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Spinning Winter Wheels In Snow, Rain, or Mud

Cyclocross racing's intrepid devotees brave a blizzard

WITH a winter storm approaching New England, a rather obvious question was posed to organizers of last weekend's cyclocross national bicycle championships, the 'Cross Nats, in Leicester, Mass.: What happens if it snows?

Nothing, really, an uninitiated reporter was assured. About all that could stop the off-road event would be gale-force winds with rain or snow.

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It did snow, but it didn't blow, and a series of races went off like clockwork on the grounds of a public school in central Massachusetts.

Spectators were scarce, outnumbered by roughly 300 cyclists who competed over hill and dale in various categories: Masters, Juniors, Women, Pro-Men's and an experimental mixed-tandem event that found one coed team making introductions at the starting line.

Tom Stevens, the event's promoter, consented to including the tandem race even though it seemed ''sort of silly.'' Cyclocross courses are set up so that some bike-carrying is required (a 75 percent/25 percent ride-run ratio is considered ideal).

''Getting off the bike is something you have to practice and practice and practice,'' Stevens says. ''With two people it is very tricky, goofy. Maybe there's a future in it. Right now it's mostly a sideshow, but a fun sideshow.''

Cyclocross racing is hardly mainstream. The American ''cyclo'' community sits at the outer edge of the United States bicycling scene, within the jurisdiction of the US Cycling Federation but not a high priority of the sport's national governing body.

No official prize money was awarded at the 'Cross Nats, and Jan Wiejak, the Polish-born winner of the men's Pro-Am, will have to pay his own way to the world championships Feb. 4 in Paris (if he elects to compete). A US national series does not exist and regional races seldom pay more that $75 to $150 to winners.

Paul Curley, a Masters-level rider, candidly calls his favorite form of cycling ''very unpopular'' worldwide and says he believes ''it's probably going to stay that way because it's such a short season and really kind of a filler'' on the cycling calendar.

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Cyclocross was started in the 1950s by European riders who wanted something to do during the winter, Curley says. The season generally runs from October to mid-December in the US, where the primary pockets of activity are in the Pacific Northwest, northern California, and New England. The season lasts a month or so longer in Europe, where cyclo is big, especially among the Swiss and Czechs.

Mark McCormack, the winningest cyclocross rider in New England this year, says the sport helps keep road and mountain bikers in shape. ''Without it, when you start training on the road in February you are 50 to 60 percent less fit,'' he says. ''This makes your initial training a lot easier.''

US pros like McCormack and his brother Frank, who just returned from a corporate-sponsored cyclocross mini-tour in China, must earn their keep as road racers. Europeans can make a living at cyclocross, which is often televised and attracts sizable crowds.

It's very telegenic, says Stevens, who indicates that efforts were made to interest ESPN2 in the nationals. He and others see strong TV potential in the format, which calls for steeplechase-like races around small loops that afford excellent visibility for spectators.

Each loop may take only from four to 10 minutes to complete, compared with 40 minutes or more for a sprawling mountain-bike race loop. Cyclo races generally last about an hour.

Cyclocross bicycles are hybrids seldom found in bike shops. They are a fusion of faster road bikes with their thinner tires and heavier, sturdier, and highly popular mountain bikes.

Stevens says that cyclocross can improve a mountain-bike rider's bike-handling ability. ''Sliding around on skinny tires in mud, snow, and wet grass really teaches you where your center of gravity is,'' he says.

All that's required for cyclocross training, Mark McCormack explains, is ''some fields with rolling terrain. You can mentally put in barriers that force you to get off the bike.'' In races, obstacles can be a series of short hurdles or a steep incline.

Sometimes, promoters demonically hose down part of the course. ''All the riders hate when that happens,'' McCormack says, ''but they can't do anything about it.''

At the national championship, a blanket of white enhanced the degree of riding difficulty. That may have led to more falls, but it certainly wasn't about to discourage a group of riders with a mail-carrier's mind-set.

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