To the uninitiated, it’s a niche sport with a fandom all its own, a mashup of two styles of cycling.
Cyclocross, or ‘cross, is like it sounds, a cross between mountain biking and road racing.
There is a start-finish line. The terrain is rugged. But here’s where things get wild: Cyclocross riders hop on and off their bikes to clear just about any obstacle in their path.
Each rider is part cyclist, part steeplechase athlete trekking over hills, sandpits, gravel and dirt. And since cyclocross is a fall and winter thing, races can turn into a mud bath. Some pros like it that way.
“I definitely prefer the kind of nastier races where the mud’s deep, and you’ve really got to kind of dig through it,” Clara Honsinger said.
The 24-year-old cyclocross star is based in Portland, Oregon, a hot spot for the sport. But the Chicago-area cross community has been on such a roll that USA Cycling chose Cantigny Park in Wheaton to host the Cyclocross National Championships.
More than 1,000 cyclocross riders in elite, collegiate and age-group divisions are expected for one epic week of racing starting Tuesday. The reigning champ on the elite women’s side, Honsinger, will compete for the top spot on the podium and the honor of wearing the stars and stripes jersey next season.
“I like to be kind of the representation of cyclocross in the United States, especially since I do so much racing in Europe,” said Honsinger, who will defend her title on Dec. 12. “I really want to show that this is where I’m from, and this is the caliber that I race at.”
Cyclocross developed in the parks and forests of Northern Europe around the turn of the 20th century. Events in Belgium and Holland have become hugely popular, televised productions where the beer is flowing and the cowbells are ringing.
“It’s kind of equivalent to NASCAR over there,” said Mark Zalewski, chair of the local organizing committee for nationals.
On this side of the Atlantic, the discipline has been gaining traction in the last 20 years or so, Zalewski said, long enough for Americans to embrace traditions only cyclocross fans understand.
During lower-tier races, spectators hand out dollar bills to riders, who pluck the cash out of the mud. Some on and off the course dress up in costumes.
“There’s just going to be a loud roar of people,” said Tara McCarthy, director of national events for USA Cycling.
Organizers estimate 3,000 to 4,000 visitors will attend the six-day event at Cantigny, a spectacle years in the making.
The course design
A steep hill with views of Cantigny’s neighboring golf property and a long sandpit early in the route are the defining features of the 2-mile course.
“The elite professional men only do 60 minutes, but it is the most intense 60 minutes you can imagine,” Zalewski said.
At a flight of stairs, riders will dismount their bike, sling it over their shoulder, run up the obstacle and get back on their two-wheeler without losing any momentum -- if they do it right. Some riders will be able to “bunny hop” plank barriers, another test of their strength and agility.
“That’s advantageous because you don’t have to get off your bike,” Zalewski said. “But if you miscalculate and don’t hit the jump just right, you could crash, and then obviously you’re costing yourself even more time.”
If conditions get sloppy, racers will swap out their tires, up to 33 millimeters wide, for a knobbier tread.
“The team parking area is going to look like a NASCAR compound,” Zalewski said. “They’ll have huge trailers with tents and tent cities where they’ll warm up and have their mechanics working on their bikes.”
But for all the skill involved, the sport has wide appeal. An 86-year-old from Texas will be the oldest in the field; the youngest is 11. Even the top cyclists average speeds of about 15 to 16 miles per hour, depending on the weather.
“It’s a very welcoming way to enter bike racing specifically because you’re racing on grass most of the time,” Zalewski said.
Choosing a site
Cantigny was supposed to host the 2020 national championships, but the pandemic delayed it. Park leaders signed on as a venue for several reasons. The event fills the second week of December, a slower time around Cantigny’s gardens and trails.
“We see this as an opportunity to partner with many national and local organizations,” Executive Director Matt LaFond said. “And we’re proud to be playing a role in exposing a large audience to all that Cantigny and DuPage County has to offer.”
He was initially concerned about wear and tear on the grounds. But after scouting the 2019 championships near Tacoma, Washington, Scott Witte, Cantigny’s horticulture director, assured LaFond his team could repair and improve upon course areas at the south end of the park.
“Scott is an expert in turf management,” LaFond said. “And when he came back and said there should be no problem restoring any areas that may get impacted by the course, that’s what really sold me on greenlighting the event.”
The event was first announced when the DuPage Convention & Visitors Bureau launched the DuPage Sports Commission in 2019 to tap into the sports tourism market.
Hotels are now reaping the economic benefits. USA Cycling staffers have reserved 400 rooms in one of at least nine hotels welcoming visitors.
“DuPage is known for sports from Red Grange and from all the wonderful golf tournaments at Medinah,” said Beth Marchetti, the bureau’s executive director. “And this was just another kind of interesting national spotlight that really could put us on the map.”
More than 100 volunteers are helping stage nationals. And organizers of the Chicago Cyclocross Cup, an amateur series, have led a social media push.
“Chicago is definitely up there in terms of the local or state and even regional cyclocross scenes for us across the country,” McCarthy said.
While the event is new to Cantigny, there’s still a sense of history: The first cyclocross national championships were held in Palos Park in 1963.