Online Exclusive: Totally ‘crossed out

Like most great treasures, the origins of cyclocross racing are hotly disputed.

Like most great treasures, the origins of cyclocross racing are hotly disputed. It is said that the sport originated, perhaps, from road racers cutting through farmers’ fields in the mad journey home following competition. In 1902, France became the first nation to host a national championship in cyclocross. Belgium did not follow suit until 1910, but it is with its region of Flanders that the sport is most identified; this is the most popular sport in Belgium.

Old men smoke cigarettes and drink heavily in pubs while Belgian hero Sven Nys races across frozen or muddy fields. Business people are fixed to their televisions as Nys bunny-hops over the regulation 40 centimeter-high barriers strewn about the cyclocross course, landing at full speed and racing on. Others place bets at their local bookmakers as Nys dismounts his bike at full speed, lifting it to his shoulder, carrying it as he runs up a set of stairs, then remounting and riding down the stairs and on toward victory.

It is part cross country running, part mountain biking and part road bicycle racing. It is cyclocross, and in Belgium it is the sport of the people. In Portland, it is becoming the sport of our city.

“Cyclocross races in Portland are definitely different than other parts of the country and other parts of the world,” said Jeremy Powers, a veteran cyclocross professional.

“In Gloucester, Mass., it makes sense to see people at races drinking Sam Adams beer and wearing Red Sox caps,” said Powers. “In Portland, the same people you might not notice at a coffee shop will show up to a ‘cross race in a Speedo, and for some reason that just make sense.”

Powers knows what he’s talking about when it comes to cyclocross. The 27-year-old New Englander has been racing cyclocross since his teens, and in recent years has been an integral part of the Cannondale/ team, a powerhouse on the domestic circuit.

“I’ve raced all over the country, and the world, and Portland has something special,” Powers said. “The crowds are amazing, and people in Portland have embraced cyclocross as a real sport, with its own unique culture. People [here] love it.”

According to Powers, Portland is obsessed with this most unique form of bicycle racing.

“The first time I was ever recognized was at a supermarket in Portland. As a bike racer, that does not happen everyday. This person told me that they fell in love with ‘cross, bought a bike, and started racing on weekends. I think that’s just awesome,” he said.

Portland is home to the ‘Cross Crusade, the nation’s largest cyclocross race series. For eight weeks each autumn, throngs of fans and racers converge on the series’ eight different venues. While racers of every skill level, age and size navigate the unique course that awaits them at each venue, fans and spectators ring cowbells and scream encouragement, all while enjoying the beer, waffles and fries on hand from local vendors. There are even “kiddie” ‘cross races wherein infants on push-bikes navigate a 20-foot patch of grass while spectators push, encourage and cheer them on. One could say that if Burning Man were an athletic competition, it just might be the ‘Cross Crusade.

The 2009 ‘Cross Crusade opener hosted just over 1,200 spectators and racers. Sunday’s 2010 opener shattered that record with an attendance of over 1,500. Now in its 14th year, the ‘Cross Crusade continues to grow in popularity. Cyclocross is serious business in Belgium, but Oregonians take a more relaxed attitude toward the sport. The fiery passion that cyclocross inspires in Portland is tempered with mirth and youthful abandon. Men and women who train all year long for a race might fall from their bike at a crucial moment, only to rise to their feet and smile through the mud and their disappointment. At ‘Cross Crusade races it is often difficult to tell if it is the participants or the spectators who are having more fun.

It is the ultimate anti-sport. While other sporting events may be rained out, cyclocross races are only better attended, and more passionately raced, in a downpour. It is a sport of grace and skill, strength and endurance. It is that rare thing to which one can give total passion, without fear that it will turn to bitterness in defeat. It is the sport that reminds us why we liked sports in the first place. It is the cure for the banality and cynicism that come to haunt most forms of competition.

It is cyclocross, and in Portland, it is ours.