Cyclists challenged on obstacle course


November 06, 2008|By JANENE HOLZBERG

Chris Nystrom has only one problem with life in Howard County: There isn't a bike trail connecting his Elkridge home and his workplace in Baltimore.

Nystrom and his wife, Melanie, chose their house on a cul-de-sac off Kerger Road for its proximity to the county's 450-acre Rockburn Branch Park and its several miles of trails. The park is a two-minute bike ride away and bumps up against Patapsco Valley State Park, which boasts even more trails sought after by off-road cyclists.

And not long after moving from Federal Hill in Baltimore, Nystrom hooked up with a few dozen other bikers to map out a 24-mile loop they ride before dawn twice a week.

"There is such a huge cycling scene here," the 37-year-old bond salesman said. "The parks are awesome, and it's such a sports-friendly county - I just fell in love with it."

But perhaps one of the nicest enhancements to Nystrom's amateur cycling life since taking up county residency in 2006 has been the Kelly Benefit Strategies Cyclocross, which was held for the second consecutive year on Sunday at Rockburn.

Cyclocross, a high-speed cross country race that combines riding and carrying bikes over obstacles and varied terrain, is experiencing a wave of popularity in the United States, enthusiasts say. Organizers of the Rockburn event preregistered 390 cyclists this year - more than double last year's 191 - and racers came from as far away as North Carolina. One-third of the participants were Marylanders, while county residents accounted for 43 entries.

Racers ride cyclocross bikes, which resemble touring bikes but feature knobby tires and aluminum or carbon fiber frames that weigh 15 to 20 pounds for ease of carrying over obstacles. Racers store backup bikes and wheels with varying treads in the pit area so they can stay on the move in the event of malfunctions or mud-clogged tires.

With roots in Belgium in the early 1900s, cyclocross made its way to the United States in the 1950s, said Matthew Brancheau, director of Rockburn's daylong event, which offered six races in categories ranging from novice to professional. Cyclocross events gained ground in the 1990s, and in the past five years or so there has been another significant growth spurt, he said.

Local events are held throughout the Mid-Atlantic region from September to December, Nystrom said, estimating that he rides in a dozen of them. The Richmond, Va., native trains with a 30-member team called C3-Sollay, which organizes the Charm City Cross held every September in Druid Hill Park.

Fortunately for Nystrom, his wife is a mountain biker who pulled him into cycling, so she understands his passion, he said. Not only was Melanie cheering for her husband Sunday with their two young sons in tow, but later she and Gavin, 1, watched as Thor, 3, rode in the Li'l Belgians race with his dad at his side.

The competitiveness compels Nystrom to the sport. He described the racers' approach as aggressive and tactical because riders jostle one another in the initial sprint as they attempt to pull away from the pack.

Riders make multiple laps on the 3-kilometer course, reaching speeds up to 20 mph despite the diverse terrain - grass, gravel, sand, mud, pavement, steep slopes and wooded pathways. The event tests endurance and bike-handling skills, as racers must deftly dismount and carry their cycles through sand and mud and over obstacles.

But for Nystrom, the camaraderie is perhaps the best part.

"Everyone is real supportive, and there are no big rivalries - just everyone cheering on everyone else," he said.

The events are tailored to families as well, with races for juniors and children.

Nystrom took eighth place Sunday in a field of 44 in the Elite Masters, a race for experienced cyclists ages 35 to 45. He said he was thrilled with his result given that first place went to Gunnar Shogren, who is close to a legend in off-road bike-racing circles.

With a position in the front row, earned with performances in previous events, Nystrom quickly pulled away from the pack, but within minutes was passed by Shogren.

"I got a good start, but I quickly settled into a group chasing Gunnar," said Nystrom, who clocked in at 42 minutes and 41 seconds, a little more than a minute behind the winning time.

Two of Nystrom's C3-Sollay teammates took second and third place, and a third racer was right behind him.

"Rockburn Park is close to cyclocross Nirvana," Shogren wrote the next day in an e-mail response to questions. "Last year the [snow-covered] conditions were a bit different and, though quite a lot of fun, the course wasn't quite the speed-fest that it was this year."

Becoming part of the Mid-Atlantic Bike Riding Association's series this year gave the event more credence, said Brancheau, and organizers shortened the course to allow spectators to get closer to the action. He also credited the county parks department for partnering with them to sponsor the event, the only such partnership he is aware of in local cyclocross.

Allan Harden, superintendent of the county's Sports and Adventure Services division, said the county considers itself "a leader in getting people active" and had been looking to re-establish off-road bike races, which were offered in the 1990s.

"We felt that working together we could provide a larger program and better experience for the racers," he said.

The event impressed Shogren, a resident of Morgantown, W.Va., who was the subject of a 1998 documentary about his then-pending retirement from professional racing.

"The club really did a bang-up job of growing the event, but not giving up the small-town-fun feel," he said.

This Saturday means another race in another town for Nystrom, but Sunday's success still lingers.

"I want to get people on bikes and see this event grow," he said. "Cyclocross is such an open and welcoming sport - I just want to help spread the word."

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