Cyclocross is a bicycle racing discipline which takes place in the fall and winter: typically September to January. The racing consist of many laps of a short 1.5–2 mile course featuring pavement, wooded trails, grass, steep hills and obstacles requiring the rider to quickly dismount, carry the bike while navigating the obstruction and remount. Races last for 40-45 minutes and are separated by age-group and ability. The sport is most popular in traditional cycling countries like Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. And in the United States, the sport has a strong racing scene in New England and the Northwest.
Cyclocross is raced on bicycles that appear similar to road racing bicycles; but there are some important differences. Cyclocross bikes have greater tire clearances, lower gearing, stronger frames, cantilever brakes, and more upright riding position. They also share characteristics with mountain bicycles in that they utilize knobby tread tires for traction. All these factors weigh in to the negotiating of a course. Competitors rely on the knobby tires for grip on grass, mud, and sand. The bikes are often picked up and run up steep hills…too steep to ride…so they must be lightweight.
When asked to describe a cyclocross race to an outside observer, I will often tell them to imagine a high school cross-country running race at Franklin Park. Now pretend everyone is on bicycles. Now pretend the weather is pouring rain, and the course has been transformed into a quagmire. Now imagine there are food trucks, music, a race-announcer, and hundreds of fans lining the course shouting encouragement: that’s cyclocross.
The BC High CX Team is only two years-old, but it began as an idea back in the fall of 2010. I met Alec Petro (father of Christian ’11 and Ben ’16) at a race, and he mentioned he had a son who was interested in racing who was attending BC High. We exchanged information, and we discussed the idea of starting a high school team over the next few autumns. It took a few years, but in 2014 we got the ball rolling. The first season saw us compete at 9 races with a total of 8 adventurous BC High students. The main goal of the season was simply to have a team exist. Season-two set loftier goals, both of which were achieved: build up a fleet of bikes so that racers do not need to purchase their own, and finish the season with an overnight trip to a large internationally-contended race in Northampton, MA. Both goals were accomplished. We now possess 8 team bikes and finished 10 races with a team of 12 students.
A high school bicycle-racing team is unique. There are relatively few programs across the country most of which are focused in California. Sure, young folks often race for a shop or some club, but a HS-only team is unusual.
Senior Jake Thornton shares why he races cyclocross:
“Why do I enjoy this grueling sport so much? The answer is simple: the thinking involved with it. Each turn, obstacle, and hill requires solving a crazy physics problem while balancing on two wheels and wiping mud off my face. These problems have slowly become easier for me because I have discovered the formula for cyclocross success: practice. Just like physics, calculus, and chemistry, cyclocross has its own form of studying. I need to find the coefficient of friction for a hill I have to climb. I have to calculate the work I have to put in over the next 100 meters at a velocity of 5.2 meters per second. The more I practice and train, the more problems I get correct. I now realize that I can improve in cyclocross, and anything else, if I work my absolute hardest. I look forward to seeing this improvement in each challenge life brings me.”
And senior co-captain Ben Petro adds:
“The most arduous element of racing is surviving the merciless obstacles. The sound of my back cracking as I carry my bike on my shoulders means I’m only halfway up the seemingly endless set of stairs. Suddenly faced with a tall wooden barrier, I quickly unclip my left foot, grab my bike, say a prayer, and leap to the other side. If I manage this smoothly, I avoid a nasty face-plant. Flying at full speed, all I think about is preparing for the next challenge: the sand pits–exhausting, deep, agonizing. The only way to succeed is to grind through the unforgiving and sinking sand. Like the muscle memory crucial for these obstacles, my dad’s phrases, such as ‘grass is grip,’ keep me upright and propel me forward.”
In every race, there is only one winner. But in cyclocross, the race for 50th place is often just as important as the race for the podium. The guys want to improve at each step, and set modest goals for themselves: finish 10 places higher, rail that sandy turn, commit to that tricky down-hill, clip my foot into my pedal on the first try, perfect my remount after the barriers.
“The crack of the starter’s gun rang in my ears. I immediately mashed my foot down on the pedal. The massive group of racers quickly dispersed into different packs. I was near the back of the group, but I was determined to catch up. The course winded through dark forests and green fields and felt as if it would never end. I came barreling through the pasture into the entrance of the woods. While quickly maneuvering around trees, my tires lost grip on the ground. The wheels flung a mixture of mud and dirt into the air. Then, I cut a turn too sharply and hit a tree trunk. The fall was painful, but the realization that my chain fell off was even worse. As precious seconds slipped away, I clumsily tried to reattach the chain. Over and over again, I repositioned the chain and continuously witnessed it fall off. Somehow, the fumbling succeeded and the chain began to spin. Now, I felt even more confident and determined. All of a sudden, I felt the breeze grow stronger and stronger. Was I picking up speed? No! The breeze came from the lead racers passing me.”
Success in this sport is incremental, and it only comes through hard work. Anecdotally, cyclocross has benefited these guys more outside of the race-course. I have seen them grow physically and mentally. A tight-knit group has bonded over the death of Alec Petro and other adversities of their friends and peers. Cycling can be a life-long commitment and a true vehicle for exploring places off the beaten-path. And cycling is an access to life-long friendships.
Ben writes of his experience:
“On my bike, I learned to be devoted to the race, both physically and mentally. Always look to the next racer in front, never down at your bike. I know this, yet sometimes my eyes fix on the circling black grip of my tire. What’s right in front of me may be more important than what’s in the distance, such as my dad’s unexpected passing a year ago. Unlike the imposing barriers in cyclocross, this was a challenge I never saw coming and one too hard to overcome in a single lap. I miss him greatly but clip into my pedals to remember what it felt like to ride with my dad.”
“Success” derives from the Latin verb succedere meaning “to advance, follow.” While cyclocross is an individual sport, the guys are always pushing themselves and their teammates. “Success” to the team does not mean winning races, but continuing into the fall of 2016 with a dedicated group of athletes ready for what comes next. For more information, email Mr. Aumiller (email@example.com) or follow on Instagram @bchighcx.