As the winter sun dipped low in the afternoon sky and a sustained, icy 20-plus mph wind ripped off the blue-gray water of nearby Greenwich Bay at Warwick, Rhode Island’s Goddard Memorial State Park, Curtis White quickly, deliberately and just a tad desperately made his way to the former carousel building doubling on this Sunday afternoon as race central. It housed the podium where in 20 minutes the 19-year-old would receive his medal for winning a bike race and, more importantly, two propane heaters on full blast, taking the chill off the 35-degree day.
White’s victory came by three seconds over Kerry Werner, whom he dramatically outsprinted after an hour and three minutes of intense riding. And running uphill through sand. And sprinting up a flight of steps. And hopping off his bike, over two logs, then remounting to continue on the 2.14-mile loop course with more than 60 turns.
Welcome to Cyclocross. White, clad only in a thin black skinsuit, is an up and coming star in the up and coming sport, which mixes road racing, mountain biking and Tough Mudder into one gruesome gut check. The worse the conditions—rain, mud, snow, wind—the better. The lanky Union College freshman from upstate New York won both pro races at the NBX Gran Prix of Cyclocross, the final event of the Verge New England Cyclocross Series. The wins cemented his status as a rising star.
At this moment, however, White had other concerns. He was covered in “good dirt” from 63 minutes of splashing through near freezing mud puddles left over from Saturday’s constant rain, a sheen of sweat soaking through his uniform that added to his plummeting body temperature. Just minutes off the course, White took long strides toward the shelter offered by the nearby building, disappearing behind a door held shut against the strong breeze by a bungee cord. He looked ready to raise his arms in triumph and accept his reward for winning. Or perhaps just surviving.
While Cyclocross, usually called cross or CX, is the least-known of the five cycling disciplines in the United States, it’s older than mountain biking, dating back to France in the early 1900s. It remains popular across the pond, with Europeans dominating the world championship, but it’s gaining traction in American riding circles. According to USA Cycling, the number of events jumped from 237 in 2005 to 526 last year.
The sport draws all types. Cross is a balls-out race, competitors blasting through laps that are between one and two and a half miles through woods, around hairpin turns, up and down steep hills, over grass fields and across stretches of pavement. Courses boast obstacles like sand or staircases that force a rider to dismount the bike, carry it and sprint. As if nature’s barriers aren’t enough, race designers erect man-made obstacles, too.
The course at Goddard Park was no different. It started in a grass field, a seven-lane grid marked with white chalk. After a sprint for position, riders blasted into two tight downhill turns, then into the woods, where they battled roots and mud that required technical riding found in mountain biking. They exited near the beach, jumping off the bikes to run by the ocean for 75 yards before hopping back on, pumping down a stretch of pavement and up a steep hill, followed by a downhill into the second sand section, just 25 feet or so, but nearly vertical.
After another root-ridden downhill, riders dismounted, ran up a dozen stairs and remounted for a series of sharp turns around a picnic area. Halfway through, they dismounted and hopped over two large logs. More wooded area was next, then a quick turn to a downhill pavement section. The course continued through the woods, uphill around the carousel building, over two plastic barriers and by a food truck selling beef-brisket tacos. The last stretch included an artificial- turfed four-foot trapezoid, one final obstacle on a course full of them.
Justin Lindine, whose nickname is “The Honey Badger” and whose Facebook fan page lists his personal interests as “Eating roadkill. Crushing his enemies. Watching the cat sit around. Standard stuff, really,” started out mountain biking but got hooked on cross during college. “It’s really condensed racing,” the 31-year-old pro said in the carousel building before his event, a goofy smile on his face, two-day stubble on his cheeks. “Something is always going on, and you don’t have a lot of time to think about your decisions.”
And unlike road racing, where you need to know a “secret handshake” to get into races, jokes Tim Johnson, cross’s most successful American rider, or mountain biking, which can require a long drive to a mountain to find an event, CX welcomes all comers with open arms. The brutality of the conditions breeds a camaraderie among all the racers. In Warwick, the pro Category 2 event had 50 riders; the Category 3 and Category ⅘ races each had double that number, more than 100 diehards in brightly colored skinsuits with equipment ranging from the latest carbon fiber to dilapidated mountain bikes hauling around the course, riders crashing, smiling, filthy. “You’ll find the amateurs are the real heroes of the day,” Chris Dale, owner of race sponsor NBX Bikes, said.
