There is a light at the end of this tunnel. Well, the light is a beer, and a pretty good one. Yet, as my bike race is winding and winding and winding to its end, my vision is most definitely tunneling.
Sensing an oncoming heart attack, I wonder, Why am I doing this?
I shoot beneath colorfully blazing fall leaves, past the beer tent, and over a long set of stairs that forces the other spandex-clad racers and me to jump off our bikes and carry them on our shoulders. Did I mention the mud?
It all seems so ludicrous that the shirtless guy ringing a cowbell and heckling us every lap seems to make sense. It’s cyclo-cross season, and according to this guy, we all need to go faster — at least faster than his grandmother.
Cyclo-cross is a fast-growing sport in which racers ride road-style bikes on off-road courses arranged in parks and fields that feature obstacles such as barriers, sand pits, lots of twisting turns, and mud. Races are held in all weather, and riders race in circuits, passing sometimes raucous spectators many times each race. Interest in cyclo-cross more than tripled from 2005-11 to nearly 100,000 participants, according to USA Cycling, the sport’s official governing organization.
Two of the biggest bike races in New England are cyclo-cross races, and they are traditionally held over two weekends at the end of September in Gloucester and Providence. They draw thousands of racers and a total attendance of 12,000-15,000 people.
“In just about every stadium sport, the fans are kept so far away from the athlete. But in ’cross you can touch them as they go by,” says Richard Fries, a former pro racer from Lexington who is considered by many the top cyclo-cross race announcer. “And [in a cyclo-cross race] they go by over and over and over again because the whole course is woven around the crowd, the beer gardens, and food trucks.”
The races in Gloucester and Providence have grown into fully-sanctioned professional events that attract world-caliber racers along with home-grown New England talents such as current US men’s champion Jeremy Powers, six-time national champion Tim Johnson, and local women’s favorites Maureen “Mo” Bruno Roy, Crystal Anthony, and Andrea Smith.
Novice racers are welcome in the amateur fields, and this plus the family-friendly, carnival-like atmosphere has also helped these races grow beyond the professional scene.
True to its name, The Great Brewers Gran Prix of Gloucester (Sept. 29-30) features an Oktoberfest-style tent with an array of craft beers from the North Shore that race organizers select specifically for the race. The Providence Cyclo-cross Festival follows a week later (Oct. 6-7) at Roger Williams Park, with the New England Builders Ball (billed as “a celebration of New England framebuilders and an exhibition of their work”) the day before at the Providence Biltmore, a large gear swap and industry show for general bicycle enthusiasts, a kids’ race, a bouncy house, a beer garden, and a gourmet food area with menu items such as wood-fired pizza.
Gloucester race director Paul Boudreau says that as the sport has grown, other area races have motivated him to develop the Gloucester race and add more elements both on and off the course.
“I have to make my customers engaged and feel like they’re getting value. . . . I change the course every year. . . . Families can say, ‘Yeah, the kids can go on the playground. They can do the kids race on Sunday.’ Everybody can have a great time with the family.”
Together, both weekends form a kind of reunion for New England cyclists. For Johnson, a Topsfield resident, the gathering of this fun-loving, hard-racing community makes the Gloucester race special. “It’s the hometown race in every sense of the word,” he says.
“I think people [who] go to Gloucester know that everyone is going to be there,” Boudreau says.
Everyone, including me and the shirtless guy with his cowbell, muddy and having fun.