November 28, 2008, 9:42 am
As Cyclocross Returns, a Crash Course
By J. David Goodman AND Sean Patrick Farrell
The sun had barely crested the hill in the northwest corner of Central Park where Christophe Jammet and a dozen other cyclists, battling the 20-degree chill, practiced the elements of cyclocross, a sport still not commonly seen in the five boroughs, despite the popularity of cycling.
Stretched into a line, the group of riders approached a set of shin-height homemade plastic barriers meant to simulate the 40-centimeter tall wood barriers of an official cyclocross course, and one by one, they jumped off their bikes, hopped over each barrier steeplechase-style, and quickly remounted.
Nearby, riders worked on flinging their bikes over-shoulder and running up a set of stairs.
For Mr. Jammet, 25, an operations analyst at a hedge fund and a road racer, the morning was a training session with a purpose – to get more riders interested in “cross” and get road racers excited about first cyclocross race in New York City since 2001.
The race, in Staten Island’s Wolfe’s Pond Park on Sunday, came together “by the seat of the pants” over the last two months, Mr. Jammet said, after a discussion on the NYCX group, a hub for local cyclocross enthusiasts. He’s also been blogging about the effort.
“This sport has been largely underground because there aren’t really any places we can practice,” he said, standing near the barriers. “Everyone was saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have a race?’”
Mr. Jammet designed the 2.2-kilometer racecourse around Wolfe’s Pond Park, on the Raritan Bay, with the help of Jed Kornbluh, who organizes impromptu training rides on Randall’s Island, and Patrick Wilder, a cyclocross coach from Portland, Ore., who will be coming to New York for the event.
Unlike road racing, where fans see their favorite riders pass-by only a handful of times, and at great speed, cyclocross happens on a small circuit and at slower speeds, allowing spectators to watch the skilled bike handling — and the mud-caked wipeouts — up close.
Aside from barriers made from two-by-fours, there will be other, natural obstacles: a steep “run-up” (where riders will have to dismount and carry their bikes); “off-cambers” (which force the rider to tilt at an angle, risking a fall), a portion through the park’s sandy beach; and at the end of the circuit, stairs.
“The Parks Department has been great about letting us use the park,” Mr. Jammet said. “‘There’s nothing you can do on these bikes to mess up my park,’ they told me.”
Of course, the grounds-keeper who said that had probably never seen a cross race, which often leaves a course churned up and muddy, as if plowed. Kissena Park in Flushing played host to the city’s last race, in 2001.
But it was “a real struggle to get the Queens office of New York City Parks and Recreation to sign off on the event,” said Alan Atwood, a board member of the New York State Bicycle Racing Association and an official for USA Cycling, which is lending its imprimatur to the Staten Island event.
“After the first race,” he added, “they didn’t like it and would not permit it again.”
Mud — along with sweat and [Fill In the Blank] — is the picture most have of the sport, which began a century ago among European road racers trying to stay in shape in the off-season. It has since blossomed into a sport in its own right, with stars and a world championship. In Belgium, where the sport is as popular as Nascar is here, high-profile races can attract tens of thousands of fans.
Paul Bartolo, 42, who was training in Central Park, traveled to Hooglede-Gits, Belgium, for the cyclocross world championship last year. “It’s huge,” he said.
Mr. Jammet hoped his race would have the some of the atmosphere of the European versions, in which fans heckle the riders and beer is free-flowing. (But since he didn’t apply for a license to sell alcohol at this year’s event, the latter will have to wait.)
Sponsors of the event include VisitFlanders.com and Waffles and Dinges, the Belgian takeout van that usually parks on the Upper West Side, which will be cooking up to 140 free waffles. The Belgian consulate has listed the event on its Web site and is encouraging expatriates to attend.
For Caroline Gaynor, 24, who took her sister Jessica to the early-morning training recently with Mr. Jammet, the city is a surprisingly good place to practice cyclocross. A favorite regimen, she said, was doing nighttime circuits in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looping around the fountains and then huffing it up the stairs on foot, a k a Rocky Balboa.
“They think I’m crazy,” she said of the tourists who would watch her routine.
But since she lost her job this month, Ms. Gaynor said, she’s been training even harder, because “I have even more time now.”