GRANTS PASS — Sheri Masessa powers her bicycle across the grass at Tom Pearce Park only to bog down in thick playground sand that swallows her tires.
She dislodges her right foot from the pedal and throws her leg over to ride sidesaddle until she hops off, grabs the bike frame and hops over a 2-foot barrier lined with hecklers.
Then it’s down the path, down a staircase and up the road, where a large LED clock reminds her that, yes, this is a cyclocross race and, yes, her screaming thighs have 23 minutes of abuse to go.
And she can’t stop laughing.
“It doesn’t seem like a race,” Masessa says. “You can’t really take it seriously when you’re jumping over barriers, going through mud and falling down. I consider it pure fun.”
That’s the point behind cyclocross, a sport that features obstacle course-style bicycle races that keep riders in shape and in stitches throughout the fall cyclocross season.
This race is part of the Southern Oregon Outlaw Cyclocross Series organized by Cycle Analysis in Jacksonville. The mix of part mountain biking, part street biking and part crazy plays out during five fall Saturdays where riders with various types of bikes hurtle themselves through tight-packed courses while racing against each other, the clock or sometimes just themselves.
“I’m not very competitive,” says Masessa, an occupational therapist by day. “I like the socializing.”
Three races remain in the annual five-race series, with events Saturday, Nov. 3 and Saturday Nov. 10 at Red Lily Vineyards outside of Jacksonville, then it’s back to Grants Pass and the finale Nov. 17 at Tom Pearce Park.
Cyclocross traces its roots to Europe in the 1930s when bicycle racers looking for some off-season training met in places such as fields and vineyards to pedal through the grounds and the elements. The discipline, or lack thereof, caught on and spread among cyclists looking to stay in shape, simply have fun or both.
In the Outlaw series, courses are laid out over about a mile or 1.5 miles on asphalt, dirt, grass, sand, mud and even snow if available. Park features such as stairs and the occasional playground structure come into play, as do artificial obstacles for riders to jump over while shouldering their bikes, which is why cyclocross often is called the steeplechase of cycling.
Riders master the art of stepping off a pedal and coasting into jumps without losing momentum, because stopping and starting at each feature wastes time and energy. Riders are parceled into divisions based on ability and interest.
Entrants power through the course as often as possible in either 30- or 45-minute intervals, plus one lap after the clock times out.
The bikes are often modified street-racing bikes with larger rims and tires to handle the slippery features of the courses.
And if you’re not pedaling, you’re dissing those who are.
“You’re supposed to heckle, make jokes and say funny things,” Masessa says. “That’s how you cheer in cyclocross.“
Peter Lunoak says he fell into cyclocross through “peer pressure.” Lunoak had raced in most of the cycling disciplines and believes cyclocross is the funnest race on two wheels.
“The races are short, and the courses are short, so there’s lots of opportunity for spectating and being spectated,” Lunoak says. “It’s punishing physically, and there’s nothing like it.”
While cyclocross events are full of fun and folly, the Outlaw series is interwoven with a thread of sadness.
Nicholas Jensen, the son of Cycle Analysis owner Jane Jensen, drowned in the Illinois River July 14, 2000. Jensen was riverside when Josephine County Search and Rescue teams discovered her son’s body, and she endured the sight of rescuers tossing a grappling hook into the water in an attempt to recover his body.
“They didn’t really have any equipment,” Jensen says. “I did not like the grappling hook. I just stood on the side of the river watching and thinking, there’s got to be another way.”
The outlaw series was already in swing, and Jensen turned the races into fundraisers for the county’s SAR teams. They have raised more than $100,000 in the process.
“When you take something horrible and turn it around and make something good out of it, it makes it better,” she says.
Masessa was introduced to the sport by her now-husband, Dave Masessa.
Despite her insistence that she’s not out there to win but to have fun, she did both Saturday at Tom Pearce Park while racing in the top division.
“I’m the only woman in my division,” Masessa says. “I just have to finish to win, so I won. That helps.”
For more information, see www.cycleanalysis.net/races/outlaw-cyclocross-series/ or www.facebook.com/Cycle-Analysis-140419006727/.