Published: Thursday, November 14, 1996
Section: Venture
Page: 12D

BY JASON L. ABLES, Special to Venture
TAKE GOBS OF MUD and mix in a variety of bicycle racers - men and women, from beginners to world-class athletes - and then set them loose on a few acres around a forest-ringed meadow.

But don't let them just ride their bikes - make them run, too, up lung-busting hills and through steep and slippery creek beds, all the while carrying their bikes on their shoulders. And every once in a while, just to make it tougher, block their path with what looks like a mini steeplechase gate, forcing them to jump over.

The results? Smiles all around because cyclocross season is open.

'''That was a riot. That was so fun,''' said a tired but happy Dave Fitzpatrick upon finishing the opening race of the Surf City Cyclocross Series.

The 24-year-old Fitzpatrick was one of more than 200 cyclists who showed up for the event late last month on Scott Creek, just north of Davenport. Looking like a mix of cross-country running and mountain biking, cyclocross is a European-born form of racing developed by road racers as a way to stay fit in winter.

Laid out to emphasize both riding and running, cyclocross courses have obstacles - such as logs, creeks and gates - to force riders off their bikes.

Traditionally the bikes themselves are very close to road bikes, the main difference being knobby tires for better traction in dirt and mud, and cantilever brakes for stronger braking and mud clearance. But these days a lot of people just ride their mountain bikes.

The cyclists race both against each other and the clock. Cyclocross races, on a course about a mile long, are run on time, not distance. They last from 30 minutes to an hour depending on the skill level. When the leader comes across the line at the time mark, that's the bell lap, and everyone behind him finishes on the next lap.

For Fitzpatrick, it was the first time cyclocross racing, and after 30 minutes of riding, running and jumping he finished a respectable 18th of 43 in his beginners class.

And he did not even mind that at the top of an embankment on one of the six stream crossings, two of the infamous gates lay in wait at just the right spot to steal a rider's momentum.

'''That was the best part,''' he said. '''You fly through the stream. The crowd (cheering) is awesome. They keep you going.'''

Making an observation echoed throughout the day, Fitzpatrick said that regardless of his placing, just finishing and meeting the other cyclists were the real rewards.

Maria Sjoberg agreed. The 28-year-old has raced both on and off the road and works in a bike shop, but it was her first time cyclocrossing.

'''I have not seen an attitude yet,''' she said. '''Everybody is so friendly and they are out to have fun.

'''It makes me want to come back,''' she said, adding, '''In one day I made four new friends.'''

It is one of the attributes of the Surf City Series: Although the racing is physically grueling, low-key is definitely the mode.

Series organizer Jeff Clark said that's one of the main reasons people race cyclocross.

'''Though it's been gaining in popularity for the last several years,''' said Clark, ''' 'cross is quite low-key and lacking in the hard-edged competition of road racing or the hype of mountain biking.'''

The laid-back atmosphere brings out not only beginners like Fitzpatrick and Sjoberg, but seasoned racers who look forward to the friendly competition. '''Mostly what we are doing (this) for is the fun and fitness and camaraderie,''' said longtime Surf City racer Mark Michel, a former masters division national champion and the owner of a bicycle shop.

Crowd favorite

The same day Fitzpatrick and Sjoberg raced, Shari Kain showed up and proved why she needed no introduction to the people familiar with the sport.

A former national champion and professional on the World Cup mountain biking circuit, the energetic and friendly Kain is one of the top U.S. women in cycling and seemed to be the crowd favorite.

She rode half a race with the intermediate men to warm up, then convincingly rode away with the advanced women's race.

All around the course people were yelling encouragement to her - especially the '''Sharooters,''' a group of very vocal fans including her mom and sister who chanted, '''Sharoo! Go, Sharoo!'''

The 30-year-old Kain said she likes the series because it helps her stay in shape and get ready for the next national cyclocross championship, December in Seattle.

'''It is good for winter high-intensity, to keep your body used to some anaerobic efforts,''' she said.

She added that as a woman cyclist she particularly appreciated the friendly atmosphere of Surf City.

'''For a girl, it is sometimes hard to find someone to ride with,''' she said. '''(Here, women) can find riding partners.'''

Told of Sjoberg's success making new friends, she said, '''I love that when I see that.'''

Kain is only one of the top names that have turned up at the Surf City series. In the past so have Susan De Mattei, winner of the bronze medal in mountain biking at the Atlanta Olympics; fellow Olympian Don Myrah, a four-time national cyclocross champion; and Myrah's Trek teammate Travis Brown, star of those Volkswagen ads.

Field of five or six

The series has its roots in the early 1970s. '''The first official Surf City Cyclocross Series was held in 1978, (but) it originated in 1973 on the UC-Santa Cruz campus as Uncle Charlie's Cyclocross,''' said Clark. (Uncle Charlie's Summer Camp is a nickname for the school.)

The first races, he said, had five or six riders; now, the series draws 100 to 180 per race.

'''Cyclocross seems to have a very dedicated following in the Bay Area,''' Clark said. ''' . . . The Surf City series is easily the largest cyclocross series in California (in terms of participation).''' There are, however, only three or four series in the state, he added.

This year, seven races will be held on alternate weekends through January. Although the events are run according to United States Cycling Federation guidelines, cyclists do not need to be licensed racers or have special bikes - some of the hardier and more colorful racers have been known to show up on one-speeds. Beginning racers are encouraged to give the sport a try. To that end, the series offers clinics where riders can learn the fundamentals of racing and bike preparation.

The day before their races, Fitzpatrick and Sjoberg attended a clinic taught by Michel and Clark Natwick, a four-time national champion. Looking ahead to the next race, an enthusiastic Fitzpatrick said, '''I would definitely do that again.'''


Remaining in the series are five races - Nov. 24, Dec. 15, Jan. 5, 18 and 19 - and two clinics, Nov. 23 and Jan. 4. For more information call (408) 423-5633 or (408) 423-0829, or e-mail jefco(atsign)
Copyright 1996, The San Jose Mercury News. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.