Inside the Dirty, Dangerous World of Cyclocross

It’s gnarly, it’s muddy, and it’s the fastest-growing sport on two wheels. Can you survive cycling’s crucible?

On the Sunday afternoon when he should be resting, Jeremy Powers instead takes the road to the left, and soon his bike hums over the gently sloped lane, the stunning but foreboding forests of Western Massachusetts crowding the path and humidity curdling the air, until he sees the pavement rise before him, rise and curve and rise again, epically, endlessly. His pedaling slows and then nearly stops—so steep is the incline—and now he’s up off the saddle and pumping, the bike swaying wildly with each downward stroke. He has already this morning done the lunges and box steps and side crunches that he hates, movements that strengthen his comically slim core but will leave him with a soreness that lasts until Wednesday. He has also already gone on a five-mile run. And yet the notorious King’s Highway—the kind of relatively empty but challenging path that abounds in this region, which is why he chose to live here—seems uniquely torturous today, each push of the legs an attempt to reestablish not so much a good pace as just forward movement. No one has reached Powers’ level in the cycling world, let alone his highly unusual subspecialty, without answering a question he often poses to those who ask his advice: “How much do you want to suffer?”

At 32, Powers is the best American rider in cyclocross, a sport that is as demanding as it is deranged, and the fastest-growing discipline in biking. At the highest level, it is a one-hour race around a course studded with obstacles: Cyclists fly around gravel, down grassy hills, over man-made roadblocks (forcing riders to run, bikes slung over their shoulders), and up steep staircases (where they sprint some more). It’s exhausting but incredibly fun, and because it’s in an enclosed space—often a public park—very fan-friendly. Cyclocross is a fall-and-winter affair, so a course on a cyclocross weekend is loamy and damp for the amateur races and becomes a gnarly, muddy fuck-all for the pro riders who follow. It’s absurdly competitive, routinely ending in photo finishes. As Richard Fries, who announces many events, once said, “Cyclocross starts as a road race but ends as a boxing match.” No wonder the sport is going more mainstream with each updated race result.

It might sound like an outgrowth of the X Games and masochistic fitness trends like CrossFit and Tough Mudder, but cyclocross is more than 100 years old. A French army soldier named Daniel Gousseau is credited with inventing it as a winter sport designed to keep road cyclists in shape by bombing through grassy fields and over tree stumps. By 1902 Gousseau had organized a national championship—one year before the Tour de France launched. The Tour’s 1910 winner, Octave Lapize, said he won because of his off-season cyclocross schedule. From there, the sport flourished in Europe.

Jeremy Powers in his element (Photo credit: AP)

By the 1960s it had migrated to the U.S. It remained the oddity of the domestic cycling world for the next 20 years—Fries called the 1995 national championships in Leicester, Massachusetts, from planks of wood atop a jungle gym—but boomed in the late 1990s, fueled by Internet chat rooms and video. In 2008, Lance Armstrong raced in the Clif Bar CrossVegas event, and attendance spiked to around 5,000. A year later, the race was bigger than even Lance, with 12,000 attendees. USA Cycling, the sport’s domestic governing body, says the number of cyclocross events has more than doubled, from 237 in 2005 to 516 in 2013, while the number of riders has nearly quadrupled over the same period: from 31,828 to 123,454. The sport’s premier series, the World Cup, a heretofore European event, opened its 2015 season this September in Las Vegas. It’s the first time a World Cup competition was staged on U.S. soil. “Our leading cyclocross series is definitely making a big push in North America,” said Brian Cookson, president of the sport’s world governing body, Union Cycliste Internationale, when Vegas was announced.

Jeremy Powers has won three of the past four U.S. cyclocross national championships and is the top-ranked American rider in the world. These days he splits his schedule between the European World Cup and a premier stateside series. As he watches the popularity of ’cross grow, he sees competition stiffen, which is one reason he’s chosen to bike up King’s Highway on a Sunday. 

“Cyclocross starts as a road race but ends as a boxing match,” says longtime announcer Richard Fries.

But there is another reason: Powers wants his sport to pop so badly that he’s reinvesting his own earnings—he’s not clearing a million a year, but he and his wife live comfortably—into growing its stable of athletes. He runs a nonprofit, the JAM Fund, which develops young riders and oftentimes pays their way. One week from now, a group of them will bike alongside Powers, grunting up King’s Highway, too. He also funds and staffs a website, Behind the Barriers TV, that for the past four seasons has streamed races and produced highlight and reality shows from the world of cyclocross. Many nights after a race, Powers has fallen asleep on a couch while the video staff splices clips for the site. The demands are so great that he’s not sure if he can continue to be involved, but the site’s future depends on him. “ ‘How will I be remembered?’ is my driving philosophy,” he says.

He has so many goals, foremost among them to make the podium at a World Cup, a rare feat for an American. So he keeps at it up King’s Highway, the peak in sight but the road turning to gravel now, the final punishment. He cracks a slight smile. 

At the peak, for a brief second, he can rest.

Photos by Tim Clayton/Corbis