Grown Up, But Still Crazy After All These Years: Cyclecross Kicks Into High Gear
The cyclocross races hosted by the Southern Oregon Outlaws are rarely quiet. At a recent event, a few people line a muddy course; they whistle and hoot, and bang on cow bells. Riders swing around a hairpin turn, and, without slowing any forward momentum, swing a leg off their bikes, hop onto the ground in stride and skip over a series of two knee-high barriers before saddling back up.
Part mountain bike race, part cross-country run and part obstacle course, cyclocross has boomed in popularity over the past decade. But, in southern Oregon, the sport both pre-dates the recent trend and also remains a small but earnest group of riders—in no small part because of the steady sponsorship from Cycle Analysis bike store in Jacksonville and the group of riders known as Southern Oregon Outlaws, who host a series of Saturday races through October and November.
Within cycling, cyclocross occupies a specific niche—more gutsy than road biking, and more aerobic than mountain biking. Courses loop one mile or so courses around city parks, finding small hills to climb and logs to jump over. It requires both riding skills and running short stretches; if (un)lucky, sometimes through mud and puddles.
Although no one has claimed exact ownership for the sport’s genesis, it seems to have evolved in Europe at the turn-of-the-nineteenth century. Some claim that the sport has its roots in World I, when soldiers would courier messages across the countryside, sneaking over hills and fields on bikes. Others say that the rugged bike races started as a cross-training of sorts; after the road racing season ended for the Tour de France and Tour de Spain, riders would take to fields and parks throughout Europe to stay in shape and have a little untethered fun. Most likely, the beginnings for the sport were some hybrid of those origin stories.
But in the United State, cyclocross did not even host a national championship until 1963, where it was held for several years in Chicago, before drifting back into obscurity for a couple decades.
Twenty years ago, though, the sport started to gain traction again, with clubs popping up like mushrooms in various cities. Although cyclocross is not as massive as it is in Portland or Bend—usually with several dozen riders showing up for races in southern Oregon, compared to 1500 or so in Portland and hundreds in Bend—the sport has a long history here. In fact, it races started in 1989, long before the sport was enjoying its current popularity.
For the first decade or so, racers in southern Oregon simply used modified mountain bikes for the races, but since then the sport has blossomed—and correspondingly, an entire industry has built up around the sport, with specialized equipment.
“Before we got legal, we’d show up at a park and ride,” says Jana Jensen, explaining why the group here is called the Outlaws. Jensen is the gregarious owner of Cycle Analysis and race promoter. She continues, “We didn’t have insurance; we didn’t have permission.”
Twenty years ago, though, when Jensen opened her store in Jacksonville, she also started to make the races more legitimate. “We grew up,” she laughs. “We follow all the rules now.”
But even following the rules does not mean being completely sane about the events. With a certain devilish glee, Jensen describes how they try to make the race courses challenging and difficult, traversing through what describes as “grass, gravel, mud, creeks; varied terrain.” She adds, “there are uphill stairs, and we place manmade and natural obstacles in the way. Anything we can do to make it harder, we try.” There is a particular feature that Jensen describes with relish—a spiraling climb she says some of the riders call the “vortex of vomit.”
Like other rugged sports—say, rugby—riders and organizers take a certain pride in the difficulty of the sport. “There is no greater compliment to a course designer to have someone vomit at the finish,” quips Jensen. “That’s their soul and passion coming out.”
Over the past two decades, the series of races has grown steady. There are races each Saturday through November. From three races when the series began, the entire season has increased to 16 races, including Thursday night events. Even so, says Jensen, the number of participants has remained fairly constant. Unlike races in Portland and Bend which often brim with a Burning Man party atmosphere, Jensen says these are more “family.”
“It’d make me sad if we lose that familiarity with the people. It’s like a family reunion every weekend. We have coffee on, and cocoa for the kids, and zucchini bread. It is intimate.”
That said, the races are hardly sedate or serious affairs. As the races occur near Halloween, costume wearing has become part of the culture. Jensen points out that it can be difficult designing and wearing a costume that won’t snag in the wheel spokes or gears. There have been Nacho Libre outfits, and body-fitting Spiderman getups; one man only wore a thong, recalls Jensen. “It was kind of scary,” she jokes.
The event also is a fund-raiser for Josephine County Search & Rescue. Fifteen years ago, after Jensen lost her son—a “shining light,” she calls him—she saw how underfunded the organization is, and dedicated the races to her son, and to Josephine County Search & Rescue. Since then, they have raised the equivalent of $200,000 in training and equipment for the organization. “We also gave them more than money can buy,” Jensen points out. “We showed them we believe in them.”
For more information, contact Cycle Analysis, 535 N 5th Str. Jacksonville. Info@CycleAnalysis.net. (541) 899-9190. Races occur at various parks, Saturdays through November. Novice races at 10 am. Experienced at 10:45 am.