Biking isn't just a way to get to work, to indulge exercise or to glide along the scenery. Cycling enthusiasts have developed dozens of sports for two-wheelers, some as obvious and seemingly ancient as fast races on hot asphalt and others as feverish and newfangled as scavenger hunts through familiar city streets. We asked experts and amateurs alike for glimpses into six such sports—and clues about how you can get involved, even if you don't yet own a bike.
Gangs of urban cyclists rove the side streets of cities often overrun by cars, searching for prizes toward which clues have directed them. For a few hours, alleycats—the perfect combination of a scavenger hunt and a bike race—offer bikers a sense of locomotive preeminence. They run the streets.
"It's a test of cunning," explains Jared Harber, co-owner of Oak City Cycling Project. It's more fun than a typical race, he explains, because participants aren't competitively measured on strength and speed. They have to know their city and be willing to reconsider its terrain.
Alleycats have sprouted across Raleigh since 2007, when the Hallowheels ride sent cyclists scouring for prizes downtown. Since the bike co-op that ran the race closed, the city's large bicycling community has become a local hub for alleycat enthusiasts. Durham and Chapel Hill host occasional such events, but Derek Wilson of Carrboro's Back Alley Bikes says those cities tend to focus more on commuting and trail biking. It's been two years since Chapel Hill's last race.
Entry fees for alleycats typically go to local charities. The annual Housecat race contributes to affordable housing, while Oaks and Spokes' WESAcat gives to N.C. State's environmental association. The Hepcat, which launches from Oak City Cycling Project on Sept. 27, funnels its proceeds to the Safe Haven Cat Shelter, a no-kill cat shelter.
For Brandon Casperson, who helps organize several alleycats every year, the races have another social benefit: They force riders to explore their home city in ways they generally wouldn't and to consider the most efficient navigation routes.
"There'll be times where you have to go to places you've never been before," he says. "So you discover a business or a cool spot you'd otherwise never know about." —Michael Papich
Hordes of bike-bound people aren't jockeying for space while dodging other bikers or pedestrians, skaters or sidewalks, cars or very much concrete. Instead, in cyclocross, an enthusiastic contingent of Triangle bikers race through tracks of grass, mud and pavement while hopping railroad ties, walls and assorted obstacles.
"It's devoted. It's not huge," says Todd Berger of the area's cyclocross circuit. "But it's growing."
Berger owns Berger Hardware Bikes in Raleigh. More to the point, he conducts a series of cyclocross races at Spring Hill at Dorothea Dix. The five-race season begins Sept. 13.
Cyclocross isn't just for riders; it's entertaining to watch participants jump obstacles or dismount and clamber over a wall after tossing their bike up and over. Berger thinks that's only one reason for its recent rise.
"The barrier to getting into 'cross is lower," he says. "The bikes that most people are riding for fun—the hybrids and stuff—won't work for road racing. But with 'cross you could almost just throw some knobby tires on whatever you have and go."
Berger started out as a mountain biker, making for a logical transition into cyclocross. John Farmerie of Cary's Cycling Spoken Here says part of the style's appeal is how it "has a little bit of mountain biking and road racing together. It mixes some of the technique aspects of mountain with the raw power of road."
But for Berger, you don't have the crowds and conditions of the road.
"There's not the pressure of hanging with a big pack," he says. "It's more like a triathlon where you're racing the clock." —Curt Fields
In passing, you might mistake them for a bicycle-bound fight club in a parking deck—scrums of a half-dozen bikers, lashing at each other with sticks, trying to avoid walls but maybe not each other. The first rule of bike polo, though, is you always talk about bike polo.
Perhaps Michelle Wilcox, who founded Raleigh's first bike polo club two years ago, has even sidled up alongside you on a First Friday group ride to extol the sport. "That's how a lot of our club members have come in," she says.
Raleigh Bike Polo has been around long enough to be more than guerillas in parking decks. The club recently partnered with the city's Parks and Recreation Department to secure a sanctioned home. They practice and play every Thursday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Tarboro Community Center on Tarboro Street.
"As far as the Southeast," Wilcox says, "we're one of the few groups that has established a relationship with the parks department. It's allowed us to throw a huge tournament with participants from Texas, New York and Michigan this past March."