Half an hour before his Category 3 race, Cory Lafleur sits in the driver’s seat of the Volkswagen station wagon he shares with his wife, Melissa. It’s packed with pumps, discarded suits and energy bars and features a large decal on the hood from a sponsorship deal he arranged with a local outfitter. He’s wearing his helmet—cross racers seem to pretty much constantly wear helmets, as if they might jump on a bike at any moment.
The 2014 campaign marks the second full season for Lafleur and his first in Category 3. His wife races with the pros in Category 2, but both of them have seen their training time reduced because they are building a cross course near their house, a few miles away on an overgrown river walk. Lafleur’s immediate concern, however, is the race. He inhales the dredges of an iced coffee, jumps on his bike and rides off enthusiastically. “I’m gonna need it,” he calls back to someone who wishes him luck. “It’s freezing.”
He will finish his race in 40:26, good enough for 26th overall and first place in the riders from Rhode Island division. For his effort, he earns a gold medal that will no doubt end up next to his filthy jersey somewhere in the VW.
While Lafleur competed on the course, Curtis White and Tim Johnson sat in their team’s heated Cannondale team trailer, something in between a rock-band tour bus and a bike shop. Half-eaten pecan and pumpkin pies sat next to a coffee machine across from a spare propane tank. A dozen tires and cabinets of parts were everywhere. Lafleur’s station wagon felt very far away indeed.
Johnson turned pro in 2001, owns six national cross championships, and is one of two male American riders to reach the podium at the UCI [Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport’s governing body] Cyclocross World Championships, a feat he accomplished in 1999. At 37, he’s nearing the end of his career but rides with a grace that looks effortless, despite a bad back. TJ, as everyone calls him, remains a huge draw and the sport’s most revered figure, happily offering tips to younger riders.
White was the recipient of much of the coaching and would go as far as to credit the knowledge for helping him to victory later in the afternoon. But at the moment, he lounged in a folding chair, calf muscles bulging and stretching his skinsuit.
Another pro, 28-year-old Anthony Clark, joined the pair, a whirling dervish with long hair and a neck tattoo of red lips. He wore a purple racing suit paired with black skate shoes and blue laces, told a story about getting strip searched after a flight from Hartford to Chicago. and complained that his shirt always comes off in the first two hours of the post-Nationals party. That final point sparked a heated debate about whether Clark took off his shirt or it was removed for him.
The men’s elite race, the last event of the day, started just after 2:30 in the afternoon, the sinking sun doing little to warm up the afternoon.
White, Lindine and Werner, a mountain bike specialist who held off White the previous Sunday to win his first UCI cross title, quickly and efficiently separated themselves from the pack. Clark led a trio of riders in the chase group. Johnson, elegant on his bike but clearly not at full fitness and carefully watching his back, was content to ride a dozen places back, testing a new Cannondale setup.
Around and around the course they flew, battling for position while ceding little. Despite its madcap appearance, to win a Cyclocross race requires patience, especially on a fast course with little elevation change like the one in Goddard Park. There’s nowhere to break away.
The trio steared clear of the chasing group, slowly gaining distance. Curves came and went, the proper line worn into the ground by a day of races.
Forty-five minutes into the hour-long race, Lindine dropped off slightly, leaving White leading Werner. The youngster tried to shake his older pursuer but failed. Werner matched his adversary stroke for stroke, splashing through the mud puddles just a fraction of a second after the leader, using his superior technical ability to match the freshman’s power and grace. Near the end, Werner managed to push past White, who appeared to be tiring. But it was a feint. White won the race to the final turn, and powered his way to the win. A minute and three seconds later, Clark crossed in fifth, his hair matted slightly by the moisture but still bouncing gloriously outside his helmet. Johnson finished 13th.
But the frigid weekend belonged to White. The rider planned to spend part of his upcoming vacation racing in Europe as part of USA Cycling’s National Development Program. Given his potential, the larger cross family worried he might turn his focus to the road. At the medal presentation, someone asked if he would keep competing in cross. “I couldn’t see myself not being involved,” he said, looking into a crowd of friends.
Check out our exclusive gear guide from Tim Johnson here.