xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

For one weekend, Druid Hill Park will be epicenter of North American cyclocross

Helen Wyman was just too busy.

Born in Hertfordshire, England, she started cycling as a young girl, and was competing in road racing, mountain biking and grass track (held on a grass oval) by age 14. She thought she'd never stop. But when she went to study physiotherapy at the University of Hertfordshire, she found she no longer had enough time to compete. Classes and studying got in the way.

Advertisement

During one cycling offseason, she decided to try something called cyclocross, a road cycling-mountain biking hybrid popularized in Europe.

In her first World Cup race, she finished in the top 15. Just like that, a new career path revealed itself. "I was like: 'Yeah, we'll give it a go,' " she said.

Advertisement
Advertisement

She finished her degree and, after two years of working as a physiotherapist, dedicated herself to racing full time at age 23. For the past 13 years, she hasn't looked back.

Wyman, 36, now a nine-time national champion and two-time European champion in cyclocross, will be among the expected 2,000 racers competing Saturday and next Sunday in the 12th annual Charm City Cross, a cyclocross race for professionals and amateurs held at Druid Hill Park.

Sanctioned by the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling's governing body, Charm City Cross is one of just eight events in the country that offers men and women Category 1 races that are part of the USA Cycling professional-cyclocross calendar. The event, considered Category 1 for the first time — one tier below World Cup level — will be the largest of its kind in North America next weekend, with pros earning triple the amount of points they would in a Category 2 race.

The annual Charm City Cyclocross was in full swing Sunday. And organizers not only wanted to increase the visibility of the sport to the Baltimore community, but improve the image of the city to the 5,000 spectators and racers attracted to the event--many of whom were from out of town.

The 2.8-kilometer course is a combination of pavement, flagstone walkway, grass, dirt, sand and obstacles such as wooden barriers, a sand pit, and a staircase that forces riders to dismount and carry their bikes. There are as many as four obstacles requiring dismounts per lap, and a short climb on pavement will take racers past the Mansion House at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

Advertisement

Charm City Cross, which attracted an estimated 5,000 spectators last year, also will have a food-truck festival, beer garden, announcers and kids' races, giving it more of what Wyman called a "family-friendly" atmosphere than its European counterparts.

"In America, everybody cheers for everybody, which is a really nice thing," she said. "In Europe, you'll cheer for your one rider and nobody else."

Wyman, who will return after a one-year hiatus to the race she has won eight times, is one of several internationally ranked European riders who head to the United States this time of year to prepare for the grueling European fall circuit. In addition to a third-place finish the Nittany Lion Cross (C2) in Breinigsville, Pa., she won the Jingle Cross (C2) and placed ninth in the UCI World Cup, both in Iowa City, in mid-September. She said she could have done better if it hadn't been so hot.

"It's a good way to start the season," Wyman said. "It's much more relaxed than Europe."

Tommy Bullough, general manager of Twenty20 Cycling, a bike shop in Hampden and Savage that is hosting the event, said the sport's rising popularity in the United States has helped attract some of the biggest names to Baltimore, including Wyman and 10-time national champion and world No. 3 Katie Compton.

"For the European pros, that allowed them to come to [the] States and earn some points before the European calendar really kicked off," said Bullough, who lives in Hampden. "So Helen and a bunch of pros kind of caught on to that years ago because, [first], you're a professional athlete and paid to do things on the highest level. and [second], you get an early start to your season and some points under your belt rather than waiting for peak season."

Kristopher Auer, the original owner of Twenty20 and the founder of the event 13 years ago, takes pride in having seen his event grow from its first year, when just 265 cyclists competed, to one now recognized in the international cyclocross community. It was part of his vision when he moved to Baltimore from New Hampshire in 2001 and started a clinic to introduce the sport to beginners.

"I never charged anything" for the clinic, said Auer, who trudged through 8 inches of New England snow in his first cyclocross race, in 1988, and has been hooked on it ever since. "After a year of doing that, I got all the riders together and told them what I was actually going to charge them: They needed to help me put on a cyclocross race in Baltimore."

Wyman was one of the first pros to give Auer's event a shot, reaching out to him for help with navigating an unfamiliar country. Auer found Wyman and her husband, Stefan, a host family in Baltimore and even picked them up from a race to drive them to the city. They became fast friends, and she has come back to Charm City Cross almost every year since.

It's all part of what Auer says is a strong bond within the cyclocross community. Bullough took it a step further, saying the event "became a thing in Baltimore because of Kris," whom he called one of the "early pioneers of Mid-Atlantic cyclocross."

Charm City Cross is unlikely to garner the attention some events do in Europe, where more than 100,000 spectators come out for races, and it would need a "huge financial commitment" to reach World Cup status, Auer said. But he's content with how much progress the event already has made. More than that, it's as unique as the city, volunteers and riders that have helped Auer build it.

"It's a matter of trying to put on the race that we want to put on," he said, "and riding the course that we want to ride."

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement