Commentary: I’ve been racing cyclocross for 50 years

Alan Hills celebrated his 50th season of racing cyclocross this year. In a personal essay, Hills recalls the technology, the races, and the cyclocross communities that helped him pursue his passion.

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Alan Hills is a scientist National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado as well as a lifelong bicycle racer. He began racing cyclocross during the 1970 season, and has penned an essay chronicling his time in the sport. 

Alan Hills has been racing cyclocross since the 1970 season. Photo: Terri Smith

Fifty years ago there was to be a cyclocross race in my hometown of Salem, Oregon. My big brother was going to do it so I of course was determined to do it as well. I had never trained and had no clue about the sport. The race was at Wallace Park next to the Willamette river. It was a dark, cold, and very rainy day. Racing laps were long in that era, 20 minutes or more per lap was common.

I was in the kids race which was anyone under the age of 17. The race was not the fun time I envisioned—I was super cold dying in the rain and the mud, and I finished DFL (last place). Due to the lap length and the wilderness nature of the course, a “senior” (over 18 years old) rider was assigned to sweep the course and basically ride behind the last place rider. It was me.

I was on my Schwinn Sting-Ray and still remember this guy towering behind me, riding effortlessly, as I strained mightily to maintain any momentum through the gloom, the mud and the giant mud puddles. As I pedaled through one corner I fell straight into a giant puddle, and went completely under water. I surfaced, opened my eyes, and saw the guy looking down at me. I burst into tears on the spot. He shook his head and muttered something. I finished the race and got a $2 gift certificate at Payless shoes.

15-year-old Alan Hills racing in Salem, Oregon in 1973 on a modified Schwinn Typhoon. Photo: Alan Hills

The next year I began to train on my own and through riding with the Salem Bicycle Club. I was an intermediate (age 12-14) and raced in the summer on the road. I raced cyclocross in the fall first on a Schwinn two-speed kickback Stingray that I had outfitted with a front hub, spoked to a rear rim, with burly rear tires on both the front and rear. I coerced my dad into welding a bar between the upright sections of the handlebars and used motorcycle grips. The idea behind this setup was that we were basically trying to emulate motorcycles.

In those first few years I was limited to racing in my hometown, since I had no transportation to other cities and had to ride to the races. At age 14 I met the local legend-to-be Tim Rutledge, and the two of us became lifetime friends. We pushed each other in riding and racing, and we worked to put on local races at the Minto Island dump. We truly were the blind leading the blind, having no idea how to work on bikes or how to make them fast. We trained together, and even practiced crossing streams and rivers with our bicycles, as stream crossings became popular in the 1980’s races. We were a couple of 14-year-old kids, working on bikes and spoking wheels and taking apart coaster brake hubs infusing them with “Finden racing formula” oil. We were clueless.

Hills practices his wheelies in 1974. Photo: Alan Hills

At the Minto Island races we marked the courses by tying ribbons onto trees every 75 feet or so. Kids made up half the racers for these events. One Minto race involved crossing a narrow strip of land sandwiched between ponds. In practice a racer went through the narrow strip, fell, and his bike careened off into the water and disappeared into the water. Another racer showed up with a full coverage Bell Moto Star helmet that cost twice the price of his bike and weighed perhaps five pounds.

Hills rides through the Honda Pits in Oregon. Photo: Alan Hills

In 1973 I built my first true cyclocross race bike. I started with a Schwinn Typhoon singlespeed, fitted actual motorcycle handlebars to it, put on a knobby front tire, and then added an ineffective side-pull rear brake. Then, I added gears by installing a 26-inch British wheel that contained a three-speed Sturmey-Archer hub and shifter. The gears were an improvement over the Sting-Ray, which had just one speed. The bike was the embodiment of a Frankenstein build and the entire beast happened to be painted black as well. I had no idea that weight was important in bike racing, and that my gigantically heavy bike would be a hindrance. At this point I was 15 years old. I was fit and I could really unleash in the races.

In a race at Wallace Park we lined up in a giant front row and sprinted on pavement for a left turn onto the multi-mile course. I had the holeshot and went into the corner fast. I braked and the brake cable snapped. I made the corner but then realized I had no brakes for the rest of the race since I had only a rear brake on the bike. On the hilly course it was a frightening day.

Following the sport was difficult since cycling publications were sparse and consisted of occasional black-and-white rough publications that could not quite be called magazines. The star of the Pacific Northwest cyclocross scene was Bill Hawley and I read every word I could find on him. He was featured on the cover of “Bike World” magazine hauling his women’s three-speed bike that weighed 35 pounds on his back up a creek.

Hills races on his Peugeot. Photo: Alan Hills

In the race for the Pacific Northwest Championship on my home course in Salem, Bill Hawley was in the field and he eventually got a big lead. I rode out on the course to watch him dominate. As he rode  toward my vantage point, it was clear he was nursing a flat tire. Since there was no support and laps were gigantic he was in deep trouble. He carried his bicycle up a steep muddy bank, and I could see that he was near the end of his rope. I instinctively offered my Schwinn Typhoon with the motorcycle handlebars, saying “take my bike!”

