Spectating at the cyclocross races is entertaining, educational, and usually results in fewer stitches than racing yourself. I recommend it for anyone who’s feeling cross-curious.
For starters, you can learn a lot about proper technique from watching the more experienced riders. For example: if a racer can’t ride up a hill, they must run up it while carrying their bike. My bike and I have not yet figured out how to do this together; it’s awkward and I imagine we look like siblings slap-fighting each other in the backseat of the family minivan. In watching the Cat A racers, however, you see that there is an exact timing to the steps of a successful re-mount, a way to carry a bike that minimizes your chances of taking a pedal to the ribcage.
You can also learn a lot about cyclocross fans. From a sportsing perspective, they’re an odd bunch: unlike fans of pro football or golf, winning matters nothing to them. These people are driven by a completely different set of values.
And as a racer, it’s important to understand those values because being cheered by the crowd – and heckling, teasing, and direct taunts absolutely count as cheering – is a weirdly powerful thing. I don’t understand how it works but it does. Even if you are riding as fast as you think you possibly can without blowing out a lung, when someone shouts “GET IT, girl! Pass that rider!” you suddenly can – and you do. As a racer, you want this power.
So how do you win the crowd? If not winning, what is it that inspires these people to yell themselves hoarse on behalf of total strangers?
After my races are over, I’ve been joining the crowds to watch the Cat A/B races at the most popular spectator spot– the top of a huge, steep, muddy hill on the back side of the course. These are the things I’ve noticed getting the love:
Badassery. Plenty of racers are able to ride up the hill for the first lap or two, but the precious few who are still gunning it on Lap 5 get a lot of noisy respect. Thus, the lady in the skirt who is still pedaling with a fury and passing lesser mortals pushing their bikes on the last lap gets a resounding chorus when she launches over the top. The dudes popping wheelies at the crest of the hill are beloved by all.
(Photo by Kelley Goodwin)
Suffering. Someone who is deep their pain cave, slipping up the hill with their handlebars smacking them in the face, will get more cheering and encouragement than someone who appears moderately well-equipped to handle the challenge. The crowd responds positively to visible misery – we’re horrible people like that. So if you’ve got 3 laps left to go, your heart is about to explode, and you can’t believe you paid money for the privilege of dissolving your own leg muscles in lactic acid, go ahead and let that agony show.
Pizzazz. Towards the end of the races, it’s gotten dark and the spandex onesies all start to look the same. It is at this time that any rider with distinguishing apparel or bike décor becomes an automatic crowd love magnet. Fake tuxedo shirts, BEER socks, and colored wheel lights reap far greater rewards at a cross race than they do in normal life; the woman racing in a silver sequined shirt who sparkles like a disco ball under the course lights has a cult following. These racers are not necessarily the best, but they are the shiniest. We’re just a bunch of magpies out here.
In this category, non-team riders (with their broader flair options) seem to have a clear advantage. With one notable exception, that is…
Cats. All right, meow. Most teams have smug, Tour de France-y outfits that pay homage to the high-tech laser company or brewery that sponsors them. They look aerodynamic but they’re not exactly crowd pleasers. Then there’s the team that covered their entire get-up with kittens. Seriously – kittens. It gives the fans so much to work with… perhaps too much. Every time a Ruckus Test Team racer rides by, it sets off a very distinct reaction.
I can’t think of another situation where I’ve been surrounded by 30 meowing adults. If you can, I don’t think I want to come to your house parties.
After three weeks of observation, these appear to be the stand-out values of a typical group of cyclocross fans, the things that people truly respond to. Bear in mind that this particular race series is alcohol-free; other crowd priorities may surface when beer gets involved. But in the meantime, interested racers: if you want to win a race you should practice, eat a bunch of kale and bring your A-game. If you want to win the crowd, bring your triumphant struggles, pain and suffering, sparkles, and kittens.