When I said I would cover the Brookside Cup, the championship race of the Ohio Valley Cyclocross Series, I wasn't quite sure what I'd gotten myself into. I had an idea - I knew what cyclocross was; I knew that December was known to be something of a brisk month in Indiana. But, by the end of the day, I had run out of synonyms for both "cold" and "grit" to scrawl out in my journal with my gloved hands. Without my trusty thesaurus, all I could do was mill about the taped-off course with my friend, Jeremy, while he shot photos and I shivered for the riders cranking through the mud and hardpack in not much more than jerseys and leg warmers.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with cyclocross, I'll tell you what I knew before I showed up at Brookside Park for the race. You can best think of it as the lovechild of mountain biking and road racing, with perhaps a bit more of the road racing genetics in its veins. The bikes hold closer to their roadie brothers and sisters in weight and gearing, but run low pressure, knobby tires and cantilever brakes that won't bog down with the mud and dirt that will inevitably be ridden through.
The course at Brookside Park included stretches of road, a lot of thawing and refreezing mud in the hairpin turns, logs and barriers, some decent sized hills to ascend and descend, and the highlight of the course: a couple flights of salty stairs for the racers to shoulder their bikes and run up.
So, you have an idea of the layout and format, the bikes used to race cyclocross, but if you haven't attended a cyclocross, you still don't have much of an idea of what cyclocross is. I did my research before attending the race, too. I had talked to Joe Cox of Joe's Cycles about his cyclocross experiences; I'd seen pictures of men and women with mud covered legs jumping over downed trees.
Then, I stood at the top of the stair climb and saw a grizzled, white-bearded man shouldering his bike, charging up the stairs with icicles clinging to the fur around his mouth, and realized sadly that I didn't know anything of it. I saw racers running their bikes to the pit with blown wheels, chains shattered into pins and plates, grabbing another bike and pedaling away. I saw the girl, no older than 10 or 12, struggling with a bike not much smaller than she was, pushing it step by step up the flights of stairs, and not pausing for any feeling of triumph at the top, knowing she still had half the course left to go before the finish line.
I'm not sure anyone can attend a cyclocross event and come away from it not wanting to build up a cross bike and race themselves. Jeremy and I both agreed on this. There's a nature of suffering to it that I am almost jealous to not know - that kind of suffering that teaches you a little more about yourself, about what you can do and think you can't do. It's the kind of suffering that is infectious, like a fever that keeps you warm on a blustery day in December.