As a cyclist, late autumn is traditionally a transition time. The short sleeves of summer are long packed away and endless calibration between under-dressing and over-dressing makes for a good distraction from the anticipation of mounting the studded tires. Luckily, there is a growing segment of racing that serves as an even better distraction: cyclocross.

Cyclocross is essentially racing a road bike on the dirt. To make things more interesting, obstacles and “run-ups” are included in the course. Obstacles force racers to dismount their bikes and jump over barriers. The goal when racing over obstacles is to maintain speed, so dismounting, jumping over the barrier, and mounting the bike again are all done at a sprint. A run-up is a steep section of trail or maybe some steps that require cyclists to “shoulder” their bike and sprint up the incline.

If you are a cyclist in just reasonable shape you should give racing cyclocross a shot. And if you are not a cyclist but are looking for a fun way to spend a cool autumn day with the family, you should consider attending a local race.

This year is my first year as a racer. I’m a rookie and so far, I’ve really enjoyed racing.

You don’t need to be in crazy great shape to give cyclocross racing a shot. It’s hard because it’s so aerobic, but racing in the “rookie” class, your race is only 30 minutes. The course spreads out quickly and once you get your pace set you end up racing against the few people around you. So you needn’t worry about embarrassing yourself as the pack leaves you behind, because you’ll have company. I ride a lot, but I certainly don’t ride fast, so for me, racing cyclocross is a huge effort and a worthy goal. Even as I come in near the end of the pack, I’m having a lot of fun and it’s really rewarding just to finish.

You don’t need a fancy bike for cross racing. The bike I am racing this year is an 18-year-old road bike. Any bike that can take about 35 mm wide knobbie tires will probably work. Traditionally, cyclocross riders race drop-bar bikes, but many ride mountain bikes and flat-bar bikes, especially in the rookie class.

A big part of what makes cyclocross fun is the variety of the surfaces that you race on. A typical course might have some grass sections, open field or dirt sections, some single track, a bit of double track, maybe a smattering of pavement, and at least one obstacle and one run-up. Often, a wide open space is marked off to create a tight-cornered maze-like section.

Being good at cyclocross requires agility, speed, good sprinting, good bike handling skills on a variety of surfaces, and huge aerobic capacity. But what’s neat is that you can jump in as a rookie and have a bunch of fun as you improve all of these skills. This is not a sport that requires expertise or elite fitness to compete at the rookie level.

That said, I benefitted hugely from some pre-season cyclocross clinics put on by the local bike club, Spokane Rocket Velo. This was a four-class clinic that taught bike handling skills for cyclocross. Among other things, I got the basics on dismounting the bike at speed, running over obstacles, mounting the bike at speed and how to do run-ups. The classes are taught by local cyclocross racers. The classes are informal and not intimidating in the least. It’s a great introduction to the sport and to the local cyclocross culture. The men and women who race and put these races on do it because they love it and they like to bring more people into the sport. It’s a fun and supportive crowd to mix with.

As a spectator, watching cyclocross is much different than watching a road race. Most road races are spread out over long courses, so as a spectator you might only see the competitors fly by just once. With cyclocross, the courses are comparatively much more compact so you see a lot more action from a single vantage point. Additionally, as long as you stay out of the way, you can walk around the course and find the best spot. For example, picnicking by a run-up or a fast corner is a great way to enjoy a meal outdoors on a crisp fall day. It’s like live-action lunch theatre in the woods. And it’s free.

If it’s raining or snowing, watching cyclocross is even more fun. Bundle up; bring a thermos of something warm, and enjoy watching the mud bath.

This year’s local cyclocross series is about half-way done. Usually, races are on Sundays. The next race is at 7-mile in Riverside State Park on November 2nd. You can find the schedule online at the Emde Sports website (emdesports.com). I don’t know why these races are not better publicized. As a rookie racer, they’re a blast, and as a spectator, they are a no-brainer: easy no-money-fun for the whole family.

John Speare grew up and lives in Spokane. He rides his bike everywhere. Check out his blog at http://cyclingspokane.blogspot.com.