Kevin Rice’s time had come.
His sons had been biking in cyclocross races for the past few years as part of the fall Arctic Cross series. This year, Rice took the plunge himself, joining 6-year-old Simon and 4-year-old Miles to racecourses across Anchorage.
“They harassed me enough, so it was time to start trying it,” he said.
Rice was among many hundreds of cyclists, friends and families who filled the grounds around Hanshew Middle School on a bright Sunday afternoon this month.
Cyclocross is a booming sport in Anchorage, according to organizers, with an annual 20% increase in participation in the past few years.
“I started doing cyclocross and Alaska 15 years ago, and back then, we might get 30 or 40 people at a race and only a few kids,” said director of operations Chris Wrobel. “(At the Hanshew race) we had well over 150 kids alone.”
The Arctic Cross series, organized by the Arctic Bicycle Club, runs on weekends from September into mid-October.
“They’ll do them every weekend,” Rice said of his sons. “Simon does ski jumping as well, and there was a competition today and he was like ‘No, I want to go to cyclocross.’ ”
Rice, the rookie of the family, raced in the novice division.
“I’m just trying to stay alive out there,” he said. “Get some exercise and have some fun.”
Organizers say that’s part of the beauty of the tour — it’s equal parts fun for families and amateurs and challenging for those focused on competition.
“You could be a novice biker, and then you could have former Olympians going by you, and you’re all cheering each other on,” said Katie Archer, who raced in the women’s novice division. “People will have $6,000 cyclocross bikes, or mine is my eighth-grade, fully rigid bike.”
Cyclocross gained popularity as a fall and winter sport in Europe, using natural trails, pavement riding, hills and obstacles to challenge racers. At Hanshew, the races started in the schoolyard, ran on grass around the school, a portion of the parking lot and through the nearby woods. There were obstacles along the way — including a couch — that bikers had to navigate either on their bike or by hopping off and carrying their bike past.
David Henke was exposed to cyclocross in South Carolina two decades ago. When he arrived in Alaska, he got into other biking activities. But he returned to cyclocross and has seen the community grow continuously since. Henke has had a hand in helping turn the events into a festival atmosphere with the addition of speakers and music.
The evolution to a more festival-like gathering started with bike club members who had young families wanting to make it a welcoming and safe atmosphere for kids to participate in the same place as their parents. The Arctic Bicycle Club, which is a nonprofit, allows kids to compete free of charge and makes food available. They said they’ve tried to keep costs down for adults as well with a $25 race fee and a yearly membership to cover insurance.
“We decided, let’s do everything we can to lower the barrier to entry,” Wrobel said.
Rhianne Christopherson and her family got started a few years ago, and she’s become a club board member. She said her kids started with strider bikes, and soon the whole family was hooked as much by the community as the activity.
“For me, it was the feeling of being included very early on that drove me to want to come back and to bring my kids and race myself,” she said.
Once the competition shifted to the adult races, there was still plenty of activity at Hanshew as kids did free riding and people hung out on the lawn surrounding the school taking in the action.
Megan Chelf is a highly competitive biker, from mountain races to winter races and beyond. But being able to participate with her entire family and other friends with families is the “cherry on top.”
“Our commonality is we all love to race and be active and have fun, but like, making it a family thing is the best part,” she said. “It’s like a playdate for the kids while the parents get their workout in, and everybody’s healthy.”
For Henke’s son Casen McNair, it started as a “dad made me” activity. McNair has now been racing for eight years and it’s an activity he said he both enjoys and that he ambitiously competes in. He cruised to the title in the Junior Boys race and his sister Arrow won the Pedal Bike Girls race.
“I definitely have fun,” McNair said.
Ashton Curry’s debut in cyclocross came the day after a late night out celebrating his birthday. Around midnight, he agreed to join his friends, who are regular racers.
“I made some promises I can’t break,” he joked.
Curry is a veteran rider who hits the singletrack at Kincaid Park and the Hillside and has done bikepacking tours through Johnson Pass and Resurrection Pass. But despite being a cyclocross novice, he promised to join his friends in the highly competitive open class.
“They’re going to destroy me, but it’s going to be fun,” he said.
As a blend of mountain biking and road biking, cyclocross brings an assortment of riders with different backgrounds. It also brings a variety of bikes. The youngest of competitors ride striders. Henke rides in the single-speed division, and Christopherson uses her gravel bike. There’s even a unicycle category with five racers at Hanshew. The courses range from short and fairly simple for kids to rangy and challenging with more offroad features for experienced riders.
“The courses are set up for variety,” Wrobel said.
The Arctic Cross series continues with a pair of races this weekend: Saturday at Harvard Park in Government Hill and Sunday at Service High. There’s a night race at Kincaid Park on Oct. 7, and the season winds up with a race on Oct. 14 at Hilltop Ski Area.
While younger riders have been the driving force for much of the sport’s growth locally, organizers say riders from Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula come to Anchorage to join the series.
“It’s one of those environments where you can come from mountain biking, road biking or be new to biking and feel included amongst everyone,” Christopherson said.