By Dave Berson
Independence Youth Cycling / SoMont Cheltenham / Guy’s Racing Club Coach
October 22, 2023
The Berson’s have a deep love for cyclocross, which has been fueled by European friendships, travel experiences, and a family that revolves around the sport, as members of the SoMont Youth Mountain Bike team and Guy’s Racing Club.
So, what exactly is cyclocross? Cyclocross, often referred to as “cross,” can be thought of as a combination of cross-country running and cycling. These are timed races where athletes compete on various surfaces and face natural or man-made obstacles like stairs, logs, or wooden planks. The ability to navigate these challenges with precision is paramount.
If you recently attended the Independence Youth Cycling / Guy’s Racing Club clinic at Twining Valley Park, you had the chance to experience just how crucial these skills are.
I must admit that I’ve always been more of a “roadie.” I relish seeking out cobblestone roads and potholes, reminiscent of the famous Paris-Roubaix race, which is known for its treacherous paths. Although I once owned a pair of “baggies” for mountain biking and even completed the Leadville race a few times, I never quite connected with it. The technical demands of mountain biking and my aspirations aligned more with road cycling. This love for cycling led me to cyclocross in a somewhat roundabout way.
My introduction to cyclocross came later in my cycling journey. It all began back in 1988 when I participated in a mountain bike race at Tyler State Park. The experience was marked by cold and misery, and I was determined to avoid dirt and rough terrain at all costs. Fast forward to 2004, and I was deeply immersed in time trialing and road racing, including criteriums, which are short, high-speed races on courses typically under a mile. These experiences eventually brought me to cyclocross, and I found a remarkable overlap in skills and enthusiasm. I performed well in both disciplines and subsequently introduced my children to cyclocross, thanks to some excellent mentoring along the way.
Let me tell you more of what cyclocross racing entails.
Cyclocross races usually begin with riders grouped by category in a grid formation, with a countdown or a pistol sound initiating the race “at any point in the next minute.” The bicycles used in cyclocross closely resemble road bikes but feature special tires designed for diverse surfaces. They are typically lightweight and lack water bottle cages, making it easier to carry the bike when necessary. Riders sprint from grass, dirt, or asphalt, striving to secure a favorable position as they enter the course. Often, the athlete with the best start, provided they have the fitness to sustain it, maintains their position in the leading group. The start is a pivotal moment in a cyclocross race. Courses can span 2-3 miles in length, with laps taking 8-15 minutes to complete. The course incorporates local features such as a sandy beach or a playground, as well as wooden planks about 18cm high and ten feet apart, forcing riders to either bunny hop or dismount, carry their bikes over both obstacles, and then remount. Other elements include off-camber grass sections (imagine riding with your bike angled outward), mud, and natural features like logs, tree stumps, and an abundance of stairs – lots and lots of stairs are part of these races.
My transformative trip to Germany, Belgium, and Holland in 1991 played a pivotal role in nurturing my passion for cycling and, eventually, cyclocross. You can read about my experience in detail here:
As a result of that life-changing journey, I eagerly seized the opportunity to host Swiss Rider Valentin Scherz in 2009 for a full cyclocross season at “The Bersons.” He had initially posted a random request, and somehow, it found its way to me. I promptly responded, inviting him to stay with us and join the races. What ensued was a remarkable experience; Valentin became an integral part of our family and continues to be. We wanted him to return the following year to continue racing, but he had to fulfill his mandatory Swiss Military Service. His commitment to cyclocross was unwavering, and he aspired to secure a professional contract. This is where experience, passion, and friendships came into play.
Jed Kornbluh, formerly the CCAP Director and currently likened to Ted Lasso for a football club in Connecticut, and I initiated the Philadelphia Cyclocross School (PCS). This initiative brought together elite cyclocross racers from Switzerland, local junior riders, and, of course, my son Henry. We received sponsorships for bicycles, clothing, wheels, saddles, and financial support, which allowed us to establish a program that rivaled the professionalism of actual Pro teams, all while managing full-time jobs. The Swiss influence on Henry, who participated in his first cyclocross race at the tender age of 8, was profoundly positive. Over the years, Henry evolved into a top local U19 racer, competing against some of the nation’s finest.
The 2023 Cyclocross season can be divided into two parts: the fall season in the United States and the winter season in Europe. Henry, as a member of the SoMont Youth Mountain Bike team, had to make choices between NICA and USA Cycling cyclocross races. Surprisingly, the skills and fitness from both disciplines complemented each other well.
The upcoming races include local events at Twining Valley Park on Saturday, October 21, 2023, Cooper River in NJ on Sunday, October 22, 2023, and West Chester CX on Sunday, November 5, 2023.
While we participated in the National Championships last year in Hartford, CT, we are currently deliberating our commitment to the upcoming championships in Louisville, KY. The limited race opportunities in the U.S. and the logistical challenges associated with a trip to Kentucky have us on the fence. However, December and the holiday season offer a multitude of races in Europe, all leading up to numerous National Championship events across the continent in early January and the World Cyclocross Championships at the end of January 2024.
My PCS program played a pioneering role in this regard and culminated with a remarkable 7th-place finish for Valentin Scherz at the World Championships. Unfortunately, a 36-inch snowfall grounded my plane at the Philadelphia airport, preventing me from witnessing this extraordinary feat in Tabor, Czech Republic.
In my next article, I will provide a recap of our experiences and delve into the European cyclocross scene, explaining why some top European riders come to the U.S. to race before returning to Europe.
In closing, remember to ride with purpose.