Rock & Roll: WSCXGP

The party’s on at NorCal’s biggest cyclocross event

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Cruising down the American River Bike Trail behind Cal Expo in August of 2012, Matthew Hargrove and his then 8-year-old son Jack heard the distant sounds of punk rock blaring from an empty field. A small group of people was gathered there with bicycles. Intrigued, the father and son decided to check out what the group was up to out in the middle of nowhere. As they rode up to the fellow cyclists, Hargrove recalls, they were greeted with, “Hey! You’re here for cyclocross!”

Having never heard of “cyclocross,” a sport that blends road- and mountain-biking with criterium racing, Matthew and Jack decided to stick around.

“Before we even stopped our bikes, we had people who were happy that we were joining them,” Hargrove says. “That was how this all started. That small group was putting together free cyclocross races just to get people excited about it.”

The following week, Hargrove and his son were back out in the field with their new friends. Soon they were volunteering during newly organized cyclocross events, known then as GHETO races, which stood for “Go Hard Every Time Out.” As an avid record collector, Hargrove began bringing his favorite vinyl to spin for the cyclists during the dusty competitions.

Six years ago at the GHETO races, Hargrove met professional cyclocross athlete Emily Kachorek, her husband Pete Knudsen and race organizer Marty Woy. Together, the four would later form the Northern California Cyclocross Association and organize the first West Sacramento Cyclocross Grand Prix, a homegrown cycling race now in its fourth year that has developed into one the largest cyclocross races on the West Coast.

“That little core group of people are part of this huge international race we’re putting on,” says Hargrove, now WSCXGP race director. Jack occasionally takes over DJ duties.

“It was DIY,” Hargrove says. “We weren’t in a garage putting a band together, but we were out in a field putting races together. As we get to higher levels, we’re trying to figure out ways to keep that spirit alive within our race. So, we’re insistent that we have local music playing there, and that’s a nod to our DIY roots.”

Cycle culture

Heard from a distance across the Tower Bridge, echoes of upbeat punk rock music battle against the rowdy sounds of cowbells as they swell and fade to a steady stream of boisterous cheers. What sounds like an all-out party happening down by the river is actually last year’s WSCXGP.

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Digging in the sand at WSCXGP III. Photo courtesy of Jeff Namba

Each year, hundreds of cyclocross athletes from across the country are invited to suit up and pedal hard on a 2-mile mixed-terrain course right along the city’s River Walk Park. As with all cyclocross tracks, this course makes use of the park’s natural features, so riders will race through the difficulties of fine sand, speed up on paved roads, adjust to the track’s many loose and hairpin turns, and overcome obstacles—a cyclocross-course component where riders hop off their bikes and carry them over barriers before hopping back onto their saddles to brave the course ahead.

Cyclocross tests the aerobic endurance of each rider throughout its course. It’s a sport for men and women, amateurs and professionals. Even kids even get in on the fun during WSCXGP.

Organized and co-hosted by the city of West Sacramento, the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates and, of course, the Northern California Cyclocross Association, the WSCXGP kicks off cyclocross season, which runs from September through January.

For the first time this year, the WSCXGP is recognized as one of 22 Union Cycliste Internationale-sanctioned races in the United States, and it’s one of few that provide an equal prize package for women and men—with the largest women’s cash prize in California. It’s also the first year it’s recognized as a USA Cycling Pro Cyclocross race.

These two official titles mean professional athletes can now earn points to improve their international ranking when competing at other UCI or USAC races around the country and abroad. As this grassroots race gears up for the weekend, professional cyclists from Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and throughout California have already registered to compete.

How she rides

On a warm Sunday evening at Squid Bikes’ headquarters located on 14th Avenue, co-owner and pro-rider Emily Kachorek sits comfortably on a gray couch inside her shop as she cracks open a cold La Croix.

Kachorek and her Squid team, which also has members in Texas and Massachusetts, just returned from competing for the Qiansen Trophy in China, where she placed third both race days out of 35 female competitors who represented countries including Belgium, Japan and Latvia. Kachorek, who’s been an active cyclocross racer since 2011, is currently ranked No. 64 in the world.

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Emily Kachorek is ranked No. 64 in the world in her sport. Photo courtesy of Jason Perry

Having traveled from the East to West Coast and around the globe, Kachorek is proud to see how quickly the WSCXGP race has grown in four years.

“This is one of the top events in the country, and I’ve been to a lot of them,” she says. “In terms of it really being a celebration and a party that’s more than just a bike race, it’s one of the best in the country.”

This year, Kachorek will represent her Squid team at the WSCXGP and compete in the Women’s Elite race to scoop up some UCI points before the crew travels to compete in Boulder, Colo., and then off to Japan.

With years of training, traveling and competing on a national and international scale, Kachorek says the sport never ceases to present new challenges, such as adjusting her tactics during cold weather races (she was born and raised in sunny San Diego). For Kachorek, the ultimate reward is motivating and inspiring others to hop on a cross bike and try their best.

