NO BEER FOR YOU: Cyclocross is characterized by heckling spectators, costumed racers and rampant alcohol consumption.
WHITE OUT: The author, new to cyclocross, carries her single-speed bike over part of the snow-covered course at Belmont Plateau.
MAIN MAN: Dave Pryor, the promoter of the Single Speed Cyclocross World Championships in Philly, maintains order at the free-for-all race.
As the snow fell fast and thick, blanketing the wooded trails on Belmont Plateau, scores of cyclists chased each other across the slippery covering, negotiating hairpin turns and descending hills with an almost unimaginable ferocity. Seasoned racers from around the country had been waiting all year for the Single Speed Cyclocross World Championships, and the brutal conditions created by Sunday’s snowstorm were not about to deter them.
As a cyclist new to the sport, I was determined to compete in — and finish — the booze-infused, 45-minute, obstacle-ridden race. The “Everyone’s a Winner” race for non-qualifiers started at 11 a.m., when the season’s first snowstorm was only beginning; by the time the women’s race began at 1 p.m., 3 inches of snow had hidden the ground. As I studied the course, my concern about finishing last had vanished; all that mattered now was leaving with my body and bike fully intact.
This was the first time this free-for-all competition was held on the East Coast, and racers from Philly worked hard to secure the hosting rights. As at most cyclocross events, many participants and spectators came dressed in costumes — Batgirl, Colonel Sanders, the devil and a nun were spotted on the course. One racer wore only his tightie whities.
Dressed as a ninja, I mounted my black cyclocross bike, a lightweight frame with one speed and knobby tires designed to provide traction on mud, sand and gravel. As I descended one of the first hills, I stomped my snow-encrusted cleats on the pedals, hoping they would clip in so that I could build speed for the upcoming incline. When that failed, a group of spectators, sensing my distress, came up from behind and thrust me up the hill. Their breath was thick with whiskey as they hollered at me to pedal faster.
I entered the woods through a narrow gap and the serpentine trails became barely as wide as the bike. Confronted with logs laid across the path, I jumped off the saddle, carried my bike over the obstacle and remounted — a sequence emblematic of cyclocross, the off-road sport that started as a way for road racers to stay fit during the cold months. Affixed to a tree was a picture of Mickey Goldmill, Rocky’s trainer, with a dialogue bubble: “Get up, you son of a bitch! ’Cause Mickey loves you!”
As I approached Parachute Hill, a steep incline that’s nearly impossible to ascend on a single speed, I heard shouting and caught a faint whiff of grilled meat and marijuana. The slope was now transformed into Heckle Hill, and spectators who had camped out for the day were ruthless in their taunts. “You know this is a race, right?” “Nice reflectors. Very pro.” Two men crouched on all fours to create a barrier for me to hop over as someone handed me a beer. I gladly accepted it, bracing myself for the treacherous stretch ahead.
Cyclocross started more than 100 years ago in Europe, but the fringe sport has only recently become popular in the United States. Since 2006, ridership at events has nearly tripled to 113,000, according to USA Cycling (USAC), the country’s official competitive cycling organization. Registration at area races, such as Kutztown Cross and Town Hall Cross, has more than doubled since 2010.
Five years ago, races were held sporadically; now, there’s one within a one- to two-hour drive from Philly almost every weekend from Labor Day to Christmas.
In 2007, around the time many cyclists say the sport started catching on, the first Single Speed Cyclocross World Championships (SSCXWC) were held in Portland, Ore. Since it’s not recognized by USAC, the race doesn’t have to conform to any of the governing body’s regulations. At this free-for-all competition, there was only one rule: Bikes must have just one gear.
Dave Pryor, an art director at Lehigh University who’s been racing ’cross for roughly 10 years, flew out to San Francisco for the 2011 SSCXWC. “This is exactly what I wanted to do because it is less rules and more fun,” Pryor says. “If you go through photo galleries of any single-speed cyclocross race, you’ll see more smiles on the racers and the spectators than you will at pretty much any sporting event anywhere.”
