They gather every Thursday evening, now that the weather has cooled, at Herron Park, west of Kalispell. Riding bicycles too burly to be for the road but too skinny to be mountain bikes, they spin laps around the park’s terrain, grunting up hills and bombing descents, occasionally jumping off the bike to shoulder it over an obstacle or up an incline too steep to be pedaled.
The bicyclists are practicing a growing sport called cyclocross, a kind of hybrid race blending mountain and road technique. On Sunday, Nov. 8, Herron Park will host its 10th annual cyclocross race. Promoted by the Flathead Cycling team, the race marks the third time the Flathead will host the state championship, with teams traveling from Helena, Bozeman, Missoula and beyond to compete.
“The sport of cyclocross has grown so much in the U.S. in the last 10 years; it’s just really taken off,” Steve Muller, the race director and rider for the Flathead Cycling team, said. “The thing about Montana is that there’s a real kind of hardcore group of cyclists that are just really into cyclocross.”
Like so many bizarre and punishing sports, cyclocross began in Europe in the early 1900s as a way for racers to stay fit during the autumn and winter months. In recent years cyclocross has been gaining popularity, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, for those very same reasons, as mountain bikers and road cyclists look to it as a cold weather alternative that remains doable even in deeply inhospitable conditions.
“We’ve had mud up there and raced in the snow,” Muller said. “It just seems to liven things up the worse the weather is.”
Unlike mountain bike racing, the terrain in a cyclocross race isn’t overly technical, and unlike road racing, the courses aren’t very long; laps in a cyclocross race are usually around 1.5 miles. The winner is the first to complete a certain number of laps within a given time, and the more advanced the division, the higher number of laps required.
“Since it’s a short race on a short course, it’s just great for spectators,” Muller said. “You’re not out there for hours and hours.”
Cyclocross races also offer a variety of terrain, with paved, singletrack, grass and gravel road sections. The bicycle itself is specific to the sport, basically a stronger, heavier road cycle lacking suspension, with wider wheels and knobby tires. Cyclocross bikes are also popular among bicycle commuters and those looking to take on more terrain, like dirt roads and mellow singletrack, than a road bike allows. Glacier Cyclery of Whitefish has donated a Kona brand frame and fork to be won, at random, by one of the registered racers for the Herron Park event.
Some of the skills required in a cyclocross race are also unique to the sport. At the Herron course, low gates force riders to dismount and carry their bikes across. Skilled riders approach the gates standing on one pedal, then clip out off of it and in a single motion stride over the gates, hopping back on the bikes barely slower than if they had ridden the same distance without dismounting at all.
“It just requires the fitness and strategy of a road race, and the handling skills of a mountain bike race,” Dustin Phillips, a rider for Hammer Nutrition, said. “Bike handling can sometimes overtake fitness, depending on the course.”
Anyone with a mountain bike is welcome to try cyclocross racing, Muller said, but asks for handlebar ends to be removed for safety reasons. For further information, contact Muller at 261-9250 and [email protected]. More info is also available at: www.montanacycling.net.
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