Cyclocross: After 31 years, it's just as hard, just as fun...

"De sterkest spurter: TJ hangs on to win Saturday.  Nice bike throw!"
...and a heckuvalot bigger.  It seems misery really does love company.

On Saturday I rode my first sanctioned cross race since the Plymouth, Mass US national championships in 1983.   Having a UCI 2.0 race in Roger Williams park just 10 minutes from the house left no excuse.  So after one 30 minute session practicing dismounts, one pretty-darn poor evening training race performance, and a night-before spent building up a hand-me-down lighter cross rig, I was ready for a good ol' 45+ carve up.   Nothing like a race as your maiden voyage to christen a new bike.

Uggghhh....need more power Scotty!!
Hein?  Serious, specialized preparation you say?  Bah, don't need it meneer.  You see, I'm very proud to be the original cyclocrosser from the seaside town of Beverly Massachusetts - now US cross' epicenter as it's the current hometown of Tim Johnson, Lynne Besette and Jesse Anthony among others who know their way around on mud and grass.

My first cross race was way back on November 11, 1979, in Ipswich's Bradley Palmer state park.  I was 19, out on a post season Sunday morning fall road ride, and short-cutting through the park with my teammates Mike Emberley and Dave McParland, and we ran into USCF district rep Grace Jones and my friend Phil Cormier's dad - who said: "Next week we're holding the district cyclocross championships right here."    Discovering cyclocross was that casual, and accidental.   The three of us immediately took our road bikes around for a recon lap, laughing as we ran up a pasture with our bikes on our shoulder passing some red-coated Hamilton  equestrians on a faux-fox hunt.   Those aristocrats were incredulous over our intrusion into their 19th century simulation session.  It was a true collision of two cultures.

Back then, all we knew about cyclocross was 'imagined' from old B&W VeloNews pictures of Erik DeVlaeminck and Albert Zweifel, covered in mud, in some Swiss cowpasture.  In other words, we knew zero.  Only one guy we knew even had a real cyclocross bike:  Paul Curley.  The rest of us took old, steel crap road bike frames (mine was a used white Chiorda that cost $40), a beat set of flat-spotted tubular wheels, shelled out another $25 on two Wolber Grifo tires, and hit the start line.  Total investment?  $80, with enough change left over for a famous Nick's roast beef sandwich.   No cantilevers.  No cross shoes.

Cyclocross back in 1979?   Not Big.
Technique consisted of one piece of sage advice from Gus VanCauwenberghe, 'swing your right leg between your left leg and the frame, and then step forward while releasing the left foot and hoisting bike onto shoulder'.  Toe straps conspired to ensure a few tumbles before getting that move down.

The race?  Well the fact is I was proud at the time to be 2nd behind Paul Curley in a group so tiny you couldn't even call it a bunch.  Truth be told, Paul lapped me twice and the rest 3 times, such was the gap between the compact Taunton flash and the rest of New England back then.   Appropriately, it was a real rainy, muddy mess of a day.  Barriers  were not man made, but consisted of what you could find in nature -- stuff like downed trees we tried to bunny hop on the descent.   There were no course tapes, just some hand-made arrow signs on trees, or orange spray paint on grass.  The run up was about 200 meters long, in a mud bog - slightly longer than any UCI course.  And there was no quarter given that particular Armistice day, just a muddy, sufferfest-of-a-battle that paid a little homage to the anniversary by evoking the mud and cold of Ypres or Passchendaele -- just without the shelling and death part.  I loved it.

Form was slightly better back in 1983.
(on a Raleigh 753Road Frame, Plymouth US Nats.)
For the next 4 seasons, I never missed cross.   I could get top 10's in New England races - top 5 on a good day, but that was about all my motor could manage.  I remember doing the Nutley, NJ nationals in 1982 and learning the hard way you have to be at the front in turn one to do anything.   At the Plymouth '83 nats,  I made the opposite mistake, completing the first lap in the top 5 before dying a slow, horrible death.  

You could count the cross regulars on your hands back then, and you knew 'em all.  Paul Curley, Tommy Stevens, Billy and George Sykes, the McCormacks brothers, Richard Fries.   Unlike yours truly, who went AWOL for decades, to their credit, those guys stayed involved and have given a heckuva lot back to the sport.  Those guys made New England - and US - cyclocross what it's become today.    

So Saturday's big cross festival hoopla felt like a weirdly anonymous homecoming.   I was shaking hands hello to many of old familiar faces, only this time in a setting so much more professional, so much bigger.  Hundreds of participants, almost all with the latest big bucks cross rigs.  You could pick out any SUV in the lot, and the total value of the 4 bikes on the roof was worth triple the total bike value of the whole field at your average early '80's cross race.  I'd bet just the wheels alone were worth double.  

"Old CCB guy coming through..."
Ironically, the only thing that was comfortably familiar was the once the race started.   OK, so maybe redlining is not really comfortable.  But it was familiar.  A cacophony of cowbells and supporter yells that you hear but don't register.  The loudspeaker in the background.  Using your 'panting rate' as a gauge to moderate your effort.  Total concentration on just the next obstacle.  And never, ever thinking of the end, just the next section, catching the guy ahead.  The zen of veldridjen.

My race was your basic, anonymous mid pack purgatory, bookended by a first lap thrown chain (which precipitated an instant 20 position loss), and a pinch-flat with about 1.5 laps to go.  Guess clinchers do need more than 30 psi.  Shoulda gone with instinct there.

"The guy who really put Beverly on the map..."
No matter, not an embarrassment, and at least I actually was passing a few guys at times.   And it was fun to go so haard. I'm motivated to see if I can get back up there. Well, at least a little bit closer...

A really great part of what I call 'Cross 2.0', is apres-cross.   Now that's a concept that's really improved over the years.  A pizza in the beer-garden, swapping old-timer stories with Pooch, Barry Boyce, Ted Furtado, Danny Coleman and Bike Guy Bill Humphries.   Walking the village, introducing Tim Johnson to my son Tommy, before watching him ride to a great, close win.  All on a 68 degree Indian summer day.

 All the rest of the field saw of Tim Johnson this weekend in Providence
So with those thoughts and perspectives, it was a fitting end to see Beverly's own Timmy J. ride so well this weekend, firsthand.  So smooth, so technically near-perfect.   His Saturday win over Cannondale teammate Jamey Driscoll was cliff-hanger close - by a bike throw after Driscoll had closed down a 30 second gap on the last lap.   Sunday on a trickier course he won by an even bigger margin.

Tim told us he's heading over to Europe to do a few World Cup cross races in a week or so.  I hope he gives Nys, Wellens and Stybar a run for their money, and will be following Sporza with great anticipation.


  1. Who's the kid from 1983? Great photo...

    I give you credit for getting out there! Even though my theory about bike racing is "if you have to take the bike off the pavement you're nuts..." Saturday I could only watch and cheer.

    Good for you!!!

  2. Wow, I must not have been paying attention back in the early 80's. Cyclocross in the Dark Ages? Who knew?! Welcome back to the madness, Eddy.


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