West Sacramento embraces cyclocross

09/04/2014 12:00 AM

09/03/2014 7:42 PM

Big-time cyclocross is coming to West Sacramento on Saturday, and if many of you are not exactly excited about this – or even know what we’re talking about – don’t feel bad.

The organizers already anticipated that. And you’re their target audience.

“Cyclocross is a niche sport within a niche sport,” said Emily Kachorek, a Sacramento-based pro cyclist and a force behind the West Sacramento Cyclocross Grand Prix. “It’s bigger on the East Coast. It’s super-big in Belgium. We want to help it grow on the West Coast.”

As the name suggests, cyclocross is a hybrid kind of bike riding. Think road bikes roaring along on grass, dirt and gravel, through sand and mud. Think of mountain bikes bunny-hopping barriers. Think of cross-country runners grabbing their bikes and running over stuff, up stuff and then hopping back on their rigs at full speed. Think of all that, plus a little bit of NASCAR chaos and crashes, throw in the vibe of a lively soccer crowd, and you have some idea of what cyclocross looks and feels like.

Oh, and there’s beer. And food trucks. And live music.

If you look to the origins of the sport in cycling-crazed Belgium and the Netherlands, you’ll soon realize that cyclocross is a daylong party with a sporting event plunked down in the middle of it.

Saturday’s Grand Prix on a 1.5-mile-long course along the Sacramento River waterfront with elevated spectator vantage points is expected to be a hit with spectators and racers alike. Some top-ranked pros have signed up, and 200-plus athletes pre-registered for several amateur races.

Before this local race took shape, there was something of an underground cyclocross movement afoot, with unofficial and informal weekly races in an empty field, a Facebook page to keep things together and camaraderie.

“Cyclocross racers and fans have a naturally fun and festive atmosphere, so introducing things like bands, a nano-brew tent, DJs and food trucks has been welcomed with open arms,” said one of the organizers, Matthew Hargrove, a newcomer to cyclocross. “But we also hope having those things at our race and having our race at such a great location will bring us new fans, supporters and participants,”

Although Hargrove, a political lobbyist and a punk-rock aficionado who DJs in his spare time, was happy to note that the likes of Elle Anderson, who was second at U.S. Nationals last year, and reigning Australian champion Lisa Jacobs will be racing, he was equally excited that local bands Pets and Sneeze Attack are confirmed to perform.

“We think we have critical mass,” Hargrove added.

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon was so enthusiastic about it that he personally put up $500 early on to get things moving.

“Now it’s clear that this event is going to be a big success,” said the mayor. “The registration and sponsorships and the buzz about it are huge.” The primary sponsor is Davis-based Cedaron Medical; others include Go Girl, an energy drink company based in West Sacramento; Wicked West Pizza & BBQ; and Bike Dog Brewing.

Cabaldon believes River Walk Park, the stretch of riverfront property in front of the Ziggurat building with a view of the Old Sacramento, has been “way, way underutilized.” Now it will be a temporary course set up for the racers.

Unlike road-bike racing with riders zipping past spectators at high speed and disappearing into the distance in seconds, cyclocross is held on a closed course on which racers do many laps over anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour (depending on the race category). Because of the elevation, the River Walk Park course will be especially visible to fans.

“It was definitely not intended for cyclocross. Not at all,” Cabaldon said. “But it can be perfect for this event for the riders and for the viewing.”

“The great thing about cyclocross is that it’s often a tight enough course so spectators can get a great view and it’s some really varying terrain that makes it great to watch,” said A.J. Tendick, a co-owner of Bike Dog, which is also planning a party a day later for the launch of Kachorek’s new bike frame business, Squid Bikes.

“Plus, it seems like ’cross racers just seem more interested in having some fun, which often means hanging out for longer after their race, some good-natured heckling of their friends and maybe enjoying a beer.”

It’s not uncommon to see cyclocross spectators hand a rider a beer – though usually not a rider vying for victory. Bike Dog will introduce a special beer for the event. Hand Up Pale Ale is “a nod,” Tendick explained, “to the practice of handing a rider half a beer as they race by.”

If cyclocross racing becomes the hit sponsors hope, it will be the latest of many successes West Sacramento has enjoyed, including West Coast Brew Fest in May, Sactoberfest in October and an emerging beer brewery scene. The town is the site of a new three-day music festival coming in October called TBD Fest.

Hargrove, Kachorek and others are hoping the West Sacramento Grand Prix becomes a hit with local, regional and national-caliber racers. Then they’d like it to be designated as a UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale, the worldwide governing body for bike racing).

“Part of growing the sport is we need to get people out there who don’t know anything about it,” said Hargrove. “To build a bigger fan base, we thought through it and asked, ‘What would be cool here?’ ”

They came up with beer, live music, food trucks and a daylong party. With a bike race in the middle of it.

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