Friday, October 5, 2012

The Gran Prix of Gloucester

Cycling magic.  A special kind of beauty it is -- infused with epic tales, and a wicked dose of panache.

Stir the cycling cauldron long enough and eventually you'll see it -- a mysterious mist rising off the top, where story-telling meets the bicycle.  Over time, this magic can become the spice and color of your cycling adventures both on and off the bike.

I love this transformative state of hard riding, amazing scenery, and passionate people.  And so last weekend I spent two wonderful days totally immersed in this world!  On Saturday and Sunday morning, I put on my waterproof L.L. Bean boots, packed my cow bell in a shoulder bag (more on that later), took the train from Boston's North Station to Gloucester, Massachusetts...

...and attended the two-day Gran Prix of Gloucester, the opening event of what's known as the "Holy Week of New England Cyclocross".  Holy Week begins with the Gloucester races and then concludes seven days later at the Providence Cyclocross Festival in Rhode Island.  Two major American racing events, just 85 miles apart.  "Holy Week" indeed!

Cyclocross is so elemental and exquisite, a kind of punk rock of cycling that makes no sense whatsoever and is perfectly logical all at the same time, held together by a friendly and dedicated community.  Take a road bike, swap out slick tires for knobby tires, ride it on a course of dirt, mud, sand, asphalt, stairs, and hurdles that force you to carry your bike nearly as much as you ride it, add in cow-bell ringing fans, plenty of beer, coffee, clam chowder, and nasty weather and you have the perfect recipe for New England cyclocross.

Cyclocross' spiritual home is Belgium, where races are attended by tens of thousand of fans cheering their favorite professionals through the cold, rain, and snow.  Clapping with gloved hands doesn't work very well, so that's where the cow bell comes in!

Here in New England our weather has an epic quality all its own, allowing the sport of cyclocross to settle so perfectly in our beautiful corner of the U.S.

Some fans still enjoy channeling that old Belgian and Flemish magic though:

Gloucester's internationally-renowned cyclocross weekend takes place at the seaside Stage Fort Park.

Each day began early in the morning with "amateur" races, and then the pros took the field for UCI Category 1 races (elite professional competitions) later that afternoon.  I put "amateurs" in quotes because those racers are plenty serious.  But they're having a great time too, totally immersed in bike culture.  Here's a nice photo I took of the Category 3 men's field, just before they launched off the start line:

The cyclist in the center with the curly moustache is a great example of a cyclocross racer.  I didn't meet him personally, but from the picture alone he appears focused, while radiating an individual-spirit through a unique sense of style that totally works.

Cycling magic.

Now, be sure not to confuse cyclocross with BMX or mountain biking.  Cyclocross bikes are modified road bikes...

...with knobby tires, cantilever brakes, tight gearing, and the cables moved to the upper part of the top tube so that you can carry it on your shoulder.  These alterations attempt to make the cyclocross bicycle ride smoother over dirt and mud, but it still doesn't work as well as its designed-for-dirt cousin, the mountain bike.  Cyclocross bikes sure are beautiful though.

A mountain bike has big tires on smaller wheels, flat handlebars, suspension, and a gigantic range of gears.  It makes perfect sense to ride it on a dirt path.  But a cyclocross bike?  Well just kind of.

Things that only kind of make sense but are beautiful anyway = cycling magic!

Right in the middle of Gloucester's cyclocross course is a food and bicycle festival.  You can grab a cup of piping-hot chowder, check out the latest in cutting-edge technology at Shimano's sponsor tent...

...and then swap cycling spells with the wheel wizards at Mavic.

All the while, the racers speed by, battling it out on the labyrinthine course...

An announcer calls the race while running to different areas of the course with his wireless microphone, sometimes claiming the high ground on the bandstand:

Style points count in cyclocross (well not really, but the fans will cheer louder), like hoping up the steps without dismounting.

But not if it causes you to loose, so watch out!

The elite pro women's race began on both Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m., and the men's at 3:30 p.m.  There's no "Grand Champion" at the end of the weekend.  If you win on Saturday, then you are the Gloucester Gran Prix Day 1 winner.  And if you win on Sunday, then you win Day 2.  Simple!  After all, two winners are better than one, right?

Day 1 one was characterized by grey skies, cool breezes, and muddy conditions.  Excellent cyclocross weather.

Day 1 elite women's race:

At the start line

And they're off!

Eventual Day 1 winner Helen Wyman climbs the steps

British National Champion Helen Wyman wins

Day 1 elite men's race:

Lining up to start

Photographers awaiting the finish

Jeremy Powers wins

Day 2 weather was murky and rainy.  Magical cyclocross weather!

Day 2 elite women's race:

Rain at the start

Helen Wyman wins again, here being interviewed

Day 2 elite men's race:

It's amazing how fast they speed off the start line

I didn't get a photo of winner Ryan Trebon crossing the line, because he was happily slapping all our hands when he rode down the final stretch!  Very cool.

After the last race on Sunday was complete and winners honored, the sponsors cleared their tents, cars topped with bicycles rolled out of the parking lot, and the Gloucester Gran Prix 2012 came to an end.

But not really...

Because the cyclists, fans, sponsors, and vendors are only part of this incredible race. 

The timeless New England landscape we celebrated that weekend will always remain...

...along with memories of two special days where the cold breeze, grey skies, and rain were transformed into something truly beautiful.

Walking along the harbor on my way back to the train station, the sun's rays finally appeared on the far horizon...

...and departing fans recalled their favorite moments of cycling magic.

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