By Brett Ratner (Photos by SnowyMountain Photography unless otherwise noted)
If you have an itch to compete on a bike, watch people race bikes, or both, we Chicagoans are pretty lucky.
Whether you're into road, track, mountain bike, or cyclocross, there's no shortage of bicycle races within driving distance. Better yet, some of these races draw elite competitors from around the country. And better still, some even attract the absolute best riders in the world.
One such event is the Trek Cyclocross Collective Cup, a cyclocross race that takes place at the Trek Bicycle Headquarters in Waterloo, Wisconsin. Another is Jingle Cross, which takes place in Iowa City, Iowa.
The cool thing about these two events is that unlike (for example) a football or baseball game, you can compete in the exact venue the pros do. Since you tackle the same obstacles, tricky descents, and quad-burning run-ups, it offers a unique glimpse into what the pros are experiencing when applying their trade. And more to the point, seeing them fly through sections you could barely ride truly gives you perspective into how good the pros really are. It's a little like (I'd imagine) playing one-on-one against LeBron James.
And I'm not exaggerating when I make that comparison because this year, Jingle Cross was bestowed the honor of being a stop in the Telenet UCU Cyclocross World Cup. In other words, the best cyclocross racers in the world traveled from places like France, Germany, and (the epicenter of 'cross) Belgium. And with Trek Cup only a week earlier, a bunch showed up for that, too (including the reigning world champion).
So, having not raced in more than a year, I chose these as an opportunity to throw myself back in the deep end, and also enjoy watching the cream of the crop show me how it's done.
Instead, with the fine folks at SnowyMountain Photography snapping pix both weekends, I thought I'd take a moment to describe the events from the viewpoint of a novice racer and fan.
Trek CXC Cup
I've had no trouble challenging myself competing in the Chicago Cyclocross Cup. But I've often heard that the courses found on national-level events offered a step up in terms of testing your bike handling skills and/or fitness.
The course set up adjacent to Trek's HQ more than lived up to this expectation.
I'd been doing a lot of mountain bike riding over the summer, and in my opinion, a well-designed mountain bike trail will reward a competent rider with a fluid, flowing, sometimes effortless experience.
A well-designed cyclocross course seems to do the opposite. It puts you at all sorts of odd angles along steeply-sloped features, forces you to accelerate, stop, turn, sprint, brake, dismount, run up a crazy-steep incline or flight of stairs with your bike on your shoulder, drop straight down some ridiculous hill into a hairpin turn, then grunt your way back up a series of off-camber switchbacks. It's the antithesis of "flow" and as such, a proper cyclocross course is either meant to be physically exhausting, intended to make you fall off your bike, or both.
Here are some highlights of how the Trek course fit the bill perfectly:
The Trek CXC Cup course featured hard-packed dirt, tricky and steep off-camber descents, and plenty of suffering.
By successfully navigating a sketchy downhill section, you were rewarded with a super steep run-up on loose soil. Gee, thanks.
A lot of riders described the course as "mountain-bikey," but aside from this bermed turn, I disagree. It pretty much lacked flow of any sort anywhere.
Belgium-based Telenet Fidea is like the Dallas Cowboys or New York Yankees of professional cyclocross teams. Getting to share a course with them (albeit in different races) was a treat.
Multi-time world champion Sven Nys (right) has traded his racing career for coaching and team ownership.
Multi-time national and World Cup champion Katie Compton tackling the rock-hard dirt.
Chicago-based racer Becky Mikrut carrying enough momentum to crest the flyover.
The pavement section made for some fast mass starts.
Yours truly demonstrating the slow way around the course (photo by Heather Rainer Peat).
Reigning world champ Wout van Aert showing us the fast way.
In stark contrast to the dry and dusty conditions in Wisconsin, a Friday-morning rainstorm transformed Jingle Cross into a sloppy mud fest that would make a Lollapalloza festival jealous.
Factor in the soul sapper that is Mt. Krumpit (an incredibly steep, 200-foot-tall hill toward the back of Iowa City's Johnson County Fairgrounds) and three laps rendered me more physically spent than I've ever felt at ANY athletic competition of any type.
The mud was so thick Friday night that riders were forced to run very long stretches of the course.
I (the author) had a great race by virtue of the fact I simply finished. Crashes, thrown chains, and exploded derailleurs abounded, allowing me to "beat" dozens of people who would normally smoke me. I'll take it...but cleaning my bike afterward was no fun.
Saturday morning, Jingle Cross organizers offered a 33-mile "Gravel Grand Fondo," a fun ride that took participants through some scenic rural areas around Iowa City. A longer, all-pavement option was also offered (photo by Brett Ratner).
Some serious rerouting of the course onto sections of fresh grass allowed the Saturday and Sunday races to stay fast. Sadistically, however, race organizers left in a 200-yard stretch of slop immediately after the first turn, forcing everyone to dismount and slog through on foot.
Chicago's Maria Larkin running up the steepest section of Mt. Krumpit.
Photos don't do justice to how sketchy this winding, off-camber descent off Mt. Krumpit really was.
Yours truly employing the popular "tripod" technique down the fast, off-camber drop down Mt. Krumpit. Taking this section too fast could result in running head-first into a barn, which many riders of all skill levels managed to do, effectively ending their races.
Pro racer Nicole Mertz (a racer Chainlink is proud to sponsor) running the barriers.
Normally, Saturday's bikini race is entertaining because of late year snow and frigid temperatures. Since this year's edition took place a few month's early (to accommodate the World Cup race), it offered mud and heat.
At least this rider won't have to do much laundry.
An injury sustained at Trek CXC Cup has derailed reigning US champ Jeremy Powers' early season. Despite the disappointment, he remained extremely friendly and outgoing when interacting with fans.
Dutch rider Sophie de Boer took the win in a sprint finish at Cross Vegas earlier in the week, but couldn't match Compton's brute strength up Mt. Krumpit.
Compton imposed her will on an extremely elite field, much to the delight of the fans.
All in all, over the course of two weekends, I had the opportunity to race up to four times, enjoy a leisurely gravel ride, and marvel at the talent of the pro women and men. I also got to drink some beer, hang with friends, and (aside from the Friday rain) enjoy spectacular weather. Trek CXC Cup and Jingle Cross are definitely worth putting on the calendar for next year!
Brett Ratner (firstname.lastname@example.org) has been a professional journalist for more than 25 years. He has contributed to dozens of publications, including The Chicago Tribune, The Nashville Tennessean, The Nashville Scene, Guitar Player and Musician. Brett began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping, and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he also occasionally races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.