Steamboat Springs While many in Ski Town USA groan at the thought of another mud season, Jon Cariveau grins.
Cariveau is part of a handful of local cyclists who participate in the sport's one discipline and season defined by adverse weather conditions - cyclocross.
The sport's timed races take place on courses that combine about one-third pavement, one-third grass and one-third dirt or mud. Add "run-up" sections of mud, sand and man-made obstacles over which athletes must lug their bikes and you get a sport that's part road cycling, part mountain biking and part steeplechase.
"It's a lot like NASCAR on a bike," Cariveau said, pointing out how racers jockey and elbow for position as they tear laps around a course loop, typically one to two miles in length, for 60 minutes.
Cariveau looked out at the dreary Wednesday afternoon last week and knew it was a perfect day for cyclocross.
"It's snowy and cold, but you're not out on the cold, open road," he said. "There's a running aspect, too, so running and riding, you're staying pretty warm."
Originally designed in the French and Belgian cradle of cycling, the sport was developed as an off-season option to help racers stay fit. While cyclocross events remain tremendously popular in Europe, the sport is steadily gaining popularity in the United States. USA Cycling has a schedule of 25 nationwide races sanctioned by the International Cycling Union. The U.S. season starts in September and concludes with the Cyclocross National Championships, which finish today in Providence, R.I.
USA Cycling communications director Andy Lee said the record 2,000 race entrants at this year's championships is double the amount that showed in 2004.
"The percentage increase is a testimony to how fast the discipline is growing," Lee said.
Cariveau, 39, started racing in cyclocross competitions just after he moved to Steamboat 13 years ago. Now, he is pleased to see the sport's popularity explode in the cycling-crazy hotbeds of Colorado's Front Range communities.
Boulder and Longmont play home to two of the six marquee stops on Crank Brothers U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross series. The pro division winners of these races determine the U.S. representatives to the world championships.
Cariveau looks back fondly on his Nov. 5 third-place finish in one of these races. But it was his finish in another Boulder area race - the Colorado State Cyclocross Championships on Dec. 9 - that he called his "payback" race.
Two years ago, Cariveau had lost the state title in the Masters 35+ division by half a bike length.
This year, despite starting near the back row of 36 riders, Cariveau moved up the pack during the "mad sprint" along the opening road section.
"We hit the mud hard and fast, bikes and bodies were everywhere," Cariveau said. "You try to get yourself out front, because once guys break off from the front, they're hard to chase down."
Cariveau did just that. After the first lap, he kept pushing and rode ahead "solo" for the remaining eight. By the final lap, he flattened out and had a crash but still crossed the finish more than a minute ahead of the next racer.
Cariveau enjoyed the win, but in a career that includes appearances at seven national championships and competitive races at the pro/elite level, he still holds one race accomplishment above the rest.
In January, Cariveau raced in the Masters Cyclocross World Championships in Mol, Belgium. He finished 10th on the sandy and challenging course.
"Belgium is the (cyclocross) hotbed," Cariveau said. "I went to (watch) the pro/elite worlds while I was there, and 30,000 people will watch, paying to get in the gate. It's like a motocross race - fans line the entire course and they're serving beer and waffles : it's incredible. It's like the holy grail of (cyclocross) racing. The races are all televised. They even have two cyclocross reality shows on TV."
Breaking into this elite level of well-paid professional cyclocross racers can be difficult for Americans. Most prominent racers are amateurs, such as Cariveau, who works as the sales manager at Moots Cycles.
Even a top pro racer like Katie Compton, two-time defending national champion, works full-time as a cycling coach in Colorado Springs to support her habit. She said her sponsor, energy drink Spike Shooter, would cover her travel expenses to the national championships, but she admitted that America's most elite cyclocross riders would have to live a "pretty frugal lifestyle" to scrape by on prize winnings and sponsorship dollars alone.
"It's just a fun, intense, fast environment around 'cross," Compton said before her Thursday flight to this weekend's championships. "The spectators are always cheering. At (the Crank Brothers) race in Boulder, it's so loud you can't even hear yourself breathe on the run-ups."
The spectator-friendly component is exactly why Cariveau and his cyclocross compatriot Glen Light think Steamboat would be a prime location to host a small, introductory set of races next fall.
Light was introduced to the sport while running on the Colorado School of Mines' cross-country team and was immediately hooked on what he thought was the "strangest, hardest, craziest thing I'd ever done on a bike."
These days, Light says he and Cariveau can find a "a couple other guys that will rally here and there to go the races," but that "it's really just Jon and I that live and breathe it."
But Light thinks the sport has potential with much of the Yampa Valley's cycling community splitting time between their mountain and road bikes.
The bikes themselves are hybrids - a lightweight road bike frame with drop handlebars, but the knobby tires, cantilever brakes and greater fork clearance of a mountain bike. Most serious cyclocross racers have 'cross-specific bikes, which can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $7,000 for a high-end Moots Psychlo X.
Light reassured that newcomers to the sport could easily modify and race their existing mountain bikes with a skinnier tire.
"The best Steamboat riding is from September to the first snowfall anyway, plus it's a good way to stay in shape," Cariveau said. "It's road racing tactics with mountain bike skills : for me it's the most exciting kind of racing. You're racing against other racers and against the course - the great equalizer."
Light sees the appeal in the attitude and experience, braving the elements with nothing but "weirdness in common" with fellow racers.
Whether the two can generate interest in the country's fastest growing cycling discipline remains to be seen.
But if they do organize a
race, one thing's for certain: it will never have to be canceled on account of the weather.