Riding Roughshod

Virginia Cyclocross goes off-road.

Mark North competing in Richmond.

Photo by Nick Davis.

To the clattering clamor of cowbells and whoops and jeers from the surrounding crowd, a pack of bikers takes off down a narrow, maze-like track marked out on grass by waist-tall fences. They fly along the track, splattering through a muddy dip—then come to a series of knee-high hurdles.

Some jerk their wheels to bunny-hop; others leap off and haul bikes over. A quick remount later, they are pedaling furiously. Then come the stairs. Stairs? The riders toss bikes over shoulders, pound to the top of the stairway, spring back aboard and pedal onward.

Behold cyclocross, which interbreeds the elite sport of bicycle racing with the manic muddiness of rough-housing schoolboys. “The most common comparison is steeplechase on bikes,” says Sean Yeager, a principal organizer of the Virginia Cyclocross series in central and southern Virginia. Like equestrian steeplechase, cyclocross has a large fan base in Europe but is a niche sport here. Races in Yeager’s circuit, which includes Richmond, Virginia Beach and Roanoke, draw 100 to 200 riders, but it’s not the money that attracts these competitors—$200 is a good purse—it’s the challenge. Races, held mostly from September through December, are quick and nonstop: no coasting or resting, no waiting for teammates to catch up. Racers—men and women—compete in categories ranging from beginner to advanced, and in age groups starting at three years old. Any bike can be used, though some racers spend thousands for specialized gear.

Yeager, 40, started cyclocross in 1999, and has raced in national and world competitions—he was second in the state in 2007 in his skill category; the same year he placed 28th in his age group in nationals. But these days, the consulting engineer and father of three says he’s happy to finish 15th while others take the lead. (Three of his series-mates placed in the top three in nationals last year.) He’s also focused on building the Virginia Cyclocross series and on keeping host parks happy. “We do give back,” he says, pointing to his group’s work cleaning up streams and reseeding and repairing courses after each race. “We’re not just out there tearing it up.”

For more information about cyclocross events in Virginia, go to VaCycling.org or Mabra.org

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