SSCXWC had been strictly a West Coast affair for the past six years. In San Francisco, Pryor was urged to bring the race to the East Coast, and the following year a pack of Philly racers traveled to Los Angeles to stake its claim. “People from Philadelphia really rallied around it and made a lot of noise, to the point, I think, anyone would have been scared to compete against us,” Pryor says. “It was pretty much understood that it was coming to Philly for 2013.”
Nevertheless, a contest was held at a burlesque club to determine which city would get to host. Pryor wouldn’t disclose any more details, but hinted that “it may have involved a stripper pole.”
The anything-goes race was started partly in response to the burgeoning number of rules that USAC had put in place. At sanctioned ’cross events, racers are not allowed to accept snacks or drinks from spectators, known as handups, and the courses must meet certain design requirements.
“There’s a little bit of punk mentality that says, ‘Well, fine, we’ll do our own thing where we can have handups or a barrier that’s basically a fog machine or a pool of filth that you have to crawl through that’s filled with all sorts of nasty things.’ All of those things would be against the rules in a regular ’cross race,” Pryor says.
At this year’s race, 251 cyclists — 43 of them women — vied for the top spot, hoping to win the coveted tattoo and golden Speedo or bikini prize. On single-speed bikes, riders are essentially handicapping themselves, making the hills more grueling and victory that much sweeter.
“At this race, the results don’t really matter. We’re going to keep track of the men’s winner and women’s winner. Everyone else is out there winning the day. Results don’t get posted,” says Pryor. “There’s no second, third, fifth place. It’s really about going out and having as much fun as possible.”
The prominence of the Bilenky Junkyard ’Cross, a daredevil competition held annually at Big Guy’s Used Auto Parts, helped Philly secure hosting rights, according to Pryor. For the past eight years, Bilenky Cycle Works, a custom-bike builder in Olney with national renown, has been hosting this day of “mud, blood, scrap metal, beer, glory and Tater Tots,” as the shop’s owner, Stephen Bilenky, put it.
Initially, Bilenky wanted to throw a holiday party for customers and friends. He and his employees brainstormed for a few weeks, then had an epiphany: “We had this lunch table we’d sit at in the back of the shop, and that has a garage door that opens up to a spectacular view of the junkyard. One of the guys working here said, ‘Whoa, that’d make an awesome course for a cyclocross race,’” recalls Bilenky. “We didn’t want to just have a party where people stand around, so let’s have a party with a race and we’ll drink beer and have music.”
Held on Saturday in tandem with SSCXWC, this year’s junkyard race had cyclists jamming their bikes through a bulldozer’s cabin and flinging them over a busted car, all while dodging oil drums and rusty scrap metal.
The typical ’cross race is held in a natural environment, like a park, making the junkyard race its antithesis. “It’s a little like a black-market cyclocross race,” Bilenky says. “A lot of people in cyclocross are outlaws to begin with.”
As dangerous as the sport may sound, Pryor assures that ’cross is not all that risky, even serving as a good path to racing for newbies.
“It is so easy for beginners to get into because it’s so much safer. In a road race, you’re basically riding it with a pack load of people. You don’t really know them, crashes happen all the time, randomly, without warning and on pavement. Or on a mountain bike [race], the trails in the Pennsylvania area are pretty technical with a lot of rocks, and you’re out there in the distance all alone, cursing because you can’t ride a section or you hurt yourself or you’re completely maxed out and have no oxygen left,” Pryor says, “In a ’cross race, it’s on a grass field and you’re only going to hurt yourself if you push yourself. Even when you crash, it tends to be at a slower speed on something soft.”
That’s not to say it’s easy. Legs throbbing with lactic acid, burning lungs, mud-caked faces — all are part of the sport. But the cyclists shunt aside any mention of suffering. Instead, they emphasize the sport’s goofiness, often comparing it to a softball league.