“It’s hard no matter what,” she says. “Just riding around the course is hard. The professionals are going to ride it faster and may look prettier when they do it, but everyone has the experience [that] cyclocross is a hard thing to be doing. Everyone’s there to cheer you on and it’s perfectly acceptable to stop and rest—and someone might even grab you a beer.”

Par for the course

Five years ago, Ashley Fruhwirth jumped right into cyclocross without any prior experience, she admits. The energetic, bright-eyed 28-year-old, who sports fuzzy cat ears on her bike helmet, loves to take any woman or child with an interest in the sport on a ride through some of her favorite trails, because that’s just how she rolls.

“Serious guys on the trail will crack a smile. The ears brighten people’s days,” Fruhwirth says. “I want people to know you can take your sport seriously and have fun, and that’s where I’m coming from. That’s what I want people to know about cyclocross.”

But Fruhwirth says she wasn’t always the motivated go-getter. She speaks openly about her darkest year, in 2015, when she fell into depression and turned to alcohol to cope. When she decided to get sober and healthy again, cyclocross was her conduit.

“It was February 2016 when I got sober and I said, ’my goal is to podium at cyclocross,’” Fruhwirth says. “I kept this goal in my head, and everyone was so supportive and really there for me through the darker times, even when I didn’t ride my bike.”

She set a couple more goals for herself that year, including a vow to ride 3,000 miles, which she surpassed by the thousands. She also accomplished her initial target to podium, or place, at a cyclocross race by tying for third place during a Sacramento cyclocross competition. Ultimately, there was a tie-breaker and Fruhwirth says she was bumped to fourth place, but it didn’t matter—she did it.

“I didn’t stand up there at the award ceremony, but I worked so hard and I was so proud, and points-wise it was a tie for third,” Fruhwirth says. “I have changed so much emotionally and as a person, and even in my weight. I was so happy. So it didn’t matter that I wasn’t standing up there—I felt like a winner.”

Throughout her years competing in cyclocross, Fruhwirth usually races in the women’s C category, where riders go hard on the multi-terrain course for 30 minutes. This year at the WSCXGP, she wants to up her game, so she registered for the women’s B category, which races for a total of 45 minutes.

As for new goals, instead of upping her mileage even further or vying for a solid podium spot, Fruhwirth, who rides for River City Velo on a bike she calls “Black Widow” because of its black and red colors, says her goal is simply to continue to have fun.

“I wish that everyone could find their own version of cyclocross because it really has changed my entire life,” she says. “I think there are people who have never even heard of it, and I want everyone to be involved if they want to be. I think a lot of people would benefit from it.”

Down by the river

High-pitched feedback fades in and out before loud and fast beats blast from behind a drum kit, drowning out the cowbells in the hands of cyclocross fans who cheer on passing competitors. The sun beats down on Sacramento hardcore band RAD as vocalist Lory Gil shouts into her microphone, at times pointing to cyclists as they whiz past a stage set directly in the middle of the course at WSCXGP.

Fans vie for shade underneath the Bike Dog Brewing Co. beer tent and listen to the music, or huddle next to one of many large outdoor fans to cool down. Toddlers run in circles during the next performance, by the band Pets. With a set filled with energetic and effects-driven guitars, Pets’ catchy beats are fit to motivate the swarms of cyclists as they start the next race.

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Cyclocross athletes remount after hopping over barriers on the course. Photo courtesy of Jeff Namba

By the end of this race day, Katherine Nash, a former Olympian originally from the Czech Republic, will take No. 1 in the Women’s Elite race, followed by Kachorek. Nash is currently ranked No. 2 in the entire world, and when she’s not splitting time between living in the Bay Area and Truckee, depending on the weather, she enjoys supporting local races like WSCXGP.

“For somebody who has to pack up a bike and fly places with it, it’s nice to load it up in the car and just drive,” Nash says.

“This year, I had a choice to go to the East Coast and race in a bigger event, but I really wanted to be part of this UCI event. We only have two weekends of UCI racing on the West Coast versus every weekend on the East Coast. So this is a really big deal. I’m excited to be a part of it again.”

Nash, who placed No. 3 at the Worlds races last year, said she looks forward to scoring UCI points in the United States before trotting off to Germany, Denmark, Belgium and—if everything works in her favor—the UCI Cyclocross World Championships, hosted in the Netherlands in January. Still, riding bikes in Sacramento is just as enjoyable, she says, because of the community that follows.

“It’s something that you can relate to with a lot of friends because cycling is accessible at different ages, and people can do it their whole life,” Nash says. “It’s not some form of exercise that only some elitists get to do.

“Everybody can ride and race a bike, and that’s what’s cool about it. Another thing is that feeling of accomplishment, and that may not be winning the race every single time, but just having a nice feeling when you crossed the finish line and you did well based on your expectations.”

ROCK & ROLL: WSCXGP was the cover story of the Sacramento News & Review
September 28, 2017.

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