Thrill ride puts pedal to mettle

By Brion O’Connor
Globe Correspondent / October 3, 2009

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GLOUCESTER - Boston drivers can appreciate, better than most, the mayhem found at a cyclocross race. Think “bike race meets demolition derby.’’ The object isn’t to crash your opponents out of the race, though it may look that way at times, especially when you get a top-notch field of competitors like the one gathering for this weekend’s Gran Prix of Gloucester at Stage Fort Park.

Like a bunch of manic, caffeine-fueled commuters, cyclocross racers push the boundaries of speed, control, and common sense, regardless of the ever-present prospect of carnage, over a narrow, serpentine course lined with rabid fans. You’ve got overheated engines replaced by seared lungs and legs, and an overtaxed transmission swapped for a trip-hammer heart. You’ll hear rubber and brakes squealing, gears shifting, and human motors humming. The ultimate goal, not unlike that early morning commute, is to get to the finish line first.

“Cyclocross races typically start out as wild charges with full contact,’’ says Richard Fries, a Boston-based race announcer and promoter of the Providence Cyclocross Festival. “Half the race is decided on the first lap. Then the racing boils down to these fantastic boxing matches between two, three, maybe five riders, just attacking and counterattacking.’’

Best of all, the bumping and corner-cutting tactics are legal. Well, most of them. A typical cross race features dozens of heats, from amateur to elite, each with dozens of Spandex-clad riders jostling for position, elbows wide, pedaling at up to 35 miles an hour, over a host of natural and manmade obstacles.

And although you can get disqualified for intentionally running an opponent off-course, there’s a lot of latitude.

Plus, the pace is so torrid, most racers are simply trying to stay upright.

“You’re going to rub elbows, that’s unavoidable,’’ says Stu Thorne, owner of Pinnacle Cycles in North Beverly and lead mechanic for the US national cyclocross team for 10 years. “But if you throw an elbow, that’s another matter. You can’t intentionally cause bodily harm. That said, there’s a lot of gray area.’’

Cyclocross, known simply as ’cross to most practitioners, is emerging from its own gray area. Despite its relative obscurity, it is not a new sport. Nor should it be confused with the recent spate of extreme sports.

First developed in Europe in the early 1900s, cyclocross was conceived as an offseason training tool to keep road racers in top condition. Courses are typically cloverleaf layouts set up in parks and playgrounds, and feature obstacles ranging from roots, rocks, and hills to 16-inch hurdles, forcing racers to perform the signature cyclocross maneuver: a lighting quick dismount, a short run while carrying bikes on their shoulders, and an equally swift remount. Since the cyclocross season runs from mid-September through January, course conditions can range from idyllic to treacherous, and typically include thick mud, driving rain, gusting winds, hail, sleet, and snow. Everything is fair game.

Over the past 25 years, this particular niche of two-wheeled havoc has nurtured a dedicated following as its own discipline, both overseas and in North America. In the last decade, it’s grown exponentially, especially in hotbeds like the Northwest, northern California, and here in New England. The Gran Prix of Gloucester race, part of the North American Cyclocross Trophy series, is a prime example of the sport’s burgeoning popularity. First held in 1999 by the cycling club Essex County Velo, it has blossomed from a single day of racing with roughly 150 riders to a world-class, two-day event drawing more than a thousand racers.

“Gloucester has really mirrored what’s happened with the sport as a whole,’’ says Tim Johnson, a Middleton native and current Beverly resident who is a five-time national cyclocross champ. “The North Shore has become a hub for cycling, with the races in Salem and Beverly this summer. And the Gloucester ’cross race was really the foundation of that.’’

Among this weekend’s field will be a half-dozen elite riders from Europe, where ’cross is king, including Joachim Parbo of Denmark, Davide Frattini of Italy, Tim Van Nuffle of Belgium, and Hugo Martinez Ruz of Spain. There will also be plenty of North American star power, with Johnson, Canadian national champ Lyne Bessette (Johnson’s wife), seven-time national champ Jesse Anthony of Beverly, former national champ Todd Wells of Colorado, New England champ Jamie Driscoll of Vermont, and reigning masters champ Maureen Bruno Roy of Arlington.

Ask any of them what the appeal of cyclocross is, and the common denominator will be the sport’s unique blend of passion, power, and concentration. Most competitors peg their max heart rate and tryto maintain that effort for up to an hour. There’s no place, or time, to rest, until the finish line. According to Paul Boudreau, Gloucester’s race director and an amateur racer, cyclocross is all about a willingness to suffer.

“As a racer, cyclocross is really about testing your limits,’’ says Boudreau. “When you’re in a race as intense as cyclocross, you put yourself on the edge . . . It’s a pain-management thing.’’

That’s the intriguing draw of this sport - the fine line between exhaustion and exhilaration.

“The attraction of ’cross is the speed,’’ says announcer Fries. “You find yourself in these little James Bond chase scenes, you and another rider, doing things you would never do simply on a ride by yourself. You drop down steep slopes, you whirl through turns, and power up climbs.’’

How tough is cyclocross? Anthony put it in perspective when asked if the Mount Washington Auto Road Hillclimb, an unrelenting race that goes straight up the eastern flank of the Northeast’s highest peak, was the hardest hour he’d ever spent in the saddle. Anthony replied without hesitation: “It’s not even close. Nothing compares to cyclocross.’’

Fries once described a typical ’cross venue as “a race course laid out in a supermarket.’’ Add turbocharged shopping carts, and you get an even better idea. The action is nonstop, from the starting gun to furious sprints to the finish line.

“Gloucester has a lot of the elements that make the course exciting,’’ says five-time champion Johnson. “It’s a fast course, and you’ve got a knowledgeable, passionate fans. The venue is a natural amphitheater. You can sit on the hill and watch the whole race unfold. It’s awesome to watch. Cyclocross has the all the best aspects of endurance sports boiled down into one hour. You get to see the speed, the excitement. It’s easy to get caught up in the race.’’

Perhaps the best part of ’cross, from a spectator’s point of view, is that the entire race is in a confined area. Tour de France fans will camp for hours or days to watch the racers pass by in seconds. Mountain bike enthusiasts get only a glimpse as athletes head into or out of the woods. But in cyclocross, with the course folding back on itself numerous times, fans get to see the racers four or more times each lap. That type of intimacy breeds a certain atmosphere, as fans often sport cowbells and other noisemakers, or strain their vocal chords exhorting the racers.

Which should make for a rollicking affair, one that attests to the sport’s ever-increasing popularity. “I’ve been involved in the sport during a huge growth spurt,’’ says the 24-year-old Anthony, who now races for Jamis bikes. “I’ve been competing since I was 13, when races had just a few hundred people. Now there are UCI [Union Cycliste Internationale] races all over the country, with thousands of people racing. It’s pretty cool.’’