Expert cyclocross racer Jeff Johnston gathered his Boneyard Cycling teammates halfway through a recent preseason practice ride. They had just ridden on makeshift trails featuring patches of loose, baseball-size gravel. One hill was so steep most had to dismount and shoulder their bikes as they scrambled to the top. As the team was about to hit a heart rate-popping interval workout, Johnston reminded them why.

“This is a good way to reconnect with all the suffering we’re going to experience this cyclocross season,” Johnston said with a grin.

The half-dozen teammates, wearing skull-and-crossbones-themed Boneyard jerseys, let out groans of acknowledgment. These cyclocross riders — totaling around 60 team members — have raced in previous seasons against a dozen local teams and hundreds of people. They know that the sweet post-race high comes at an aerobic threshold-straddling price. And with a month until the first cyclocross race in Central Oregon — Mt. Bachelor Sports Education Foundation’s Thrilla Cyclocross Series begins Sept. 6 — every extra second the team spends in the “pain cave” is one more second they can draw from their reserves during a race.

“Victory in cyclocross is mostly achieved by going deeper into the pain cave than someone else,” Johnston, 36, said. “Most people ride at 90 percent of their potential, so being able to access that cave is key.”

The art of portage, heckling

To only speak of cyclocross in terms of pain is to betray the festive atmosphere of the races. Modern cyclocross courses, which are taped-off chutes, snake through parks or farmland and feature stretches of grass, dirt, sand pits and, weather permitting, plenty of mud. Barriers and steep hills, which require racers to dismount their bikes and “port” them — derived from the French word porter or to carry — are present in every race. Spectators and post-race competitors clang cowbells and drink beer while hurling creative insults at competitors, who are often wearing themed costumes.

Bart Bowen, a retired professional cyclist, recalled a heckle from the crowd that always makes him grin:

“Oh no, the roadie fell down!”

The heckle is ironic. While road cycling is the first discipline Bowen mastered, the 50-year-old has won national competitions in road, mountain bike and cyclocross. But a high level of experience doesn’t mean being immune to spills in a cyclocross race. The owner of Bowen Sports Performance competes in around 10 local cyclocross races each season, which in Central Oregon runs to late November. On top of coaching the Deschutes Brewery Cyclocross Team, Bowen, a former architect, also co-designs the Boneyard Cycling’s Ride Hard Finish Thirsty race and MBSEF’s Thrilla Cyclocross Series. The latter is held at the Bend Athletic Club and attracts about 200 competitors each week through Oct. 4. Because of the courses’ circuitous designs — which competitors loop for 30 minutes to an hour depending on their racing category — spectators can pack in closely, creating gauntlets of good will and clanging cowbells, the latter of which is a holdover from cycling’s European history of races that twist through Alpine cow country.

Race roots

Cyclocross is a discipline that is nearly as old as the bicycle itself. While it was known as other names such as “mud plugging,” cyclocross became popular in Europe when the 1910 winner of the Tour de France attributed the off-road cross training to his success, according to a Bicycle Trader Magazine article.

Marcel Russenberger, 58, competes in every Central Oregon cyclocross race that he can. A three-time participant in the Tour de France in the early 1980s, he also placed fifth in the 1985 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Munich, Germany. The Switzerland native, who lives in Bend and races on the Deschutes Brewery Cyclocross Team, said he enjoys the camaraderie and the “little private battles between the teams.”

“It’s a healthy rivalry. The loser buys the beer, but you always end up having one,” Russenberger said.

The former professional cyclist attributes cyclocross’ growing popularity with its narrow, circuitous courses. Even if newbies get dropped by the main group, the constant lapping of contestants means they remain in the thick of the action, Russenberger added. His daughter, Sophie Russenberger, 20, is a former Oregon junior cyclocross champion. The two appear at cyclocross races together. His daughter continues to push his racing, even if he can’t keep up with her.

“It’s nice to pass on to her what I have learned (about cyclocross),” Russenberger said.

Bowen also enjoys witnessing racers develop skills in the hybrid cycling discipline.

“It’s interesting to see who excels at cyclocross,” Bowen said. “There is the technical part when the races are muddy and slippery. Power isn’t necessarily the king; you have to have a balance between handling your bike, putting out good power and knowing when to use and not use the power. There are some sections of a course where if you go into it at full throttle, you’re going to crash. If you back it off a little and recover, you might actually go faster through that section.”

Cyclocross bicycle frames are more compact than road bike frames yet allow wider, knobbier tires to fit on road-size wheels. This setup allows racers to hammer flat portions like road cyclists yet tear through hairpin turns and rocky patches like mountain bikers. Most cyclocross racers are more adept in one of the two disciplines, which can account for some dramatic race-time disparities.

“In a cyclocross race, you can definitely tell a roadie from a mountain biker,” said Boneyard member Lisa Gentz, shortly before practice began. “Roadies will fall right in front of us on the technical portions while corning in dirt or gravel. And then they’ll leave us in the dust on the flats.”

Gentz, 36, who has mountain biked since she was a teenager, is entering her sixth cyclocross season. While the sport attracts cyclists from across the spectrum of disciplines and ability, Gentz said virtually all racers and spectators are supportive. Teammate Sarah Hash, 34, is entering her second cyclocross season. She said in contrast to road racing, the consequences of injury in cyclocross are lower due to the softer course surfaces. “You won’t rip off all your flesh or break your bones if you crash,” she said.

This convenience draws people who are new to bike racing. A mix of breweries, bike shops and non-cycling-related enterprises sponsor teams, which are a hodge-podge of devoted competitors and cyclists who are drawn by cyclocross’ party environment. “Beer send-ups,” where spectators hand racers cups of beer, is not uncommon.

“The camaraderie is awesome,” she said. “You’re encouraged to talk a lot of s---.”

A new cycling mainstay

After a blip of popularity in the United States in the 1970s, cyclocross’ popularity was mostly relegated to Europe until New England, always a cyclocross hotbed, revitalized American interest in the 1990s. In Oregon, the River City Bicycles Cyclocross Crusade series was founded in the mid-90s. The Portland-based event grew into a series; its third stop in Bend began catalyzed local love of the sport in the early 2000s. In recent years, the Cross Crusade has attracted about 1,000 Bend racers.

Laura Gabanski, 60, joined her Boneyard teammates in a grassy yard on Bend’s west side to practice jumping over some 12-inch barriers Johnston had set up. She began racing road when she was 48. When she entered her first cyclocross race eight years later, Gabanski never looked back.

“Cyclocross is so much fun. Cyclocross is like an amusement park for cyclists. It’s very challenging, too,” Gabanski said, adding that she has not suffered any serious injuries. “There are some really difficult course sections that you don’t think you can do during warm-up, but during the race you’ll nail it — it’s really exhilarating. You have to be aware all the time. Cyclocross engages your whole brain.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816,