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'Wild' cyclocross is not for those 'made of sugar' (11 photos)

'I just want to be part of it because it’s so much fun. I love the camaraderie and it’s such good exercise, it’s crazy,' said newcomer to unique sport

“Welcome to this glorious, wet cyclocross night!”

This is how Gareth Houben, president and general manager of Hardwood Ski and Bike, greeted racers at last week’s Hardwood Cross Series event, held on a dismally cold and rainy Wednesday night. Houben was the official starter for the race, which attracted dozens of racers despite the “glorious” weather.

“This is typical weather for cyclocross – wet, damp, cold, sometimes snow – that’s what they live for, these riders,” explained Houben.

He is referring to those who compete in a form of competitive cycling called cyclocross, definitely not a fairweather sport. It combines riding and running with a strong emphasis on skillful bike handling.

Courses are designed to force cyclists to get off their bikes in order to climb steep hills or navigate tight corners. The course at Hardwood is a mix of grass, sand, hard-packed dirt (often turning into mud) and double track ski trails.

“It’s huge in Europe,” explained Arienne Strong, program manager at Hardwood. “It’s a great spectator sport because you can see the whole course,” she added.

A typical cyclocross course is about three kilometres long, with marked trails that wind through open or park-like areas. Competitors complete two to four laps, depending on their category.

The Hardwood Cross Series, sponsored by Crank and Sprocket Bicycle Co. and Cannondale, is a seven-week series of races – offered from Sept. 15 to Oct. 27– for cyclocross enthusiasts.

“Most of the people who take part are avid cyclists who are trying to keep their cycling season going for as long as possible. And it’s a way to challenge themselves,” added Strong.

Although participation has been predominately male, Strong says that is changing rapidly, with many families participating and more girls than ever before.

“Good for them,” said Strong, “because this is not an easy course; they’re racing the same course as the older riders.”

Three of those young riders were excited to be racing in the rain at last week’s race. Huddled under an umbrella to get their bikes set up for the race, Amanda Samuelson, 15, along with her sister Emily, 11, and neighbour Rebecca, 9, were sharing their enthusiasm for the sport before they headed over to the start line.

“We love it,” said Emily. “It’s fun and exciting and once you get going, you’re not cold anymore.”  

Rebecca was the youngest competitor at Wednesday’s race and it was her first time racing in the rain. “Remember,” said Amanda and Emily’s mom as the girls took off for the start line, “if you fall and wipe out, that’s what’s supposed to happen!”

It seems to be an extremely challenging form of cycling, but the sport has a crazy, fun vibe to it that adds to the fun and excitement. Typically, music is blaring, cowbells are clanging and there’s lots of heckling going on, among competitors and spectators.

And you may hear some odd expressions, like: “Some people are ‘made of sugar’ – that’s why they didn’t show up for tonight’s race."

Among those not ‘made of sugar’ was David McLean, an avid mountain biker who took up cyclocross a couple of years ago.

“I’m not a serious racer,” said McLean. “I just want to be part of it because it’s so much fun. I love the camaraderie and it’s such good exercise, it’s crazy – it’s raining, it’s cold, sometimes it’s snowing. In the end, I just love riding my bike – it sets my day.”

Like McLean, Strong says some riders come out for the fun of it and for the personal challenge, while others are members of cycling teams and may be training for provincial and national titles.

For those wanting to try out the sport, Strong says they can sign up for just one or more nights of the Cross Series, which runs Wednesday evenings until Oct. 27. Although most competitive riders use specially-designed cyclocross bikes, mountain bikes are also suitable for the course.

Competitive cyclocross athletes will be taking part in the upcoming O-cup event, taking place at Hardwood on Sunday, Oct. 3. It’s the second race in the provincial Ontario Cycling Association’s cyclocross series. Racers travel to different races throughout the season in hopes of becoming the O-cup champion.

For more information about getting involved (unless you’re made of sugar), visit