VERONA, Wis. — Mud was caked on Julie Lockhart’s feet and legs, while smaller flecks of dirt stuck to her face, but the 70-year-old grandmother couldn’t have been happier.
Catching her breath after competing in the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships,
Lockhart grinned when asked why she competes in the brutal, demanding and, yes, filthy sport that combines mountain biking with steeplechase.
“Because it’s so much fun. I can get all muddy and look like a kid that’s been stomping in puddles,” said Lockhart, who broke her pelvis and shoulder in a training crash five months ago.
At a time of year when most bicycles in Wisconsin are collecting dust in garages and basements, hundreds of cyclists have journeyed to this Madison suburb to compete on a 2.1-mile course in a hilly park behind the Verona Public Library. In what’s being dubbed Bicycles and Icicles — though race day was sunny and in the 40s — cyclists competed in amateur, masters, elite, collegiate and junior categories.
Cyclo-cross is not for the faint of heart or for Sunday afternoon let’s-go-for-a-picnic bicyclists.
It’s like mountain biking with hills and turns over rough terrain, and it’s like steeplechase because competitors must get off their bikes and carry them over their shoulders up steps, over obstacles and through sand traps. And when it’s raining, cold, windy or snowing? All the more fun, apparently.
“This beats sitting home and drinking beers and watching football,” said Landon Beachy, 60, of Kalona, Iowa.
Beachy, John Adamson, 66, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, and Rich Pearson, 61, of Fremont, Neb. competed in the men’s masters division. The three frequently see each other at cyclo-cross competitions and enjoy the camaraderie of barreling down a race course kicking up mud.
“Our rule — if you don’t crash, you’re not having fun,” said Pearson, a critical care nurse.
Pearson broke his shoulder in a crash during a race in October. Adamson broke his thumb in mid-November while training.
Beachy looked a bit embarrassed because he hasn’t broken a bone lately. “I just bruised a rib,” he said apologetically.
Spectators hiked up a hill, stopping along the course to cheer and shake cowbells. Areas where competitors carried their bikes up 22 steep, muddy steps or hauled them over large white boxes were popular watching spots. A few fans blew loud, plastic vuvuzelas.
Depending on the event, competitors power through several laps of the course — elite men can complete a lap in five minutes while masters women might take 15 minutes.
Spills are common. A bicycle-riding medic said that because of the good weather and a relatively safe course, he’d treated only one “face plant” through five races.
Cyclo-cross is not gentle on the gear either. Mud gums up chains and sprockets while crashes bust parts or whole bicycles.
Unlike mountain biking competitions, cyclo-cross allows competitors to change bicycles during a race. Sometimes riders will change bikes midrace so theirs can be power-washed, and when they return to the pit area a lap later, they can hop on a now-clean two-wheeler.
Ryan Vergeront and Dave Vance, multiservice technicians for race sponsor Shimano, worked the pit area, handling all manner of equipment problems from changing tires to changing bikes. Like the pit crews at the Indy 500, they can get a vehicle back on the course in half a minute or less.
“Pretty much everything on the bike I’ve seen break in half,” said Vergeront, a bicycle mechanic for seven years. “We’ve had people break their bike, they get one of ours, and then they break ours.”
And when it’s raining or snowing and the course is slippery, their services are in greater demand.
“When the weather goes downhill, you know you’re going to be busy,” Vance said.
Verona was chosen from cities bidding to host the Cyclo-cross National Championships because it offered a good course with plenty of space at Badger Prairie Park as well as support from the community and local cycling groups, and because nearby bike-friendly Madison, Wis., has twice hosted the USA Cycling Collegiate Road National Championships, said Andrea Smith of USA Cycling.
Cyclo-cross started in Europe at the turn of the last century as a way for serious cyclists to continue to train and race during the winter. Many cyclo-cross competitors also compete in mountain bike or road races. Some are triathletes who enjoyed the biking portion of that sport the best.
That’s how Liz Heller, 54, of St. Louis got started. She began competing in triathlons after graduating from Beloit College in 1980 but decided to switch to cycling. She competed in her first cyclo-cross event five years ago and finished third in her masters female race. Heller, a lawyer, fell four times on the course but noted that in cyclo-cross — unlike road races — she doesn’t have to worry about getting hit by a car.
“It’s no walk in the park. When you’re 54 you’re as old as your mother used to be. I think I’m crazy, but then I see others out here who are just as crazy as I am,” Heller said. “I’ll keep doing it as long as I can.”