Anchorage — The days of riding bikes through puddles for fun have vanished for many beyond the age of 10, unless you were one of the 117 cyclocross competitors Saturday at Balto Seppala Park.
For the second straight week, a record number of cyclists of varying levels and ages showed up to race in the seven-race ArcticCross fall series.
They pedaled around a course of about 1.2 miles over grass, mud and sand to see who could complete the most laps in a set time. It wasn't unusual to see them crash in exhaustion when finished, nor was it unusual to see them smiling.
"This is an adult's excuse to play in the mud," said Bruce Ross, an ArcticCross race organizer and course designer. "It's an odd form of suffering."
Attendance at cyclocross races has steadily increased in Anchorage since ArcticCross started 10 years ago, Ross said. The chance to race on a new course each week over unusual terrain has been a major draw.
While there are serious riders like Bruce's son Will Ross, who won the men's open division Saturday, there are also cross-training athletes looking for a unique challenge. East High cross-country runner John Farr raced in his fourth cyclocross Saturday, turning in a dominating victory in the men's beginner division.
"It's a lot of fun," Farr said. "It's a mixture of everything, road-bike elements and mountain-bike elements. You have to have decent riding skills."
To enter, all that's necessary is a bike, a helmet and $15. Bruce Ross said ArcticCross welcomes all competitors and spectators. Those with bikes designed for cyclocross will go faster, he said, but there were some riders using mountain bikes and fat-tire snow bikes Saturday.
"You see a lot of competitors in this that you don't see in the other road races or mountain races, just because it is a more laid-back, fun atmosphere," said Greg McDuffie, a competitor in the masters division for men 40 and older.
Cyclocross has been around for roughly a century, Bruce Ross said. It started in Europe as a way for professional cyclists to train in the winter months when roads were too icy. The pros took to parks, where they could get traction on grass and snow and get workouts done within a relatively small space.
Sometimes, corners on a cyclocross track can get pretty tight, and bikes are bound to get locked up.
"In a mass start, you get a lot of train wrecks, where everyone is trying to get around a tight corner at the same time," McDuffie said. "Part of the strategy is to go full bore right at the front to try to get out of the congestion."
Courses are generally on grass or dirt, so there is a built in cushion for falls. Riders don't hit turns at high speeds, either, so races aren't exceptionally dangerous.
"People get a little hurt and bloodied," said Mike Howard, who won the men's masters division. "I don't think anyone gets really hurt out here."
Cyclocross is characterized by mud, and every good course is supposed to have a nice mud bog to ride or run through. The course at Balto Seppala had a deep mud pit in one corner, where most riders jumped off their bikes and sank up to their knees running through it.
"Three days ago, your tires would cut right to the bottom and you could ride right through," said Will Ross. "Today, it was about a foot and a half of peanut butter."
Riders were forced to dismount and carry their bikes over two hurdles at one point on the course, and the obstacle served as a good indicator of skill. The best competitors performed the dismount nimbly, dancing over the hurdles, and got back on their bikes without losing pace.
While Saturday's conditions were muddy by Alaska standards, the race didn't live up to what true cyclocross fans are used to in Europe or the Lower 48.
"Anchorage is really a place that doesn't have a lot of mud, because our soil is so thin," Bruce Ross said. "The toughest part of this course today is the fact that the grass is very wet, and it's like riding on Velcro."
Sunny weather tends to dry out courses in a hurry, so the really nasty, muddy conditions tend only to occur on days it rains or snows during the race.
"Last year, our season finale race was in snow, and it was actually very fun," Bruce Ross said. "Cyclocross races are never canceled. There's no such thing as a weather-out."
Next week's race is scheduled to take place at Devenport Fields, and details are available at arcticcross.org.
Reach Jeremy Peters at email@example.com or 257-4335.
ArcticCross race No. 2
Beginner -- 1) John Farr, 6 laps, 44 minutes, 49 seconds; 2) Luke Jager, 6, 47.03; 3) David Henke, 6, 47.26; 4) Eric Flanders, 6, 49.10; 5) Oscar Lage, 6, 50.07. Masters (40 and older) -- 1) Mike Howard, 6, 46.41; 2) Darin Marin, 6, 46.59; 3) Tony Brugliera, 6, 47.36; 4) Doug Karet, 6, 47.39; 5) Greg McDuffie, 6, 48.05. Open -- 1) Will Ross, 8, 54.08; 2) James Stull, 8, 55.06; 3) Carey Grumelot, 8, 55.07; 4) Tim Berntson, 8, 55.48; 5) Josh Chelf, 8, 56.03.
Beginner -- 1) Andrea Kettler, 5, 46.05; 2) Ellie Mitchell, 5, 47.19; 3) Leah Zumwalt, 5, 51.29; 4) Karen Morrison, 5, 55.21; 5) Tania Dennis, 4, 45.01. Masters (40 and older) -- 1) Shannon Titzel, 6, 52.38; 2) Stacy Kolstad, 5, 47.48; 3) Janus Reyes, 5, 49.20; 4) Rose Theisen, 5, 51.43; 5) Rebecca Moore, 4, 46.48. Open -- 1) Amber Stull, 6, 47.2; 2) Laura Gardner, 6, 47.29; 3) Jessie Donahue, 6, 47.35; 4) Kristy Smith, 6, 49.31; 5) Nylene Warner, 6, 49.36.