A donkey won’t be in attendance, but cyclocross is returning to the Tri-Cities.
Tri-City enthusiast Andrew Nelson is hoping to revive the festive atmosphere of the annual Donkey Cross race that wound its way through Port Coquitlam’s Castle Park for several years as part of the old Vancouver Cyclocross Coalition’s series of races around Metro Vancouver.
But the pause in organized activities caused by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 proved too high a hurdle for many of those events to overcome, leaving racers bereft of competition but for a few scattershot races put on independently.
Nelson’s newly created Thrashers Bike Club hopes to help get the sport back on course locally with three events this fall: two at Upper Coquitlam River Park on Oct. 1 and 15, and another at Eagle Mountain Park on Nov. 13.
“It’s not what it once was,” said Nelson of opportunities for cyclocross racers and newcomers to the sport to stretch their legs and get mud in their teeth.
Hybrid of road and mountain biking
Cyclocross is a hybrid of mountain and road biking that started as a way for road racers in Belgium to keep fit during their off-season.
They rode from village to village and coffee shop to coffee shop, but not always sticking to the roads as they sought the quickest, most direct route, so they could get out of the region’s notorious cold, wet winter weather.
To traverse the muddy farmers’ fields, they put wider, treaded tires on their drop bar racing bikes and became adept as skills like powering through water-filled ditches and over obstacles like fences or downed trees.
It’s now a fully developed niche of cycling, with its own professional World Cup circuit at the top of the competitive rung and scores of local races to scratch the itch of club racers and afficitionados looking to test themselves against others and the elements.
It's a party
But mostly it’s a party, Nelson said.
Cyclocross may provide some serious racing, but the racers don’t take themselves too seriously.
Heck, the Donkey Cross got its name from the live donkey in a corral that was a featured guest at the event.
Some racers show up at the starting gate in costume, and libations being enjoyed in the compulsory beer garden often end up in the hands of riders — while they’re still racing.
“Cyclocross is just such a fun event for the cyclists and the spectators,” said Nelson, an avid road cyclist who was introduced to ‘cross five years ago. “It’s dirty. It’s muddy. There’s wacky technical features and the crowd will heckle you.”
He’s also aiming to make his events more inclusive and inviting to newcomers to the sport.
The course at Upper Coquitlam River Park will be mostly flat and wide open, with a section to run on pavement and another through the forest.
That means no big climbs to burst the lungs of riders who haven’t been piling up the kilometres through the summer while still providing plenty of challenge for experienced racers to really push their speed.
“It’s intense. It’s short. It’s great head-to-head racing,” Nelson said. “You’re mixing it up with the competition.”
Each of the first two races will feature a full menu of men’s and women’s events for novice riders up to Elite and Masters. There are also opportunities for kids to get on the course, and even a fun family event.
Don't need a cyclocross bike
Racers don’t need to show up with a cyclocross-specific bike.
Mountain bikes are welcome, even a unicycle, but not electric-assist bikes; they’re not part of the competitive cyclocross milieu — yet.
Nelson said the growing popularity of gravel and all-road bikes, which provide much of the performance of a lightweight road bike but with wider tires, more relaxed geometry and generous gearing so riders can keep going when the pavement runs out, is fuelling new interest in cyclocross.
“They would love the party,” Nelson said of gravel riders looking to test their mettle.
How to enter
For more information, and a link to register online, go to the Thrashers Bike Club website. Registration on race day, Oct. 1, opens at 8 a.m. and the course opens for warmups a half-hour later. The first novice races begin at 9:30 a.m.