“It’s mainly just hanging out with friends, and to the rest of the world it seems kind of silly,” says Stephen Saxton, a member of the local Kelpius Cycling team. Although dressed in a skinsuit like any serious cyclist, he was laughing a few minutes later about how he had once almost choked on a cupcake handup.
“I think part of the reason it’s become so popular is because the races are short, the courses are very spectator friendly, you’re pretty much always racing right around other people, and the courses are usually such that it’s not just about who has the best engine or the strongest legs,” Saxton says. “If you can ride your bike well, and if you’re in the mood to ride through a lot of pain, you can do well.”
While the sport is dominated by men, there is a growing contingent of female cyclocrossers. Saxton’s teammate, Lauren Chesnutt, is one of four women on Kelpius Cycling’s 17-person crew. When she heard about ’cross from her boyfriend three years ago, she had no desire to try it. But after watching his races from the sidelines, she began competing in 2012 and discovered a tight-knit local community.
“I line up against the same women every weekend, and at this point I consider most of them friends,” says Chesnutt.
Plus, there’s a low barrier to starting. No expensive equipment or sleek apparel is required. As long as you have a helmet and a bike that can take a beating, you can do cyclocross.
“One of our favorite local racers is this guy we call CamelBak,” says Chesnutt. “Last year, he had a crappy old mountain bike, raced in a white T-shirt; he usually had on plain black cycling shorts and always wore a CamelBak. He has a nice bike now, but still wears that same exact thing because he became known for it. But he’s amazing to watch and he’s actually gotten really good.”
For cyclocrossers, one of the best spots to train is at Belmont Plateau, where roughly 10 miles of single track traverse West Fairmount Park. Every Wednesday in the fall, a group of riders meet to hone their skills. Many times, 40 people will show up, says one of the organizers, Michelle Lee, in a blog post on Philly Pedals.
Thanks to the Belmont Plateau Trails Alliance, a city-recognized volunteer organization, the extensive trail system is maintained year-round. “The park doesn’t have resources to take care of watershed parks like Belmont Plateau, so friends groups manage that land,” says Mark Elsasser, one of BPTA’s three co-founders.
In the late ’90s, an informal group of cyclists began opening up the space and building trails there for mountain biking. “The woods were just sitting there, being overgrown,” Elsasser said. “The land has 200 years of history. There’s ruins, trolley platforms, bridges, springhouses, landmarks, old stone steps, remnants of the  Centennial Exposition. If you’re back on the trail system, you’ll see a lot of that.”
After the casual crew of cyclists worked under the radar for more than a decade, Philly’s Department of Parks and Recreation took notice in 2009. The BPTA, an official friends group, was created, and Parks placed it under its oversight.
When it was time to decide where to hold SSCXWC, the choice was clear. “There is no doubt that Belmont Plateau is the best spot,” says Pryor. “It is a gem for cycling in the Northeast.”
In October 2012, with the BPTA serving as a liaison between Parks and Pryor, the tedious process of acquiring a permit began. “[Parks] doesn’t make it easy to put on a race,” says Elsasser. But despite the bureaucracy, he says, “they made good on their word.” Part of the proceeds from the race will go to the BPTA. (The registration fee was $76.) “They are our host. It would not have happened here without them,” says Pryor.
Despite the race’s punishing conditions, there were many moments of levity: PVC crosses were made to look like two of Rocky’s opponents, boxing gloves and all. Through another stretch, Liberty Bells dangled above, so that if you failed to duck they would clang against your helmet.
But most of the time, I was in the silent woods, holding on for dear life, my legs straining to keep the bike under my control. As hard as I pulled on my wet brakes, they had no effect, and I braced myself for the inevitable falls.
As I approached the lap marker, a replica of George Washington’s Delaware crossing appeared; I accepted a shot of whiskey midway through clearing the obstacle. Vicki Barclay, a racer for Stan’s NoTubes who had dressed as Batgirl, had long since lapped me and she sprinted to the finish looking indestructible.
As for me, 45 minutes of sluggish, clumsy riding in the snow had me thinking only one thing: “I’d do that again.”
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