'All about community': What attracts riders to cyclocross racing

Bike shops close early. Riding mileage tapers. Fall's colorful showcase drops its last leaf. Even the sun beds down by late afternoon. End of biking season?

Not cyclocross. Wetter, colder and muddier just intensifies the racing challenge.

Cyclocross, sanctioned by USA Cycling, is biking's steeplechase, scrambling road and mountain biking with log-hopping, bike-carrying and grinding through sand, gravel and even snow.

Chicago area cyclocrossers have bike-hopped barriers on hilly courses since 2004, when local teams collaborated to launch the Chicago Cross Cup. 2023's eight-race schedule extends from late September to early December, sandwiching Wisconsin's Trek CX Cup.

Cup racers have already cranked around Glenwood, Bartlett, Campton and Woodstock courses. Wheeling Heritage Park hosts a competition Sunday, Nov. 12; Lemont whistles the start of its Quarry Cross at Forge Nov. 19. The grand finale is the Illinois State Cyclocross Championship at Chicago's Montrose Beach Dec. 3.

Why cyclocross?

Hooded, gloved yet still shivering, I posed that very question to racers, coaches and spectators early Oct. 22, at Bartlett's Sunrise Park. While tolerating rain, pelting sleet and muddy trail fishtailing myself, I don't consciously seek those conditions.

As a skeptic, I was outnumbered. Nearly 350 racers limbered up near Heckle Hill, eager to test themselves against the course and other racers in 15 events. Racers ranged from 9- to 14-year-olds to masters over 65, some septuagenarians.

Jason Knauff, lead Cup series director since 2009 and champion racer, considered those registration numbers typical, roughly equal to 2022's, down from the 2009-12 peak. He estimates 85% to 15% males-to-females with over 90% regional riders.

Answering “Why cyclocross?” Knauff reflected his director role: “CX is all about community. Those few of us 'running' the series just set up the canvas. Really, it's the riders, race directors, spectators, etc. who paint the picture and make it their own. We also have a great roster of sponsors helping make this series happen yearly.”

Community of supporters

Main Street Bicycles in Carpentersville, one of 14 Cup partners, began sponsoring around 2004-05, per owner Jeff Provisor. Sponsorship usually includes cash, but also “course materials: barrier tape, stakes, tools, etc., and prizes for the series overall winners.”

Since 2012, Provisor has also wrangled gear and course equipment shared by various venue organizers: snow fencing, wooden jump barriers, rebar, hammers, zip ties, tools, heaters, etc.

“We do our best to fix/maintain what we use to keep waste and expenses down,” he said.

“Cyclocross, when combined with friends — you make lots of them when you stick around this series for a while — is a great way to combine serious racing with utter ridiculousness, or serious ridiculousness with utter racing,” he added.

Some attribute a weird affinity to suffering when asked “Why Cyclocross?” Aidan Rangel, 17, racing for Evanston Cup sponsor Pony Shop, said, “It's fun. I like killing myself on the course.”

George Swinand, 15, and Eamon McIntyre, 16, among 20 youth Pony Shop teammates racing that day, nodded in agreement. Coach Paul Swinand credited owner Lou Kuhn for starting the team 15 years ago.

Half Acre Cycling team rider Mike Love, 40, appreciates that “races are short and fast, yet require skilled riding.” A criterium cyclist, Love prefers landing on grass vs. concrete if mishaps occur. His team helps run the state championships Dec. 3.

Cross-Country to Cyclocross

Wheaton's Matthew Field, racing for EMC2/Elmhurst Masters, believes riders are attracted to CX “who can enjoy handling cold, wet and muddy conditions. I'm motivated by the community of competitors and teammates cheering each other on.”

Field tasted success in this, his second racing season. At Bartlett, he won his first Master 35+ race, affirming, “I've had single-speed victories before, but this is a big one.” In the first four Cup races, Field has placed first or second in both events.

A 2007 Wheaton College cross-country All-American, Field acknowledges parallels in both sports.

“Starts are similar. You are going harder than race pace to try to hold your position, not get stuck behind slower racers. It's easier in cross-country to slowly work your way through traffic to the front. In CX you really need to be up front to take the fast lines with race leaders, putting a premium on the start,” said Field.

Cup director Knauff admits he “personally hates the cold and mud,” yet has won all four of the first four Master 45+ races. While he competes in road racing, criteriums and CX, “I personally like CX. It requires a good mix of fitness and bike handling skills. It's much more personal than road. You can't hide in the pack and sprint at the finish. Someone once told me, 'CX is more honest like that.'”

Volunteer organizations run each venue. Athletes By Design, for example, has hosted Bartlett races for 15 years, handling village and park district relations, pulling required permits and arranging porta-potties. Race director Jim Cannella reports course setup takes about eight hours, pounding stakes and stretching tape that loops up, down and around Heckle Hill for 1.5 miles. Over 20 ABD volunteers staff the day's events from 8 a.m. to past 4 p.m., with each race spanning 30-40 minutes over the same winding course.

DuPage Trails Plan

After two years, the draft for the DuPage County Trails Plan is available for public review/feedback.

Sidney Kenyon, senior transportation planner and DuPage County Trails coordinator, said, “Its purpose is to guide maintenance, operations and enhancement of the regional trail network either owned or operated by DuPage County.”

Enter plan comments by Nov. 17 online at

• Join the ride. Contact Ralph Banasiak at

EMC2 team racer bike-hops the utility pole laid across the cyclocross course Oct. 22 at Sunrise Park in Bartlett. Courtesy of Ralph Banasiak
Speedy dismounts and remounts are a handy skill for cyclocross racers when barriers block the course. Courtesy of Ralph Banasiak
Bike carries are racers' only choice up steep inclines, as demonstrated at the December 2021 National Cyclocross Championships in Wheaton's Cantigny Park. Courtesy of Ralph Banasiak
With wife Rebecca and a family cheering section for inspiration, Wheaton's Matt Field captured his first win in the Master 35+ cyclocross race at Bartlett's Sunrise Park on Oct. 22. Courtesy of Ralph Banasiak
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