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Written by
Karen Chávez

HENDERSONVILLE — Why ride a bike when you can run with it? Or jump over obstacles with it and drag it up hills?

That’s the thinking behind cyclo-cross, one of the fastest growing segments of cycling sports in the country. This weekend, riders will get a chance to see the fast-paced, high-jumping action at the Hunter Subaru N.C. Cyclo-Cross Grand Prix presented by Liberty Bicycles at Jackson Park.

“This is an international race, sanctioned by the UCI (the international governing body for cycling sports) and we will have riders from all over the country and international riders expected from Canada and Europe,” said Tim Hopkin, the race organizer and director of Henderson County Parks and Recreation.

He is expecting some 300 riders on both Saturday and Sunday who will compete in a variety of classes, from professional and amateur, to juniors, women and masters.

“It’s a great venue and it translates into a quality location to host an international race,” Hopkin said. “Cyclo-cross is one of the fastest growing segments of cycling in the country.”

What is cyclo-cross?
“Cyclo-cross is the steeplechase of bicycle racing,” said Hopkin. “It’s a spectator-friendly, multi-lap event. The beauty of Jackson Park is that spectators can view the riders from one spot and see them coming by multiple times. The action is right in front of you.”

Cyclo-cross originated in Europe in the World War I era, Hopkin said, with a season that takes place in the late fall and winter, after the road cycling season is over. It combines elements of road cycling, criterium (on a closed track) and mountain bike racing into a sport all its own, raced on a variety of terrain, including grass, pavement, dirt, mud, sand and gravel, in any kind of weather.

It is a timed event held over a course 2.5K-3.5K (1.5 miles-2.1 miles) in length with multiple laps raced by the riders. Although there are cyclo-cross specific bicycles, many riders use mountain bikes, Hopkin said. During some parts of the course there are areas that may require a rider to dismount and carry or run with the bicycle. Modern cyclo-cross courses can have one set of artificial barriers. Steep hills, mud and sand also force riders to dismount.
Eric White, 31, a bike mechanic at Liberty Bicycles, has become a cyclo-cross aficionado, coming from a mountain biking background, and plans to race for the first time in the N.C. Grand Prix this weekend.

“The Grand Prix is a UCI (Union Cycliste International) sanctioned race, and it’s one of the biggest races we have in the area,” White said. “There will be a lot of talented riders from around the Southeast. I’ve been to the race before as a spectator — it has a good atmosphere.”

White will compete in the Mens Category 2, said he likes the shorter race format of cyclo-cross, in which riders take multiple laps around a course in a set amount of time. For Cat 2 riders, it is 45 minutes, while the elite women ride for 40 minutes and the elite men ride for 60 minutes.

“It’s fun to watch and fun to compete in,” White said. “It’s a European sport in origin, but it’s really taking off in the States.”

Unprecedented growth
Andrea Smith, communications director with USA Cycling, the national governing body for cycling sports, said that the number of riders who have started a cyclo-cross race has grown about 200 percent in the past five years, from 31,000 riders in 2005 to 89,000 last year.

The number of sanctioned cyclo-cross events has also had enormous growth, from 237 events in 2005 to 468 in 2010. North Carolina is also becoming known as a cyclo-cross hotbed, with a new racing series, Asheville Cyclocross, now on the scene.

The Cyclo-Cross World Championships will be held in Louisville, Ky., in 2013, the first time they have ever been held outside of Europe, Hopkin said.

“This is a huge coup, and something very different to have the world championships in the United States,” he said.

Smith said USA Cycling hasn’t officially pinpointed any reasons for the explosive growth in cyclo-cross, but she thinks some reasons include the fun, spectator-friendly atmosphere, as well as the season — it doesn’t interfere with road or mountain biking race season, and can offer cyclists good cross-training in their off-seasons.

“Cyclo-cross has a great combination of aerobics and power, with dismounting and carrying the bike,” Smith said. “And it’s such a unique, fun atmosphere.”