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By Karen Kefauver
August 21, 2015
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Team Rock Lobster rider Ellen Sherill

Team Rock Lobster rider Ellen Sherill, who is hosting a cyclocross clinic at the new course at Bonny Doon Airport on Sunday, intently focuses during a cyclocross race, which demands a punishing combination of strength, endurance and bike handling skills. (Jeff Namba — Contributed)

It’s the time of year when hundreds of cyclists throughout the Bay Area are itching to kick off the cyclocross race season, which traditionally rolls out in fall and winter.

The niche cycling sport is so popular that events can be found nearly every weekend from September through December from Monterey to Marin. This year, riders can get a jump start on ’cross racing at the new Rock Lobster Cup on Aug. 29 at Bonny Doon Airport in Santa Cruz.

This is the first time that a race has been held on at the private airport, according event organizer Paul Sadoff.

“It’s a really nice spot,” Sadoff said of the airport. “I’ve lived in Santa Cruz since the late ’70s and it’s one of few places I haven’t been.”

Though it’s his first time organizing a race, Sadoff is no stranger to the cycling world. He is the owner and founder of Rock Lobster Cycles, a Westside Santa Cruz business that is internationally known for its custom bike frame-building, especially its cyclocross bicycles. Sadoff, 59, has raced for 16 years and formed his own cyclocross racing team.

Two of his team members, Ellen Sherrill and Caroline Dezendorf, both certified USA cycling coaches, will host a cyclocross clinic ahead of the Rock Lobster Cup at noon Sunday at Bonny Doon Airport. They’ll use a portion of the 23-acre spread and its redwood groves to show how to hold the bike on your shoulder, make tight turns and navigate bumpy slopes on cyclocross or mountain bikes. It’s also an opportunity to test out the new course prior to the race.

“This course was built specifically to be a cyclocross course,” Sherrill said via email. “That is extremely unique and unusual. Usually cyclocross races are held on a random plot of land.”

The airport owner, Rafael Ortiz, is an avid cyclist and wants to encourage his fellow riders. He recruited local experts to help him construct a permanent cyclocross course on the property and hired former Sprockets bike shop owner Phil Trissell as the land manager.

“I grew up in Santa Cruz and remember spectating a cyclocross race at UCSC in the ’80s,” Ortiz said. “It was totally extreme. It was something you could call ‘junglecross’ and it blew my mind. The Bonny Doon course is tame in comparison to those old races, but it should still be fun to watch the riders navigate the course.”

A new cyclocross course at the Bonny Doon Airport sports

A new cyclocross course at the Bonny Doon Airport sports specially built features to challenge riders for its debut at the Rock Lobster Cup on Aug. 29. (Courtesy of Rock Lobster Cycles)

The incredibly demanding sport of cyclocross is a quirky mix of mountain biking, road biking and running. It requires leaping on and off the bike at break-neck speed, charging up steep hills and dodging obstacles — and fellow racers — while sprinting on a narrow course. A typical race circuit, (a 1½- to 2-mile loop) will wind through woods, pavement and, sometimes, sand, snow, mud and ice. “Cyclocross is very challenging and you have to be good at a lot of different things,” said Sadoff, who has about 30 years of bike building under his belt. “It’s almost like a circus where you need to have a lot of talents. I am not very coordinated, but cyclocross made me a much better athlete and better cyclist. You either have to learn the skills or you wind up crashing a lot or going very slowly.”

Crashes are common in cyclocross because riders frequently hop on and off their bikes to leap over logs or carry their bikes up steep inclines, and because they pedal at ferocious speeds around the circuit course within inches of their fellow racers. Racers also have to contend with man-made hazards like steps and sets of wooden barriers. The biggest challenge locally is staying upright in deep sand pits.

There are typically crowds of supporters cheering racers through the tough spots of the course. Thanks to usually relatively short loops, fans can hover within inches of the action. They hoot, holler and ring cow bells to encourage the racers, who range from first-timers to seasoned pros.

Many racers, including Brock Dickie, a cyclocross veteran of 20 years, are thrilled to have a new race venue to test their bike skills. It’s an added bonus to get back in the saddle a little sooner than usual.

“This year, it’s exciting to have more local races,” said Dickie, who has developed superior bike handling skills during two decades of racing.

Like many locals, Dickie travels to a variety of regional cyclocross series, including Surf City Cyclo-X, Central Coast Cyclocross, Bay Area Super Prestige and SuperPro Racing. Regardless of the locale, Dickie’s interest in the sport hasn’t waned. He’s mapped out his 2015 race season and is eager to jump back into the sport he loves.

“It’s the community of people that make it worthwhile after all these years,” Sadoff said. “Its a low-key group of people having fun, and it’s one of the few cycling sports that hasn’t been co-opted by major industry yet. It’s pure fun.”

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