In the freezing drizzle, breath coming in steamy rasps, you feel the burning pain in your legs and are almost thankful for its focusing effect. Lack of oxygen has given you tunnel vision, and you feebly hang onto consciousness — and your breakfast.

You pedal on through the mud and grass, around a tree, over some barriers, through a sand pit. Suddenly, a hand shoves a shot-glass full of cheap bourbon in your face. You grab for it like a drowning person reaching for a lifesaver, gulp it down without thinking, and snag a fistful of bacon from another outstretched hand as you pass by.

Somehow fortified for the moment, you catch a glimpse of a gorilla clanging a cowbell and some crazy dude running around in a Speedo, who shouts insults at you as you roll by. “What the f–k?” you wonder in that oxygen-deprived mush that was your brain.

Rounding a slippery corner, you feel your back end fishtail as you shoot up a spray of cold water and mud. Ahead, a flight of stairs looms in the gray mist. Long past your physical limits, you still manage to unclip, jump off your bike, and hoist it over your shoulder. You stumble-slash-run up the stairs. Just as you feel like your heart is going to burst right out of your chest, you jump back on your bike, reach down for whatever shred of energy you have remaining, and push forward.

More mud, more turns, more obstacles, more gasping. Your body redlines for the 10th and 11th time. Then, finally, through the blur of the crowd, you spot the finish line and pedal across it, raising your fist in triumph as you gulp for air. You collapse in an exhausted heap of sweat, mud, blood — yes, you crashed a few times — and the smell of bacon and bourbon.

Did you win the race? Hell no! You barely survived it! But now that the misery is over and the oxygen has started to return to your body, you feel relieved and oddly exhilarated. That was the most fun you’ve had on two wheels in your entire life. THAT. WAS. EPIC!

Welcome to the world of cyclocross, the most demanding, draining, euphoric, doesn’t-take-itself-too-seriously cycling sport in the country. The craziness, the difficulty, the barriers, the bad weather, the handups, the crowds — all of it becomes terribly and irrevocably addictive. There’s absolutely nothing else like it.

Called CX for short, cyclocross was born in Belgium as a way to help road racers stay in shape during the off-season. It’s a mashup of road racing and mountain biking, beginning in the fall and running through the winter, that has now blossomed into a sport all its own. In fact, it’s on its way to becoming one of the most popular cycling sports in the world.

Cyclocross races are held on a variety of surfaces and terrain, and can include off-road trails, sand pits, gravel, dirt, mud, snow, and water—as well as an assortment of manmade barriers, stairs, logs, holes, etc. In short, it’s steeplechase on a bike. The races are exciting to watch because they consist of fast-paced, often technically difficult laps around courses that are usually only two or so miles in length.

From a racer’s perspective, cyclocross is quite frankly pretty damn painful. How much torture can you handle in an hour or less without giving up or passing out? While you compete against other racers, your biggest opponent is the voice in your head that gets louder and louder with every lap, “Quit now, this is too painful, you can’t make it, you’re going to die!”

The goal is to see how well can you ignore that voice. Can you endure a tremendous amount of pain and push through every perceived limit you have? It’s absolutely exhilarating!

Cyclocross races are run in all weather, and obviously, the conditions in fall and winter are often less than ideal. So, bad weather is perfect to practice new bike-handling skills or hone ones you already have. (It looks pretty badass to be in a skinsuit covered in mud, by the way.) To race, you’ll need to learn the fundamentals of how to dismount and remount your bike quickly, how to carry your bike over obstacles, and how to ride it in adverse conditions.

Some of the better, more experienced racers know how to use the bad conditions to their advantage. Many are also mountain bikers, so they’re prepared for all types of terrain and can handle their bikes with confidence. For the true cyclocross fanatic, the nastier, the better. The best weather, in my opinion, is a mix of rain, snow, and sleet, along with lots of slick, slimy mud.

Foul-weather skills not withstanding, cyclocross is a fairly accessible form of racing. You can show up on a mountain bike, a hybrid, or a cyclocross bike. The latter is ideal, of course, and while you can get carried away with a high-end CX bike and wheels, most don’t have the same hefty price tag as a professional road bike.

A true cyclocross bike looks similar to a road bike with drop handlebars, but most sit more upright for better handling, have a sturdier frame, and sport knobby tires that are run at lower pressures to grip the terrain better. The newer cyclocross bikes are equipped with disc brakes similar to mountain bikes for improved braking in wet weather and less chance of mud clogging up the wheels.

Especially worth commenting on are the crowds. Cyclocross events tend to be less serious and more about fun — both for the racers and the spectators. That’s why you’ll often find viewers dressed up in crazy costumes and handing out all manner of food and drink. Whiskey, tequila, eggnog, beer, bacon, licorice, pickles — you see it all. Chances are you’ll also hear some hilarious heckling from the “peanut gallery.”

Some of the best CX watching can be found here in St. Louis. The Gateway Cross Cup, hosted by Big Shark Bicycle Company, attracts elite-level racers from all over the country and will be held at Queeny Park this October. Come out and cheer — or jeer — for your favorites. Or get a bike and join the fray. Life is too short not to try this beautifully chaotic discipline of cycling.

Author: Catherine Ebeling was the fourth-place finisher in last year’s Cyclocross National Championships.
Image: Courtesy of Big Shark Bicycle Company.