Cyclocross racing returns to Portland for the fall season

A street bike with bushes and a brick wall in the background.
Arlen Slaymaker / The Mossy Log

Each cycling competition brings crazy costumes, muddy showers, a six-pack of beer trophy to the victor

If you have ever heard people talking excitedly about how “cross is here,” how their new bike is even more colorful than last year’s or how the mud stuck to their bike’s frame hasn’t come off since last December, it is the beginning of Portland’s cyclocross season. 

A cyclocross race course consists of a one-to-two mile loop through grassy or forested terrain, often with barriers such as deep mud or stairs waiting around the course. This forces everyone to hop off their bikes and carry them until they can remount again. All the racers start together and the first person to cross the finish line on the last lap is the winner. A combination of strength, bike handling and strategy are required to achieve a desired result. To win without all of these skills is almost impossible.

Hundreds of people will show up on race day, ready to pedal to exhaustion.Only one person can win from each category. The categories, one through five, are based on skill level. Week after week people keep coming back because more inclusive and relaxed racing communities are rare. Everyone rides their bike because they love it, not for the unlikely winning of a six-pack of craft brew. 

Unlike the average road, gravel or mountain bike race, costumes are encouraged and celebrated. I have found myself passing by a blow-up dinosaur on a bike, and in the next turn gotten passed by a man wearing jean shorts and a tie. 

To increase the rowdy atmosphere, fans usually congregate around the steepest, most root-filled sections of the course to cheer racers on and watch the occasional crash. Where the course straightens out, some fans even hold out open beer cans for a quick thirst quencher. The barriers always attract a large portion of fans excited to watch as the unlucky racer catches their toe and takes a tumble in the mud. 

In contrast with the barriers on the course, the obstacles for race entry can be very difficult to surmount. Expensive bikes and race fees can make entry into the sport difficult. Race organizers and their sponsors are working on this problem by, in some instances, allowing juniors up to 18 and women just starting the activity to race for free. Unfortunately, bike access remains an unsolved problem and will likely continue to be due to the specialization required.

Overall the sport is becoming more inclusive and accessible, however, in February 2021, Alpenrose Dairy closed its doors to all bike racing on their property due to insurance costs, leading to the loss of a local cyclocross venue. While races are also held weekly at the Portland International Raceway, races within biking distance are a true gem of Portland, and widen the accessibility of races to those without access to cars. Without the races held at the Alpenrose Dairy, the remaining local races are being cherished even more.

When the first cyclocross races began to appear in Portland over three decades ago, the sport was still emerging in popularity in the United States after moving its way across the ocean from historic cycling nations like Belgium and the Netherlands. Now, the race calendar around Portland spans from the first week of September to the last weekend in November, with at least one race every week for participants to test out their legs and catch up with other mud-loving friends. 

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