understand the value of it and appreciate it. We've sold a dozen cyclocross bikes in the last two weeks- eight to bike shop employees or "insiders", only four to consumers. Consumers are always the last media to understand the value in a developing trend. They'll have to see it in the magazines or on TV for a year first."

Wide, knobby tires with powerful cantilever brakes give the bike comfort on all surfaces and sure-footed handling.

Will cyclocross explode over the next two years? Maybe. Cyclocross has the potential to appeal to a broad spectrum of cycling enthusiasts. It is spectator friendly: Races cover laps that usually last 4-8 minutes so spectators see action frequently. The Autumn setting is picturesque and pleasant with cool temperatures. Robert Linden of Tailwind Enterprises features hot cider and doughnuts at his events. For multisport athletes it incorporates cycling, teaches valuable bike handling skills (at safe speeds on forgiving terrain) and includes short running sections. There is a healthy dose of euro-cache' to the sport, it has the same appeal as rally car racing. If you are already a racer and want to broaden your racing experience there is nothing to match the thrill of cyclocross. Tom Demerly relates his experience from a recent race: "You're going full-tilt, 100% effort and you come into a set of barriers. You have a split second to dismount, clear the barriers and get back on. The Fall colors are flashing by you, the terrain is a blur, it is a wild ride, super fun. I love this kind of racing: Fast, safe and full of fun."





© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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