Cowbells and kettlebells: Why CrossFit ‘cross is great

Maybe CrossFit guys and gals won't give up their burpees for burped tires, but CrossFit's new cyclocross race is good for the sport.

‘Cross is coming? No, cyclocross is already here and in a place you’d least expect it. The CrossFit Games — yep, the fitness competition that claims to crown the world’s fittest man and woman — are underway this week in Madison, Wisconsin. This year, the CrossFit Games include a cyclocross competition. The contestants zipped around a grass course on hardtail Trek mountain bikes and flat pedals, while wearing tank tops, board shorts, and yoga pants. It was pretty weird, but hey, I watched.

What does cyclocross’s inclusion in this toughman (and woman) competition mean for our sport?

1. Yes, CrossFit Games CX was cyclocross

When I saw video of this racecourse I was a little disappointed. The lap was grassy and non-technical — Koksijde it was not. But it got me thinking: What defines cyclocross? Admit it, there is a blurry line between ‘cross and a short-track mountain bike race. Cyclocross is multiple laps on a short circuit. Races last 45-60 minutes. The course is predominantly not pavement. And it includes at least two segments where you need to get off and run with your bike. While the CrossFit course lacks precipitous drops or sandtraps of Hoogerheide, it did check the ‘cross boxes. The course even forced the riders to get off their bikes and trudge through sand. It was somewhat charming to see these tough men and women jog across the barriers and sand while lugging their 30-pound metal mountain bikes. I didn’t see anybody manage a Sven Nys-style suitcase carry, but hey, they got off and ran. So yeah, it counts as ‘cross.

2. I expect cyclocross to see a small CrossFit bump

So I am envisioning the hundreds of thousands of CrossFit enthusiasts watching from home this week. Sure, they like doing burpees in a dark warehouse, but I wonder what they will make of this strange bike race that involves sand and jogging. Cyclo-what? Will any of them spend the next two weeks gluing Dugast tubulars? Probably not. But I would not be surprised to see a couple of ambitious CrossFitters show up at your local cyclocross race this year, hardtail in-tow. My advice: Be nice to that guy wearing baggy board shorts and a helmet visor. He could probably clean-and-jerk you above his head in one fluid motion.

3. CrossFit ‘cross needs a bit more action

Full admission: I know very little about CrossFit or the CrossFit games. Most of what I know involves “Uncle Rhabdo.” I watched a bit of this year’s competition because of the cyclocross, and was amazed by the other competitions. These guys and gals do some wild stuff! The obstacle courses are reminiscent of “American Ninja Warrior.” The weightlifting makes my knees tremble with pain. Sure, the ‘cross race was fine, but I think they should make it more in line with CrossFit’s other weird competitions. Here are my ideas: They should add a rope-climb obstacle where you first tie the bike to the rope, climb it, and then yank your ride over the top. Bonus points for creative knots! Perhaps with each lap, they could progressively add more weight to their bikes until everyone is racing around with 45-pound discs clanging against their frames. Or hey, just have one of those old “American Gladiators” (Tower? Turbo?) chase after them on a moped.

4. CrossFit CX might be one of the most successful American cyclocross race ever

So, despite the weird optics — racers on loaner Trek mountain bikes with flat pedals, tank tops, and huge upper bodies — one part of the CrossFit ‘cross race stood out. The course was lined with cheering fans. The crowd size convinced me that yes, this was indeed a cylclocross race. In fact, it was a strong event. Maybe next year they could add a (gluten-free) beer hand up after the sand pit. Well, maybe that won’t work for the paleo competitors. Regardless, between the fans and the national TV audience, CrossFit raised the bar — with a lot of weight. My hope is this event brings more eyeballs and exposure to our sport. Yes, even if those new fans prefer kettlebells to cowbells. We will convert them.

And don’t forget — plenty of people raced ‘cross nationals with flat handlebars, back before CrossFit made it cool.

Crossfit cyclocross
Some pretty notable riders won 1995 cyclocross nationals on flat handlebars.