SEATTLE — November and early December are the worst months to get outside in the Pacific Northwest.
Hiking and mountain biking trails are rain-saturated messes. There (usually) isn’t enough snow to ski or snowboard. Howling winds threaten to tip your kayak or SUP as soon as you shove off the beach. Roads slick with wet leaves are just waiting to cause a cyclist to wipe out.
Oh, and it gets dark before 5 p.m.
Don’t tell any of that to cyclocross racers, who lined up by the hundreds on Oct. 22 for the Woodland Park GP, the grand finale of Western Washington cyclocross races.
The event is a joyous celebration in this region’s most unpleasant month, bringing a party atmosphere with costumed racers, food trucks and plenty of bikes swooping through the muddy woods.
“It’s a great way to make crappy weather not so crappy, have a good time with friends and enjoy your community,” said Russell Stevenson, president of Off Camber Productions, which puts on the MFG Cyclocross series as well as the Wednesday Night World Championships mountain bike races at North SeaTac Park and the GRiT Adventure Gravel Ride near Cle Elum, Kittitas County.
Here’s what you need to know about this built-for-bad-weather sport.
What is cyclocross?
The century-old sport founded in northwestern Europe sits somewhere in a muddy middle between road cycling, mountain biking and criterium racing on a closed circuit.
Competitors race laps on a 1.5-mile closed course for 30-60 minutes, depending on their category. Every course is different, but common threads include a mix of surfaces — dirt, grass, gravel, pavement — and 15-inch barriers that require riders to jump or dismount and carry their bikes. For many, cyclocross calls to mind racers running while shouldering a bike.
There are various origin stories to cyclocross, but there’s a general agreement that competitive road cyclists viewed cyclocross as a way to keep training into the winter by swapping skinny-tire road bikes for something a little burlier that could handle muddy farm roads. Today’s dedicated cyclocross bikes, also called gravel bikes, are like a hybrid road bike with bigger, wider and knobbier tires, though not quite mountain bike-sized. They typically have drop handlebars like a road bike.
Above all, cyclocross thrives in inclement weather.
“It has to be wet and cold,” said Mountlake Terrace resident Scott Grinsell on the sidelines of an October race in Magnuson Park, the fourth of six races in MFG’s fall series. “The more it’s like Belgium, the better.”
With clouds obscuring the Cascades and raindrops splattering the wet ground, the Magnuson Park Cross could have passed for some version of Flanders Fields. But the scene was more festive than the typical European cyclocross race, where pros and amateurs don’t typically mingle.
Instead, the shores of Lake Washington were crowded with cyclists covering a wide range of ages and genders, loudspeakers blasting music and spectators clanging cowbells on the sidelines.
Local cycling clubs and race teams huddled under tents to grill food, cheer on teammates, gently heckle rivals and hand out snacks to struggling racers. (Registration fees cover turf remediation at both Magnuson and Woodland parks following cyclocross events.)
Try it yourself
Western Washington’s cyclocross racing scene is open to all comers. Race categories include first-timers, kids as young as elementary school, cyclists age 60-plus, heavier riders, unicyclists, tandem bikes, women and nonbinary racers. There are also ultracompetitive cyclists accumulating points in sanctioned races en route to national championships, as well as nationally ranked riders who travel out to the Northwest for races like Magnuson Park Cross and the Woodland Park GP.
While other competitive cycling events can have an intimidating barrier to entry, that’s not the case with cyclocross, riders say.
“You don’t have to be in tiptop shape to have a good time,” Grinsell said.
I raced the Magnuson Park Cross as a Category 4 Male and placed 28th out of 47 finishers. Not bad for a newbie who wiped out on a few slick corners. Grass, fortunately, is more forgiving than a rocky mountain bike trail.
For my cyclocross debut, I rented a Kona Major Jake ($80 per day from the new Seattle-based peer-to-peer bike rental platform Spokeo). Also check Spinlister, which has a search filter for cyclocross bikes. Cassette Club, a bike shop in Pioneer Square, rents gravel bikes for $75 per day.
Buying an entry-level cyclocross bike runs at least $1,000. A mountain bike can work in a pinch, but is much heavier and will put you at a competitive disadvantage. Road bikes are not recommended.
Cyclocross has been popular in the Pacific Northwest since the 1980s.
From 1987 to 1996, Washington hosted the U.S. National Cyclocross Championships four times — twice each in Bremerton and Seattle.
Oregon played host four times in the 2000s between Bend and Portland.
In 2019, nationals returned to the Evergreen State for the first time in more than 20 years, with a race weekend in Lakewood, Pierce County.
“That was a crescendo that boosted participation and exposure to the region for the sport,” said Stevenson, a national and world cyclocross champion.
Four of the 10 biggest cyclocross races this year to date were held in Washington and Oregon, home to the Cyclocross Crusade race series, proof positive that the Northwest is the nation’s cyclocross capital.
Other cyclocross hot spots include the Midwest and New England. What does the Northwest bring to the table?
“We have the terrain, weather and bikers who can get into it,” said Stevenson, who highlighted the region’s young racers. “Some of the best juniors in the country are from Washington and Oregon.”
Count 15-year-old Bellevue resident Keaghlan Robinson among them. A bike fanatic who can also be found astride a BMX bike, in a velodrome on a track bike, or gripping mountain bike handlebars, she has competed in multiple cyclocross Junior Nationals from Illinois to Connecticut.
Unlike other cyclocross scenes, she credits the Northwest for caring about fun, not just winning, even at the most competitive level.
“As much as I love to win,” she said, “I also love coming out here and having fun on my bike.”