Pain & Glory: The brutal, beer-soaked, free-for-all also known as Cyclocross

Riders plow through a dirt trail // Photo by Jeff Frane

Riders plow through a dirt trail // Photo by Jeffrey Frane

Holy hell this hurts. Holy Hell this hurts. Holy hell This Hurts. HOLY HELL THIS HURTS…

What starts as a cursory observation turns into a sadistic mantra that ricochets around the brain during the 45–60 minute full-tilt boogie that is the average cyclocross race. Sure, other thoughts creep in from time to time, like “Why I am doing this to myself?” but they are quickly overtaken by the pain of pedaling.

The saving grace? The cheers from friends, the smiles from the crowd, knowing that the rider next to you is suffering just as much (if not more) as you are, and, of course, the post-race beverages and camaraderie.

For the past three years the members of the All-City X Fulton racing team have suited up, pinned on numbers, and put the screws to ourselves and our competition during the 25-event Minnesota racing season running from September through November. All-City X Fulton was the first squad put together with support from the new wave of Minnesota breweries, and since its founding in February 2013 we’ve seen other teams pop up, with support from Lucid Brewing (now North Loop BrewCo), Eastlake Craft Brewery, Sociable Cider Werks, and others.

Rain, sleet, or snow, cyclocross racers hit the course // Photo by Jeff Frane

Rain, sleet, or snow, cyclocross racers hit the course // Photo by Jeffrey Frane

It’s not surprising: bikes and beers go together like peanut butter and jelly, work and play, boats and Christopher Cross records. The cycling community is huge in Minnesota, and it’s known for a few things, one of which is the love of a good beverage. Small wonder then that so many breweries around the state have strong ties to the bike scene. Whether it’s the artwork of longtime cyclist Adam Turman or the Fulton Gran Fondo, bike riders make natural allies for breweries, and there are few things better than that first sip of craft beer after a hard day in the saddle.

The discipline of choice for All-City X Fulton, and many other brewery-sponsored bike teams, is cyclocross. Handed down by the European giants from Belgium (the sport’s spiritual homeland), France, and the Netherlands, ‘cross developed as a winter training tool for road-racing professionals and quickly became its own passion. The racing takes place off-road—on grass, dirt, and trail; participants ride drop-bar bikes similar to the ones you find under roadies, but with increased clearance to fit knobby tires and mud.

The courses are full of hills, dips, berms, mud holes, sand pits, and barriers over which the rider must dismount at full clip, jump over, and remount. In fact, races are often won or lost on how smoothly you can execute this skill, which singularly belongs to our sport.

Racer navigate sharp turns on Minnesota's cyclocross courses // Photo by Jeff Frane

Racer navigate sharp turns on Minnesota’s cyclocross courses // Photo by Jeffrey Frane

The racing is sharp, intense, tactical, heady, and gut-wrenching. There comes a point during every race where you reach the point of no return, do or die, give up or push on. From first-timers to wily veterans, riders of all levels, ages, and abilities must reach into the very depths of their ambition, fitness, and mental toughness in order to finish. The best emerge with more than they believed they possessed; the have-nots simply find other ways to enjoy the experience: catching air, high-fiving fans, grabbing a beer from a member of the crowd, or just taking it easy.

Minnesota’s biking scene is one of the strongest and most vibrant in the country, and cyclocross has steadily grown here over the past few years. Every venue has its own character, from the nasty run-ups and switchbacks at Aquila Park in St. Louis Park, to the flyover jump at Green Acres in Lake Elmo, and the single track at Theodore Wirth in Golden Valley.

Balancing out the hard efforts required of racers are the sport’s family elements: the party atmosphere and all-are-welcome vibe, and the most supportive, welcoming, and wonderful crowd of participants that you could ever hope to come across in a competitive sporting environment.

While the racing is good, this atmosphere, steeped in the beer-soaked Belgian tradition, is what keeps us coming back weekend after weekend, year after year. Many of the folks who make up the fiber of these events have no interest in pinning on a number or racing. They are here to cheer, heckle, support, and revel in the efforts of this beautiful and spectator-friendly sport.

Audience-members add to the atmosphere as they hit racers with their best heckles // Photo courtesy of Jeff Frane

Audience-members add to the atmosphere as they hit racers with their best heckles // Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Frane

To many, the party vibe and institutionalized yelling is the very essence of cyclocross. Yes: not only is beer a constant at these races, reminding everyone to not take themselves so damn seriously, but so is the proud tradition of the “heckle.” In the wrong hands this is merely some lame put-down, such as “you’re slow,” but there are those aficionados—those maestros and true masters of heckling—who elevate it to the level of pure artistry. Take this gem shouted at a racer too tired to bike up a hill: “Do you need a leash for that bike? ’Cause you sure do walk it a lot.” Or this classic plug-and-play psychological dig: “If you’re here, who’s at home disappointing your wife/mom/husband?”

The point isn’t to merely demoralize or hurt feelings here; no, any cretin can accomplish that. The goal in ’cross heckling is to make a rider spit-take, smile, laugh, and, even, if only for a moment, forget the effort and suffering that they are putting themselves through. As the races ramp up throughout the day and the beers start to hold sway, the heckling climbs toward a fever pitch of hilarity. At least that’s how it is during the best of times, and in experienced hands.

Whether as a spectator, podium champion, or simply pack fodder, we all come back each weekend in the fall to replay the scene, find new depths, see our friends, and test our mettle (or heckling skills). ’Cross leaves racers coping with sore legs, mud on the face, and a soul that’s been emptied all across the course. But the beer, paired with the cool autumn weather, changing colors of the leaves, and cheering of the fans, makes each painful pedal forward worthwhile.

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