He took a look at it and let out an audible groan, and then grabbed the bike and took off at warp speed. He won the championship that day and was then interviewed afterwards. When the interview ended the reporters dispersed and he stood alone next to my bike. He then remembered the bike loan and said to me,“Kid, that is a pretty good bike.” I was over the moon, and I believed him.

In 1974 Tim Rutledge and I convinced our parents to take us to the weekly races held in Eugene, Salem, and Portland, and we raced in the Open division. I had assembled my new wunderbike which consisted of a used steel Peugout UO8 that was too big for me. I fitted cheap tubular wheels, Mafac cantilever brakes, a steel cottered crank and plastic Simplex deraileurs to the frame.

It was a big step up from my previous bike, and I started the season about 10 pounds lighter than the Typhoon. But as the season went on the bike gained weight. This was because the Salem course was held at a place called The Honda Pits, which is where dirt motorcycles rode over big jumps and drops.

During practice I launched off a jump, landing hard on my front wheel. I broke the frame at the downtube/headtube junction. My dad pulled out his brazing torch and brazed the frame back together. In turn, I broke the frame again the following week. This continued through the season: I would break the bike and my dad would braze it back together. Finally, my dad had had enough. He cut the leg off our barbecue and pounded it into the frame junction and bolted and re-brazed the entire mass into a gigantic brass ball at the front of my bike. It was very heavy.

Pringle and Malone battle at the 1977 U.S. Nationals. Photo: Alan Hills

I then launched the bike and broke the weld the next week. But this time the bolted barbecue pipe held it all together, so my dad didn’t have to re-braze it. The bike was race ready but made loud creaking noises as the frame stressed during pedaling. That season Tim and I alternated wins each week culminating in the Oregon state championship.

In 1976 the U.S. Cyclocross National Championships were held in Sunriver, Oregon, with legend Lawrence Malone and road phenom Mark Pringle in attendance. Malone was one of the first to bunny hop barriers at the World Cup level. Hopping barriers in those days was incredible, considering the heft of the steel bikes, the delicate tires, and the absence of clipless pedals to use as lift. Malone won his second of five nationals at Sunriver and we were impressed.

Malone beat Pringle to win the 1977 title. Photo: Alan Hills

That was the end of my racing career in Oregon. I had to take a few years off of racing bicycles due to a foot injury I developed from distance running. And I eventually moved to Colorado in the 1980’s to pursue a graduate degree in Analytical Chemistry.

In the late 80’s I was healthy again, and I began to dabble in the local cyclocross racing scene. Chris Grealish organized the local races at that time, and the cyclocross races were held weekly in an open field off Colorado Avenue.  It was mainly flat terrain, but it bordered a creek on one side, and race courses often were routed through the water. Many riders in the lower divisions competed on mountain bikes and I followed suit. I raced on my Klein mountain bike.

Hills racing in Colorado on his mountain bike. Photo: Alan Hills

In 1991 I advanced into the Pro 1/2 division in Colorado. At that time the bikes you saw in the pro field were either mountain bikes or self-assembled steel cyclocross bikes with cantilever brakes and platform pedals with toe clips or straps. In 1991 the Colorado racing series ended in December, with a second season beginning in January at the Boulder Elks Club.

For the second series I raced on probably the most ill-suited bike for cross ever made, a Cannondale 3.0 road bike with road tubulars and Campagnolo side-pull brakes. The bike had a reputation as the harshest road bike ever built, and off-road the harshness was epic. It also had no tire clearance. But on the paved sections, the bike was totally untouchable, even if it had minimal stopping power. In my first race on the bike I slid directly into a concrete culvert and hit my back onto the concrete edge. I laid at the crash point for the remainder of the race and was extremely happy to learn that my spine was still intact after the crash.

Hills raced on a road bike for several seasons before crashing. Photo: Alan Hills

About this time race directors tried to make the courses mountain-bike proof by adding high-speed sections on pavement, and flatter sections that favored cyclocross bikes over the slower mountain bikes. In the Boulder scene, cyclocross specialists raced in the pro division alongside road pros such as Ron Kiefel and Davis Phinney. The races made multiple excursions into the Colorado Avenue course with the creek crossing.

I rode a Klein mountain bike back then, and I had a secret weapon for the races: Shimano SPD pedals. At the time Shimano had recently developed the new pedal technology, and a few of us riders had then. Since I was a mountain biker at the time I became an early adopter. They gave me a huge advantage in the races, even though I was on a slower mountain bike.

That year in Colorado there was a fast pro rider who won almost every race. In one race he tore off to an early lead, so quickly that spectators were still walking across the venue getting to their vantage points. At some point this rider actually crashed into a spectator and had a minor fall. The rider jumped up and wanted to fight the spectator—the only thing that stopped him was the oncoming pack. He wanted to beat the field worse than he wanted to fight the spectator, so he got back onto the course and won, again.

