by Jake Sisson
Cyclocross in July? Surely you jest. At a State Fair? Blasphemy. Spectacross, which took place at this year’s New Jersey State Fair, was unconventional in every sense of the word. The laps were on the order of three minutes long, which even included slippery mud on day one and an extended set of turns on day two, so the lap count was higher than I’d ever seen. The course had a exaggerated “pinwheel of death” in a tractor pull arena, cordoned off by a bunch of yellow, pink and green caterpillars. Did I mention it was July?
So, you might be wondering, was it worth it to drop the roadie act for a weekend and jump into ‘cross knowing full well that I’d only get a teaser of the main course that was almost two months away? The simple answer is abso-freaking-lutely.
Before I even had done one lap of the course on day one, a good friend of mine rolled up next to me and said something that put most of my doubts about Spectacross to rest. “This is pretty much a real cyclocross course” was enough to allay my fears that this race was going to be little more than a state fair side show. He was right about the course, with a generous combination of mud, slick grass and technical “whoops” that would please the most discerning ‘cross snob. Sure, there was about 6 inches of elevation gain, and there was no off-camber descents with bear traps at the bottom, but it was July after all. We’ve all got to ease into this stuff, right?
The Spectacross power types set up an odd experiment of mixing classes together for my race on Friday, with the elite juniors, elite women and B men all taking the course at the same time. Here I am trying to cover the race accurately, when all of a sudden, the leaders (who happened to be juniors) are totally out of my sight. Didn’t you kids ever learn anything about respecting your elders? Or women? I got out to a quick start, with the cross skills quickly coming back to me. I realized, probably at the right time, that I was in over my head riding in the top 10 of an elite women’s race (and it was elite, bringing out a number of the Mid Atlantic’s best) and slowly drifted back to a safer position in the field. Had the course not been so muddy, I might have actually thought I had to race, but as it was, I did my best to heckle officials, announcers and even the odd spectator. All in all, ninth place out of the B men would have to do for the day, lapped by the first two juniors but on the same lap as the elite women. I’m a better second day racer anyway.
When the day was over, I looked down at my bike and realized a curious thing – it looked like it had just finished a ‘cross race. More and more pieces were coming together that said they had made this July ‘cross thing as legitimate as the racing that happens in December. If you tried hard enough, you probably could have found frites and mayo within a reasonable distance of one another. Did I magically transport myself to Belgium? I snapped back to reality when I found myself hosing my bike off in a cattle pen, serenaded by the bleats of sheep and upbeat moos of the show cattle in the barn next door. Or was this a Belgian amateur race in a farm field?
Day two was a bit more my style, with most of the standing water from day one gone via evaporation, and the temperatures climbing into the mid 80′s. The ground was firm, the speeds were up, and the file treads that I was stuck with from day one would actually come in handy. I set my pressure ludicrously high and clocked a test lap, realized the folly of my ways, and went out for a few more comfortable laps. We B’s had our own race to ourselves, and I was able to prove myself a bit more effectively on the dry, somewhat technical day two course conditions.
When the dust settled, I had no crashes, but one sore course stake to show for my effort (see picture in the full report here), but an improved fourth place finish gave me some confidence to take home. Another trip to the cattle-wash left me with that barnyard-clean feeling, and I settled myself down to a plate full of fried potatoes wrapped in cheese and bacon bits. By and large, the worst part of Spectacross was the knowledge that I’ve got a month and a half left before I get to get muddy again.
Outside of the fun that I had in my races, the other racing was just as intense. From what I picked up between gasps, Friday’s elite women’s race was well contested, as races with this caliber of riders usually are, as was the junior race. If I got in your way, I sincerely apologize. The men’s racing was great fun as well, with some of the nation’s best proving why they are labeled as such. For a course that lacked some of the course elements that die-hard cyclocrossers have come to love, Spectacross provided high drama in almost every race. Crashes and mechanicals were responsible for the disappointment of many a rider, and bike handling was at a premium on both days. You would be hard pressed to find a single participant who wouldn’t call this ‘cross of the finest quality.
Earlier in July, Cyclocross Magazine published an editorial by Jamie Mack asking when ‘cross season really begins. While I don’t profess to have the official answer, I do know that Spectacross was some of the best fun I’ve had on my ‘cross bike to date. The mix of great bike racing and the opportunity to take a ride in a monster truck just 50 yards away is sure to please anyone. If you weren’t there this year, do make a point of getting there next year. If you miss next year? I’m afraid there’s little hope for your soul.