A herd of cyclists gathered outside Skyview Middle School on the Tsalteshi trailhead Oct. 8 for the inaugural Chainwreck Cyclocross event.
“Hopefully we won’t have anybody on the ground,” said Mark Beeson of Beemun’s Bike and Ski Loft in Soldotna as he flagged the cyclists for the beginning of the race. Seventeen riders on variety of bikes took off down the paved path and began the course, the bicycle equivalent of an obstacle course.
Cyclocross is off-road bicycle racing held on closed circuits. Featuring barriers, taped-off courses and obstacles such as sandpits, riders race to complete as many laps as possible in a set time.
Mike Crawford, who ranked in the top three at the event, said he has been working on organizing a cyclocross event since last November. Many people were getting antsy to ski but were unable to because there was little snow last year, he said. He organized an informal race that took place on the Tsalteshi Trails last year, he said.
“I didn’t know anything about cyclocross and went on Wikipedia and tried to get some information,” Crawford said. “I posted it on Tsalteshi and it was essentially nothing like cyclocross race. It was nothing like cyclocross race because I had no idea what I was doing.”
After the first race, he began working with Beeson to organize a more formal race. The courses vary in length but regulations from the Union Cycliste Internationale, the international organization regulating all cycling sports, regulates that all courses must be at least 1.5 miles long and no more than 2.2 miles. Courses can include up to six man-made obstacles but at least 10 percent of the course must be rideable, according to the UCI.
The course set Oct. 8 wasn’t quite regulation length — approximately 1 mile long — but obstacles there were. Participants had to quickly dismount and jump two 16-inch-high wood barriers on an uphill climb, then remount and round the corner onto the crest of the hill.
After heading down a steep hill, riders crossed a washboard plank and headed up another short, steep hill into the woods.
The trails have to be clear, but doesn’t mean they’re always flat and easy: one section, a single-track trail, required cyclists to either carry their bikes or ride over a thin trail scattered with leaves and ridges of roots.
The last challenge upon coming down a gravelly hill back toward Skyview’s sports fields was to ride through a volleyball sand pit. Some riders had fat-tire bikes, which offer greater traction in the loose sand, but others slogged through or carried their bikes over the obstacle.
Beeson, who designed the course, said it was not quite regulation length but wanted it to be challenging. When the idea of having a cyclocross race came up, he began collecting obstacles and the designing courses.
“It’s big down in Oregon, where I moved from,” Beeson said. “And the one up in Anchorage just ended, so ours lands right after that.”
Cyclocross has rapidly gained ground as a sport in the U.S. over the last few years. The international Cyclo-Cross World Championships were held outside Europe for the first time two years ago, taking place in Louisville, Ky. in 2013. USA Cycling, the official organization for U.S.-based cycling, reported that 566 official cyclocross events were held nationwide in 2013, the latest data available.
Anchorage has its own cyclocross series, which ended Oct. 11 after seven races. The Anchorage series has taken place annually since 2005 and includes four races — beginner men and unicycles; beginner women, master women and open women; push bike juniors and pedal bike juniors; and open men and masters men. The Anchorage event adheres to the UCI regulations.
Beeson built the barriers himself, and though they are about a centimeter taller than UCI regulation, the races aren’t officially sanctioned by UCI, so they have more leeway to do what they want to do, he said.
The races are set to take place every Thursday evening until the end of October. Participation is free for Tsalteshi Trail Association members and $5 for non-members.
Any type of bike is acceptable, and the best way to learn about the races is to watch or ride them, Crawford said. Anyone can participate and can either go to Beemun’s Bike and Ski Loft in Soldotna beforehand or to the bike clinics before the races to ask any questions.
Crawford said one of the benefits of cyclocross is its variety of types of exercise. Participants move from high-intensity pedaling up hills to carrying their bikes through single-track trails to careful handling through switchbacks, which forces them to have good bike handling skills, he said. The courses are short and make it easier for supporters to watch, he said.
“It’s really close-quarters action, you’re passing other people,” Crawford said. “It makes it great for spectators.”