The club competes in tournaments up and down the Atlantic coast, too, and they're recruiting players in Durham and Chapel Hill. Even as the ranks expand, beginners are welcome. The group supplies a loaner bike and plenty of extra mallets and helmets; new arrivals need nothing but a willingness to try. Three-player teams try to smack a street hockey ball into each other's goal. There's no devoted goalie; whoever is closest to the net assumes that mantle. The most important rule? Never put a foot down on the ground. If you do, you have to stand on the centerline and wait to be tagged back in.
To help, serious players clip their shoes to their pedals, allowing them to bunny hop, do 180s and execute instant wheelie turnarounds. But these smooth moves don't exempt them from tumbles. Wilcox is recovering from a concussion and a pair of sprained wrists.
"Recently, I went to a tournament in Toronto," she says. "It was a wildly rare occurrence, but both of my teammates dislocated their shoulders in separate games on the same weekend."
Along with your willingness, then, consider bringing your insurance card. —Chris Vitiello
Riders dart down the track, warming up for the real race to come. Distinguished by their varying flame patterns, skull jerseys and motorcycle-like helmets, teammates compare runs and suggest ways to improve. John Mellencamp and 2 Chainz blast from the park's speakers, adding encouragement for the practice runs. Some riders fall or simply have a bad outing. But even the youngest riders—some only 7—smile, gliding as if powered by pure adrenaline.
Vincent Scott summarizes the appeal of BMX: He likes to go fast.
Since its creation in the '70s, BMX racing has exploded in popularity. It's now an Olympic event, and the acrobatics of BMX freestyle are an X-Games favorites.
But instead of flipping and doing tricks, the racers at Raleigh's Lion's Park focus on ripping across the wild track—popping up on the dirt slopes, negotiating the tight curves, staying above the handlebars.
A rider in his early 20s, Corey Scheip came to BMX because he wanted to combine his love of off-road biking with racing. BMX bikes are lower to the ground and have much smaller wheels than a mountain bike. The bikes are built for speed, not cruising or touring. Robert Clemenger is a team manager who got involved in the sport to get closer to his teenage children. The key to being a good racer, he says, is balance.
"The fastest way down the track is to jump, so you need balance in the air," Clemenger says. "Balance leads to bike control." —Michael Papich
The world of road-racing can feel a bit daunting. Not only are there loads of rules to learn, but there are unwritten codes of etiquette to intuit, too. You need order when you're zipping along the asphalt at 30 miles per hour, surrounded by half-a-dozen others so close their handlebars sometimes touch.
But don't be dissuaded: Competitive cycling puts entrants on one of five levels—five being rookies, one being top-flight racers who are speedy and experienced. Those who are still figuring out when to shift gears don't bring down a pack of veteran racers, moving in spectacular fashion. You progress through the levels based on the number of races you run and your finishes.
"Just dive in," says John Farmerie of Cary's Cycling Spoken Here. He's a level-four racer. "Find a group ride to join. Be social and talk to people who have raced. If you ask 10 different people, you'll get 10 different answers about how to do it, but all will help you get going."
Watching races as a spectator is a must, too. This year's road-racing season is winding down, but a few remain on the schedule, including the USA Cycling Professional Criterium National Championships in High Point. Criteriums can be especially spectator-friendly; they're on a smaller loop, so you're likely to see the racers multiple times during one event.
And should you finally decide to try it, bike shop owner Todd Berger has one key lesson: "Have a reasonable expectation for your ability to perform."
Some road racers have been competing for decades, but hey, they were newbies one time, too. —Curt Fields
Her bike didn't fit her frame, and she didn't have mountain biking skills of which to speak, but Vanessa Roth would not be defeated. She was a college student in Flagstaff, Arizona, not far from the Grand Canyon, and she would learn through failure if she must.
"I was dating someone who was into mountain biking, and we went on a trail that no novice should have done—boulders, a ridge of pure rocks, with no actual dirt," Roth remembers. "I had a hissy fit, but I knew this would be something amazing if I could learn how to do it."
During the last 20 years, Roth has done just that, becoming an avid mountain biker with an assortment of cycles for different situations and an interest in educating the next generation of riders. She lauds the concentration that mountain biking requires, how every muscle group has to focus on staying vertical and maintaining momentum. She speaks of strenuous dozen-mile stretches in Idaho and great spots in western North Carolina forests such as DuPont and the Pisgah—that is, expert stuff.
What the Triangle offers mountain bikers, though, is a set of courses best used to master the fundamentals, so as to help avoid tantrums when bigger obstacles appear.
"In retrospect, it is worth learning some basics, like bike handling and key skills specific to mountain biking," she says. "Then take them out on the trail as you develop."