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Pedal to the Mettle 

Will Europhiles wring the barf out of Bay Area cyclocross racing?

Wednesday, Nov 11 1998
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It was perhaps the most difficult conversation I have ever had with my girlfriend. She was hunched over me with a look of concerned panic on her face. I was in a fetal position on the ground, dry heaving bile.

"Don't worry -- Aaackk! Hoouugh! Haaaaaaaackk! -- This is normal -- Haaaaaaackkk! Ooooof Hiyaaaaackk! Gasp! Gasp! -- I'll be fine -- Haaaaaaaack! Gasp!" I explained.

"Ummm. Are you sure?" she replied.
I had just completed my first cyclocross race in 14 years. She had just watched her first one ever. A lot of explaining was indeed in order.

A sort of bike-riding amalgam of roller derby, steeplechase, mud wrestling, and ballet, cyclocross in the United States has until recently remained an obscure cult pastime concentrated in the Bay Area. In Europe, cyclocross is a mainstream sport. Its first world championships were held in 1902.

Since the 1960s, Northern California has spawned a unique version of the European sport, adding the Bay Area's legendary lust for craziness to create a hybrid that locals call "jungle-cross." A winter sport, its season runs from October to December.

In the beginning, a dozen or so bike crazies got together at Tilden Park in Berkeley, Golden Gate Park, or at the UC Santa Cruz campus, and mapped out a mile loop that took them over logs, up cliffs, and down embankments. They slogged over the course carrying their bikes one-third of the way, then collapsed on the ground after they had clocked an hour. Whoever was in the lead after 60 minutes won. Instead of a mountain bike's fat tires, cyclocross knobby tires measure about an inch and a half wide. The resulting light weight makes it easier to shoulder the bike.

"If it's a wet enough course, it's a real triathlon," explains Bob Leibold, who has been promoting cyclocross races since those early days. "But it's not like those wimpy triathlons where you get to leave the bike behind during the running and swimming sections." As such, it is more exhausting than any other form of cycling. Hence the dry-heaved bile at a recent race in Castro Valley.

But during the last three years, cyclocross has been rapidly gaining a following among ordinary, non-cult-wacko cyclists. Indeed, it's become so popular that the Macy's of the outdoorsy set, REI, now sells bicycles especially built for cyclocross.

As a result, in the way of surfing, beach volleyball, and skateboarding before it, this California cult pastime risks losing its soul as it slides perilously toward the mainstream.

Once, Northern California cyclocross races were contested on old 10-speeds with cantilever brakes brazed on for mud clearance. For traction during the running sections, riders wore $12.99 soccer cleats. Racers now show up on $3,000 custom-built, hybrid-steel machines. They wear $215 Italian-made cyclocross shoes.

Worse, cyclocross courses are getting less, shall we say, interesting.
Back in the day, a Bay Area cyclocross race included multiple river-crossings, hand-over-hand cliff ascents, extensive poison-oak forays, and other wilderness acrobatics. Back then, it was not unusual for each competitor to crash six times per race. One race at Tilden Park in Berkeley would typically bog down into a lemminglike frenzy as an intractable knot of 20 or so riders clawed at roots, trees, and each other's jerseys in an effort to make it up a slippery cliffside.

"Instead of a run up, there'd be a climb up. You'd cross a creek and come to an embankment, and the only way you could get up would be to throw your bike up and grab roots and climb up. On others, the only way to go forward would be to throw your bike off a cliff and climb off it," recalls Jeff Clark, promoter of the Surf City Cyclocross Series in Santa Cruz.

But now that more than 300 people are showing up at a typical cyclocross race, the courses have by necessity become less gnarly. Enviro-friendly rangers at places like Tilden Park and the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park in Santa Cruz County have banned off-road competition, after one too many cyclocross races tore a muddy swath through the wilderness.

"You just can't have 70 or 80 guys on a course with one of those 'jungle-cross' courses," says Leibold, who currently promotes the East Bay cyclocross series and the Southern Mines cyclocross series in Sonora.

There was also some dissent within the ranks of cyclocrossers themselves. The cyclo-orienteering version of the sport that had blossomed in Northern California offended some of the European purists.

"You'd have 20 feet of poison oak and then going over obstacles that always pitch you off your bike," says Mark Howland, a personal trainer and massage therapist from Campbell, Calif. "It's hard to take what you're doing seriously when you're falling off an embankment, trying to crawl over 3-foot-tall fallen trees, trying to wedge your bike through trees where your handlebars don't fit. People get stuck in that stuff and say, 'What the fuck?' "

Jungle-cross as California has known it became doomed last year, when Clark took a trip to the world cyclocross championships in Denmark.

"I remember looking at that course thinking, 'This doesn't seem like a cyclocross course to me,' " Clark says.

The differences were astounding. At the Denmark championship, some 30,000 fans lined the course, and the race received international television coverage. The athletes were highly paid professionals. And instead of jungle-cross, Clark saw broad dirt throughways with neat, artificial obstacles. In place of 20-foot mud embankments, he saw gentle rises.

Europhiles from the East Coast had already been showing up at NorCal cross events to scoff at the unique sport that had evolved here. "They would say this wasn't 'real' cyclocross," Clark says.

And the U.S. Cycling Federation had complained that jungle-cross races did little to prepare cyclists for the European circuit. So this year Clark decided to abandon jungle-cross, and embrace Euro-cross. And Bob Leibold has largely followed suit, he says.

"I've been trying to come up with wider courses so that it's easier to pass, and the riders don't get hurt," Leibold says. "That crazy stuff we used to do was fun for everybody to do, but there was the chance of people getting pretty seriously hurt."

Is jungle-cross dead? Perhaps not. It may live on in San Francisco, albeit in a differ-ent form.

Last month, a group of S.F. cyclocrossers calling themselves the Dead Fucking Last bicycle club put on five races they called the Urban Outlaw Series in Golden Gate Park and McLaren Park. The series has been run in secret for the past four years.

"If you show up in a dress, you get to show up for free. We give extra race series points for people who show up in dresses, and there is an award at the end for both best placing and best dressed," explains series promoter Joe Blanco.

Around 70 people compete in each race, which are advertised by word of mouth to avoid park rangers -- Blanco doesn't bother with formal permits.

"I throw in tons of elements -- a lot of running, a lot of high-speed dismounts -- the elements that are unique to cyclocross," Blanco adds.

"I try to make people remember what it's like to go 45 minutes and puke."
Which is certainly the way I'll always remember it.

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Matt Smith

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