Two cyclists in lycra carry their bikes up a set of stairs beside a lake with reeds and blue sky.

Mud, heckling and fun as Victoria Cyclo-cross Series returns to Beechworth after COVID

The sun dips in and out from behind the clouds, lighting up the water of Beechworth’s Lake Sambell in bright patches.

Clusters of people in colorful lycra stand around chatting and laughing, making minute adjustments to their bikes.

Beechworth, in Victoria’s north-east, is hosting round six and seven of the Victoria Cyclo-cross Series.

And while the organizers and participants of the event are grateful for the sunshine, inclement weather won’t put them off.

The alternate name of the event is Mud Wars.

Cyclo-cross is described as a cross between road cycling, mountain biking and steeple chase.

Race organizer and member of the Beechworth Chain Gang Adrian Rodda said it originated as a winter sport in the Netherlands and Belgium.

“I saw a race where they were riding in the snow,” he said.

“They’re hard people who do cyclo-cross, that’s for sure.”

Despite the sun, the twists, hills and ditches of the course are already muddy.

Riders will try to get through as many laps as they can during an allocated time.

Things get a bit muddy on the cyclo-cross course, but that’s all part of the fun. (ABC Goulburn Murray: Katherine Smyrk)

“You’ve got to race across grass, which can turn into mud, and then you’ve got to jump over planks, and then sometimes you’ve got to carry your bike on your shoulder and run up a hill or stairs,” Mr Rodda said.

“There’s a bit of everything in there.”

Getting back on the bike

This is the first time in three years the cyclo-cross event has been able to go ahead in Beechworth, due to COVID-19.

“Last year, we had great registrations, but, unfortunately, a week out, we went into lockdown again,” Mr Rodda said.

“We’re just glad to be able to get people up here, get back on course and have some fun.”

Bronwyn Johns has traveled from Melbourne for the event. She said she was thrilled it was happening again.

Two women wearing helmets and bright clothes sit on their bikes, smiling.
Ms Johns and Ms Turnbull have traveled from Melbourne for a weekend of cyclo-cross. (ABC Goulburn Murray: Katherine Smyrk)

“The race, the sunshine, the town — I’m quite happy to be escaping from the city,” she said.

“The course is fun, especially with the lake in the middle, hopefully, no-one ends up in it.”

Sarah Turnbull has been racing cyclo-cross for about four years.

She said it was a great way to stay active and get outside during winter.

“I think Beechworth, in particular, is one of the best races,” Ms Turnbull said.

“It’s a nice welcoming community. It’s not really just about the race. It’s about the whole event.”

Ms Turnbull said it was a very family-friendly event, with her five-year-old going to come down later to watch.

For Mr Rodda, this is just one part of building the rapidly growing cycling community in north-east Victoria.

Work is almost complete on a mountain biking trail between Beechworth and Yackandandah.

Gravel riding tracks have been opened up around town, and mountain bikers flock to the region for challenging climbs.

A shot of the backs of riders about to race.  They are wearing a range of jerseys from Beechworth, Tatura and Brunswick.
Local riders compete alongside people who have come from Melbourne, Shepparton, Sydney and Wagga Wagga.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Katherine Smyrk)

The Beechworth Chain Gang is also running a junior ride program, teaching kids how to ride mountain bikes.

Mr Rodda said, at times, they have had about 70 kids turning up on a Thursday afternoon to learn how to ride.

“It’s incredibly rewarding to see these kids that have gone through the program getting involved and racing and performing really well, but also just getting around town on bikes and loving that bike culture,” he said.

Mr Rodda said events like these also brought benefits to the town, attracting crowds for the whole weekend.

“People are coming from Melbourne, people are coming from Sydney, from Wagga, from Shepparton, from Bendigo, from all over the place, and they come into town, and they stay and visit businesses and support accommodation,” he said.

“There’s huge benefit for our area to have these events, without a doubt.”

It’s all about community

As the first race gets underground on Saturday, the atmosphere is lively and electric.

One rider has Lizzo’s About Damn Time playing from a speaker attached to his bike.

People stand in groups all around the undulating course, banging on cowbells, yelling out encouragement — and good-hearted insults — and handing out lolly snakes to passing riders that are starting to droop after their third or fourth lap around the course.

Tam Stevens and Beth Jackson, who both rode later, were keen to get into the spectating, too.

Two women stand in front of the lake smiling.  One is wearing a jumper that says: I would but I'm riding that day.
Ms Jackson and Ms Stevens say that spectating and heckling is half the fun of cyclo-cross. (ABC Goulburn Murray: Katherine Smyrk)

Ms Jackson took part in her very first cyclo-cross race only a few weeks ago and loved it so much that she decided to come up for the Beechworth event.

“Other cycling events are not nearly this community friendly. There’s not the music going, the atmosphere, heckling,” she said.

“This is fun. It’s really refreshing,” she added after breaking off to cheer a rider up a particularly steep incline.

Ms Stevens said the event enabled them to get to know the people in the community.

“You start to learn their names, you start to get your group, and you find there’s always someone you can talk to and laugh with,” she said.

Round 7 of the Victoria Series Cyclo-cross in Beechworth is on August 14.