Plenty of heavy hitters showed up to the Colorado races. Photo: Alan Hills

I remember another weird scene from that venue. It was a snowy and extremely sloppy race, and an ex-elite runner from the collegiate running powerhouse Adams State University showed up. He pitted, ditched both of his wheels, and then ran most of the race carrying the bike frame over his shoulder. He won the race.

In 1996 the Eldora Ski Resort just west of Boulder held a cyclocross race at nearly 9,000 feet. The course traversed the parking lot and climbed an adjacent ski slope into the nearby hills. I practiced the course and raced in the open division. During the first lap I burst into the lead, and as I pedaled through the start/finish I was stopped by an official. The official said I had missed a section of course, so they were going to hold me until the rider in second place came through the start/finish. I was furious! But, the official was correct. I had missed an entire section that had been marked poorly. It went up a hill.

Hills racing at the Boulder Elks Club in the early 1990’s. Photo: Alan Hills

The second-place rider pedaled through the start/finish, and the official let me go, but by then a new leader had passed both of us to open a gap. I took off and caught the new leader. In subsequent trips through the start/finish I pedaled as hard as I could to show the officials that they had wronged me. It was a pointless gesture, albeit typical of the drama that can happen in races.

A particularly muddy race after snow fell the night before. Photo: Alan Hills

Cyclocross seemed to reach its zenith in the U.S. in the late 1990’s. The sport became ‘cool’ and drew thousands of spectators to big races such as those on the U.S. SuperCup series. In Colorado, promoters held races at the University of Colorado Events Center, Harlow-Platts Park, Boulder Reservoir, and in an area that would become Valmont Park.

In the local Colorado scene we held races at the local putt-putt golf center, where we raced on the Go-Kart track and the adjacent trails. I remember at one race, 30 inches of snow fell the day before the race. We still raced, and the course had huge drifts of deep snow. I raced in the 35-plus division and had a technological innovation for the conditions. I used one platform pedal and one SPD pedal. The SPDs were difficult to get into with the snow, and by using just one I could fight with it, clip in for extra power, and then use the platform pedal for immediate power.

Hills chasing a rider on his mountain bike. Photo: Alan Hills

That year, 1997, U.S. Nationals were held in Lakewood, Colorado. In a snowy race, the McCormack brothers, Mark and Frank, on the Saturn team ganged up on Dale Knapp. In the women’s race Alison Dunlap won the first of her six U.S. national cyclocross titles. My own race in the 35-plus division was ruined when my derailleur froze with the chain stuck in the first gear. I was horribly under-geared for the entire race.

It wasn’t until the early 2000’s that I got my actual first cyclocross bike, a Redline Conquest. It was an aluminum frame with 9-speed Dura Ace components; a single front ring; and aluminum tubulars with yellow Tufo tubular tires that could be run at low pressure with sealant. It was a game changer for me. In the 17 years since then I have been focused on ‘cross and have raced predominantly in the Cat 3, Cat 2, and 45-plus division on similar setups.

Hills eventually bought a legitimate cyclocross bike. Photo: Alan Hills

Colorado races were held over a wide region from Fort Collins in the north to Colorado Springs in the south, and from the Front Range to the mountains of Frisco and Breckenridge. One classic course in the Colorado series was Boulder Reservoir course, which featured massive sections of sand along the beach. The elite riders such as Todd Wells and Jeremy Powers would bunny hop onto a boat dock each lap.

During one of these Boulder Reservoir races I was having a myriad of mechanical issues, so after every lap I would exit the course, ride to my car, and work on the rig for a bit. I would then re-enter the course and race the rest of the lap, before repeating the process. Officials learned of my shenanigans and were not impressed. They relegated me from fourth place to my well-deserved last place.

Hills racing in the early 2000’s. Photo: Alan Hills

During this era a young woman named Katie Compton began racing with us in the Cat 3 men’s category. She would intentionally start each race at the back of the field, and then work her way through the entire field. As it turns out this was practice for the World Cup races. It was obvious that she was America’s Chosen One for cyclocross, and those of us in the Cat 3 races got to see firsthand how impressive she was. She had speed, power, skill, and bravery—and the fire of a champion.

Even more venues popped onto the Colorado cyclocross scene during this time, and I stubbornly continued to race in the Cat 3 men’s division, and got my butt kicked every week. I think I was 45 or so at the time.

Hills continued to race into his 50’s as the local cyclocross scene evolved. Photo: Terri Smith

In the past few years I have watched cyclocross mature in Colorado and around the country. The gigantic crowds and the SuperCup disappeared. In its place a mature sport emerged with some classic venues and races. Here in Colorado, the Cyclo-X series evolved alongside a number of independent races, such as the Blue Sky Cup, the Feedback Cup, and the races at Valmont Park in Boulder.

I now race in the geezer category, Men 60-plus. There is no escape from this age division. We have furious and pointless battles every week, but we remain good friends, competing as much against age and our aches and pains as we do each other.

After 50 years I’ve seen cyclocross technology and racing evolve, but in many ways it has stayed the same for me. I’m still drawn in by the primal competitive nature of the battle. I love experiencing a high level of fitness in a fun environment. I value the friends I’ve met through the sport. And I hope to see you all at the races.

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