Many people find comfort in the rustic pleasures of Old Sacramento – the quaint cobblestones of Front Street, the wooden planking of the boardwalk, the lawn near the California State Railroad Museum. On Saturday, a swarm of cyclocross riders gritted their teeth at the dynamic terrain, pushing their way through what many considered the most scenic, but physically demanding, race course of the season.
Cyclocross is a hybrid of road and mountain biking, built around gradient changes, raised obstacles and hairpin turns. It requires fitness and finesse – and a healthy sense of humility when things inevitably go awry.
Saturday’s race, organized by Sacramento Cyclocross, drew about 350 spandex-clad cyclists of all ages to the 2.2- mile course, which took them in winding laps around the train depot, over the Delta King dock and past other iconic backdrops. They dug through the deep gravel between the railroad tracks before dipping down to the American River bike trail, which they rode to Matsui Waterfront Park. There they tackled a formidable hill, then headed back to more of the on-the-bike-off-the-bike melee that cyclocross demands.
“It’s a strange little sport … you’re supposed to have lots of different surfaces and this venue is that: we’ve got dirt, we’ve got pavement, we’ve got grass, we’ve got cobblestones,” said William Dunkum, race announcer. “The racers are real happy with the course today.”
Cyclocross was invented in Belgium as a winter sport, meant to occupy athletes when the ground was too muddy for anything else. It is typically divided by gender and into brackets of difficulty, with the most elite cyclists riding the entire course in only one gear. Racers often need to make choices about when to ride the bike over a hill or a barrier, and when to get off and run with the bike in hand.
“It comes down to where you’re going to burn more energy,” said Clint Claassen, race director and pro cyclist. “Cyclocross is very intense … You need to be able to dismount and remount smoothly. It’s practice, and it’s commitment.”
Still, the racers in the Sacramento cyclocross community don’t take themselves too seriously. Spectators traditionally dangle “hand-ups” of snacks or cash from vantage points for racers to swipe, if they dare. Commentators engage in friendly heckling, and supporters cheer words of encouragement from the sidelines.
Susan Butterworth of Folsom, who raced in the women’s bracket Saturday and has taken part in cyclocross for a few years, said the sport is more about camaraderie than competition.
“I’m not a pro,” she said while watching the first round. “There are all levels of riders who do this race. Everybody is really encouraging. It’s like one big team.”
Saturday marked the finale of an eight-race Sacramento Cyclocross series, organized by El Dorado Hills-based event company TimeYourRace. They began bringing the sport to regional venues in October with the help of Yolo Brewing Company.
Unlike the first seven races, which were held mostly in grassy state parks, the Old Sacramento venue offered an urban feel, and perhaps a bigger crowd. Weekend shoppers pulled over to watch the curious sport or looked on from the windows of restaurants. Many had never seen or heard of cyclocross.
Susannah Rominger, special event coordinator for the Capital District of California State Parks, said all merchants were notified of the race in advance and were able to stay open for business.
Elk Grove resident and cyclocross beginner Rudy Alfonso said he was happy to finish the race without causing any crashes. He prepared for the tumultuous course by setting up homemade barriers and traffic cones in a nearby park. Alfonso, 41, first tried cyclocross about two years ago, after a heart attack got him back into the habit of exercising.
“I started exercising, going out, riding the bike for the first time, without having exercised most of my life,” he said. “ ‘Cross’ gets me motivated to train and to ride and to do things in the middle of the week to get ready for a race. There’s been a lot of benefit.”
Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.