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Cyclocross straddles the line between speed and pain

Michael McKittrick, 43, said he initially wasn’t attracted to the discipline.
Michael McKittrick, 43, said he initially wasn’t attracted to the discipline.Benjamin Stephens

The “no pain, no gain” mantra regarding athletic training has been largely debunked. But there is at least one sport in which the old school approach still rules: cyclocross.

“You ride as hard as you can for an hour, and it’s the most miserable hour of your life,” said Michael McKittrick, a Lowell native who gave the race-specific cousin of mountain biking and road cycling a try in 2007. He broke his arm in his second race.

“It never gets easier. A first-timer and a pro suffer equally during that hour. That common thread creates mutual respect among all levels of athletes in cyclocross.”


Paul Boudreau, a 48-year-old Beverly resident who is president of the Essex County Velo cycling club, said cyclocross is “hard, period.”

“It hurts. Riders are constantly straddling the line between speed and pain,” added Boudreau, who organizes the annual Gloucester Grand Prix.

That’s the peculiar charm of cyclocross.

Races last between 40 minutes and an hour, and can be excruciating as racers peg their heart rates to the max (there’s even a cyclocross bike manufacturer named Redline). Yet these races can be incredibly rewarding if you can dig deep enough.

“It’s a rush that few other experiences can come close to,” said Valerie Enriquez, a 30-year-old Jamaica Plain resident.

“The pain I’ve experienced pushing myself in cyclocross is so much more fun than the comfort of just going about my regular daily life.”

Clearly, cyclocross is a sport in which misery loves company.

“Because it’s hard in a ridiculous way, it becomes fun,” said Adam Myerson, a longtime professional racer and cyclocross coach and promoter.

“It almost has this performance art absurdity to it. It’s just strange to watch someone running through a muddy field with a bike on their shoulder.

“That suffering, combined with the oddity of it, is part of what makes it so interesting,” added Myerson.


To those unfamiliar, cyclocross might appear to be pure mayhem on two wheels. Races are held during cycling’s offseason (September through February), in almost any weather imaginable short of lightning strikes. Courses are often squeezed into tight spaces, resembling convoluted Boston traffic patterns lined by police tape.

By design, racers are forced to dismount their bikes due to natural and man-made obstacles (hills, logs, barriers), and must run carrying their rigs for portions of the race. Spectators often rim the course, exhorting racers with cheers and cowbells.

“I was introduced to cross through fellow road racers,” said the 43-year-old McKittrick, a Savin Hill resident who teaches at Brighton High School. “I wasn’t initially attracted to the discipline. It seemed goofy: skinny tires in mud, hopping off the bike to jump over some man-made barriers, scurrying up hills with a bike on your shoulder, jumping back on the bike while running. It looked silly.”

He had a change of heart once he actually saddled up.

“The adrenaline rush from racing cross is second to none,” he said. “Your friends on the sidelines scream in your face. Another friend or competitor is on the next turn, and you work desperately to catch them.”

McKittrick was so enamored with the sublime race-within-a-race nature that he began hosting a Wednesday Night SuperPrestige — or WNSP — training series at Smith Park in Allston “to help new riders to enter the sport.”


“Tone is everything. I strive to help new riders feel comfortable first, then help them understand the sport and its demands,” he said.

“New riders might want to start out at a low-key, local event like WNSP or a clinic in order to feel comfortable before showing up to a national level event like the Gran Prix of Gloucester, which can feel intimidating for a first-timer.”

Because of other commitments, McKittrick handed the Wednesday night series off to Kevin Church, a bike mechanic at Landry’s Bicycles and another recent “cross convert.”

“Plenty of people will show up throughout race season for a midweek workout to get ready for the next race,” said Church.

“I would encourage anyone to show up and check it out, and I am happy to help anyone that wants to try to get into the sport,” he said.

Cyclocross racers can locate events on weekends in the fall.

In addition to the Gran Prix of Gloucester at Stage Fort Park, there is Shedd Park in Lowell, Quad Cross at the Maynard Rod & Gun Club, and the Night Weasels Cometh at Ski Ward in Shrewsbury.

Don’t be overwhelmed by the spectacle of dozens — even hundreds — of Lycra-clad competitors pedaling and running around a course.

“Have as much fun as possible. You don’t need a fancy expensive bike to get started,” said Enriquez.

“I did my first season on my commuter bike, then got an old steel-frame Craigslist cyclocross bike my second year. I bought a 2016 model for this season, but I’m clearly committed now.”


Enthusiasts say the cyclocross community is the most accepting and nurturing of the cycling disciplines, which makes the transition easier for beginners.

“We race and compete against each other in arguably one of the most difficult and physically demanding sports around,” said Church. “But at the end of the day we are all passionate about the same thing, and can sit around and drink beers after the race.”

Many local cycling clubs, such as Essex County Velo, offer training sessions. For information on the Wednesday Night SuperPrestige training series, visit the group’s page on Facebook.

If you have an idea for the Globe’ “On the Move” column, contact Brion O’Connor at brionoc@verizon.net.