As I found myself flipped over my handlebars in my first race — and then smashed against a wooden course marker in my second race — I couldn’t help but laugh.
The same way you might laugh when faced with a black diamond slope, a nearly vertical ascent to a sought-after summit, or the realization that you’re only halfway through your marathon and you can no longer feel your legs.
Trying Something New
That’s how I felt as a newbie in Oregon’s cyclocross scene back in 2016 — a classic Oregon experience that finds its greatness in the fabulous mix of fun, competition and camaraderie. It’s grown from a smallish scene in Oregon about a decade ago to a huge underground culture that attracts thousands at some of the larger races.
From Portland to Corvallis, Bend to Ashland and many places in between, ‘cross attracts competitors of all ages, shapes and sizes. There’s a category for zippy teens, wizened 50-plus “masters” and 200-plus pound “Clydesdales,” along with single-speed racers and Lycra-clad everyday road warriors. In my beginner category there were soccer moms in flat pedals like me, as well as mountain bikers or road racers trying something new. And for the younger set, there were plenty of Junior-category racers too — starting from toddlers on glider bikes to teens that were superstars in their own right. That’s what makes it such a family-friendly sport — literally everyone in the family can ride, and my boys rode a few races too.
As I talked with the other beginner women at the starting line at the Grand Prix Brad Ross race and season’s first Portland Trophy Cup event — two of Portland’s most popular race series — they admitted they were all there to face their fears. Most, like myself, were dipping their toe into the sport after they’d been part of the action on the sidelines, cheering on their significant others. Many take advantage of the free beginners’ clinics held early in the season, where pros teach the cyclocross basics: dismounting and remounting when crossing a barrier, cornering tight turns in loose gravel and dirt (often mud), managing steep uphills and downhills and more.
Shaping the Culture
Molly Cameron is one of those mentors who is ubiquitous in the local ‘cross scene. A veteran racer and owner of Portland Bicycle Studio bike shop, she runs two elite women’s bike racing teams and has spent the early part of past seasons leading beginner clinics several nights per week in Portland. Her constant advice: “Just keep going forward and try to stay upright,” no matter what. Molly is also transgender, born a man but identifying as a woman. She’s made national headlines in past years as a vocal activist for equality in bike racing; thanks to her, women racers’ prize payouts are equal to men’s in Oregon, and public awareness of trans issues has increased.
In 2022 Cameron placed second at the world-famous SBT GRVL race in Colorado, making a statement on her personal Instagram page that “inclusion means getting used to seeing people in races/events that challenge cisgendered, body size, body-ability and racial typical norms y’all are used to seeing.”
A Sport that Welcomes All
While Molly was gracious enough back in 2016 to lend me a top-of-the-line carbon fiber Norcross bike from Blue Bicycles, her team’s major sponsor, newbies don’t necessarily need fancy custom gear to get into the sport. Don’t have a ‘cross bike with thick, knobby tires and fancy disc brakes? No problem. Not feeling the fitted gear? Come as you are. If you run into a mechanical problem, just pull up to the pit and a course marshal will help you with a spare bike or tire to get you through the race. It’s accessible enough for novices like me, yet challenging enough for elite racers who work at sharpening their skills and honing their strategy to improve lap after lap, course after course, season after season.
It’s addicting. After my first race I found myself reliving the pure adrenaline rush of flowing downhill at rocket speed, brakes applied less and less each time, only to quickly switch gears and prepare to swing off my bike to push it up a sickeningly steep hill that seemed to last for eternity. The raucous crowd at the top, with their cowbells and lines like “I don’t even know you but you’re so awesome” kept a smile plastered on my face that carried me well into the next lap.
The vibe is another reason to love ‘cross: It’s a happy fall tradition for families like mine. My boys are used to yelling “Go Daddy” while they run alongside the course, hot waffles and cowbells in hand, me with my beer. Nowadays, they yell “Go Mommy.”
If You Go:
Whether you’re a spectator (or heckler), curious onlooker or first-time racer, here are several top races in Oregon to check out:
- MBSEF Thrilla Series, Bend, September
- Twilight Cyclocross, Springfield, September
- Portland Trophy Cup, Portland International Raceway, September-October
- Cyclocross Crusade, Ranier, Cascade Locks, Mollala, Barton, October-November
For details, check out the Oregon Bike Racing Association.