Cyclocross

Commentary: Enjoying the mud and fun at U.S. Cyclocross Nationals

Contributor Jen See put on her boots and waded into the mud in Lakewood, Washington to see the 2019 USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships. As it turns out, the party was just as much fun as the racing.

There’s a man pedaling an ancient stationary bike and banging a cymbal with a single drumstick. Somehow, this feels completely normal. So does the unicorn piñata, the light strings hanging from the trees, and the inflatable snowman. A snow machine spits flurries. Also, there’s a bike race.

This is the U.S. Cyclocross National Championships, with its near-surreal mix of leg-breaking intensity and track-side shenanigans. My friend and I try to make sense of it. Cyclocross, he says, is what you do if road racing is too Type-A for your tastes.

I figure you have to be pretty Type A to win fifteen-straight national titles as Katie Compton did from 2004-2018. It’s impossible to imagine winning a national title every year between the ages of 25 and 40. Who does that? A legend, that’s who.

Photo: Mud, cycling, and a piñata. What more could you want? Photo: Jen See

But any sport that has room for bacon and dollar hand-ups can’t be all that Type A at all. There’s space for everyone here and a giddy sort of joy. Come as you are. Make it what you want it to be.

If I’d raced bikes in a place like Seattle, Portland, or New England, this might have been my world. Road never suited me, enduro didn’t exist yet. I raced mountain bikes, but looked curiously at this sport that requires to carrying a bike on your back.

Who even does that? Lots of people, as it turns out. A good cyclocross racer is an alchemist at play. Fearless speed, bottomless aerobic capacity, acrobatic bike and running skills: It all seems like some kind of magic.

Singlespeed racers and costumes go hand-in-hand. Photo: Dave McElwain/Trailwatch.net

I wake up Sunday to classic Pacific Northwest weather. The sky touches the treeline. There’s no sunrise. I have no idea what time it is. It could be six in the morning, or 10. It all looks the same. A Californian, accustomed to light even in winter, I lose all reference points. I pull on layers and hope I’m doing it right. I’m a walking pile of technical clothing with an adventure braid that’s more mess than braid.

The rental car tells me there’s a chance of ice on the roads and I laugh half-hysterically. How in the world am I going to drive on ice? I live in drought country. I can barely drive in the rain. What am I doing here where the air feels made from water?

I hike through a soggy field. Almost there. Forgot my media credential. Obviously. The car is somewhere in the back 40 and I can’t remember exactly what it looks like. I am not Type A. Obviously.

Cyclocross nationals is as much about community as it is about racing. Photo: Dave McElwain/Trailwatch.net

There’s an espresso machine built into the back of a horse trailer. I pay my money and receive a tawny double in return. A Squid bike rolls by and I drool on the paint job. Can I have a new bike? Maybe I should have a new bike. The energy is frenetic and the air thrums with pressure washers, the spray hanging thick in the flat grey light.

There are rumblings of discontent, though, amidst the shenanigans. Currently, there’s no national series for cyclocross. Stephen Hyde, the three-time defending champion, says he hopes that changes. He wants to see the best riders race against one another. It’s the only way to get faster, he believes.

Compton hoped to defend her 15 consecutive titles. Photo: Dave McEwlain/Trailwatch.net

Kerry Werner, racer, vlogger, dog owner, tells me about his love for U.S. racing. He has juniors filming their races now and he sees so much potential in their energy. It’s easier in Europe, because the races are geographically so much closer together, Werner says. But it’s also more like a job to race there. It’s a lot less fun. He wants to see U.S. cyclocross grow.

I stop by to talk to Logan Owen, but he’s busy with a plate of food. I’ve made it a rule never to come between a bike racer and his or her meal. When I double-back to find him again, he’s vanished. It goes that way, sometimes. When next I see him, it’s mud-spattered and racing. I’m not on level to win, he tells me later. It was a hard kind of fun.

The course featured a long and painful run-up. Photo: Dave McElwain/Trailwatch.net

Call-ups begin for the women. The sun breaks through the clouds for a brief moment turning the grass a hyper-saturated, cat-eye green. Katie Compton is relaxed and smiling, as though she has no expectations, as though she doesn’t carry the burden of winning another title. Young talent Clara Honsinger is quiet and focused.

I head to the final descent of the lap, a beautiful, off-camber disaster. Mud. Ruts. Invisible bumps. It’s the kind of spot that can spoil a perfect day. I watch the lead women pass through safely. One lap down.

Honsinger was untouchable on the course. Photo: Dave McElwain/Trailwatch.net

The crowd swirls through the infield, swarming from descent to run-up to descent to fly-over. You hear the race before you can see it, as cowbells announce the lead riders’ arrival.

On Saturday during the men’s single speed race, I climbed to the top of the run-up and hunkered down below the line of photographers. Bikes hoisted on shoulders. The sky above me filled in a chaotic geometry of spokes and wheels.

The women’s race spreads out over the course. I lose track of the laps and have to sprint to make the finish. I arrive in time to see Katie Compton congratulate new national champion Clara Honsinger with a hug and a genuine smile. Compton looks tired. It’s hard to lose, but she always knew it would come eventually. Nothing lasts forever, no matter how much we wish it might.

Crowds swelled along the course’s technical sections. Photo: Dave McElwain/TrailWatch.net

The men line up. Clean kits, clean bikes. Not for long. Gage Hecht takes it out hard from the start. No backing down from the 21 year old. A minor crash allows defending champion Stephen Hyde to bring Hecht back within reach, but he never catches the flying leader.

Below the run-up, the party rages. The stationary bikes spin faster. A roar of sound erupts each time the riders appear. The hill grows in the telling. The temperature drops. The shadows deepen. The sun sets somewhere. The light barely changes. I give up on Instagram, my hands too cold to form the words.

Logan Owen, a hometown rider, raced in the mud. Photo: Dave McElwain/Trailwatch.net

Smarter this time, I head to the finish early enough to see Hecht streak through with one lap to go. He’s alone out in the front, and that’s where he stays. Curtis White overtakes Hyde, bumping the 2018 national champion to third. At the finish, Hyde, who has struggled with a hip injury, covers his disappointment with a joke: Can I race masters yet?

Then, just like that, it’s over. We swarm for the exits. We brought our bikes and we brought our friends and for a day or two, we built our own little world. We laughed and celebrated. And we felt a bittersweet empathy. Not everyone can win.

Piece by piece, the bike race disappears until there’s just an empty field where just hours ago there were bacon hand-ups and national champions and snow machines and cowbells and community. The U.S. cyclocross community has had its fun, and will have even more fun next year.