Cyclocross racing is a true urban gem for Chicago. You get a spectator friendly way to be involved with an off-road racing activity as both a participant and a spectator. It’s one of the few sports where heckling on the sidelines is heavily encouraged and any inhibition to act sane is lost to the clamor of cowbells and ale inspired camaraderie. Chicago has done a magnificent job in bringing European style off-road racing to City Parks and Villages – and the city has the Chicago Cyclocross Cup to thank for that. The Chicago Cyclocross Cup is a volunteer run organization which brings the City of Chicago a race series to be reckoned with.

Jason Knauff

“The draw of CX for a lot of riders is the friendly, almost party like atmosphere, at every race.” – Jason Knauff

The Bonebell interviewed Jason Knauff, Director for the Chicago Cyclocross Cup. Jason is a talented rider from Burnham Racing, and well before his road season is over, he is already pondering the great joys of what he has to deliver to crazed cyclocross racers and fans alike through the Chicago Cyclocross Cup. He understands the need for race organization through his experience of being a racer, and through his previous volunteer efforts to help at races. We posed a few questions to get his thoughts on where his drive comes from and how the racing community can help in making the series truly successful.

How long have you been off-road cycling?
I was a swimmer until the end of high school and started racing mountain bikes in 1996 in Baltimore. I got up to ‘Expert Category’ before switching to Road when I moved to Boston in 2001, but I don’t think I even knew what Cyclocross was at that point. Cross is huge in New England and the team I joined there (Essex County Velo) puts on a little race you might have heard of called the Grand Prix of Gloucester. I started helping out with registration 6 years ago, and I’ve been going back every October since. I’ve still never raced it, but that’s where I caught the CX bug.

Why did you join the Chicago Cyclocross Cup management team?
It was really just a way to keep busy and stay out of trouble. Having seen how big UCI races are run, I thought I could help out a little but never really had any intentions of running the show. However, last year, Robert Sliwinski {previous Race Director for the Chicago Cyclocross Cup} asked if I would take over the reigns and by that point, I was ready to step up. I don’t think most riders realize how much work it takes to put on a race and how grateful promoters are for a little assistance, even if it’s just helping to set up a course, tear it down, or be a course marshal. There are lots of people who help out all over the place, but I’d love to see more riders get involved beyond just showing up to race.

What are Chicago’s greatest challenges in getting Cyclocross racing promoted throughout the area?
We’re all lucky here in Chicago that we have so many races within 45 minutes or an hour’s drive, and if you add the Wisconsin series, there’s even more. Planet Bike’s UCI race in Madison is a great example. Our biggest challenge for the CCC is definitely working with the Parks and Villages to secure permits. We’ve had two situations this year where CCC promoters were all set and ready to go and then the Parks and Villages people denied their permits. In one case, after they had already issued the permit. In a lot of cases this is just politics but we as racers must remember that we are always guests in these parks and we must act accordingly.

We at the CCC ask all racers to use their best efforts to ensure any park we race at does NOT receive ANY complaints about the race. This includes parking in designated areas only, slowing down while warming up when you encounter pedestrians, dog walkers, kids, etc., using porta-potties supplied by the event, cleaning up after yourself, and being as courteous as possible to the locals.

Jason Knauff Crossing It Up!
Photo Credit: Amy Dykema

Riding MTB or CX is always more fun on a personal level…- Jason Knauff

What is your hope for the Chicago Cyclocross Cup to achieve?
Our goals are modest, but we want to have the most challenging and fun CX series as possible while improving from year to year. I like to use the Gran Prix of Gloucester as a model. That race really started out with just a bunch of guys who thought it would be fun to get together and hold a race for themselves and their friends. The event is now a two day UCI event with 600 racers each day, coming from all over the US, some from Europe, and Haiti (don’t ask!). It has earned the title New England Worlds.
The CCC is only 5 years old in its current format and so while we obviously have a lot of work to do, I think we can make it a bigger spectacle in years to come. Some of the races will always be smaller and more grassroots but some of the races will naturally get bigger. I guess the ultimate goal will be to get at least one of our races on the UCI calendar while still keeping that “local” feel.

You are on an excellent team that does very well on the road, but you have closet dirtbaggers, are there plans to out yourselves at MTB races?
Hmm, I’m not at liberty to divulge that kind of information, but a few of our guys have definitely been bitten by the CX bug and love to do some trail riding in the “off season”. We’ll have at least 4 or 5 guys racing the CCC this year, including myself, which isn’t bad considering we’re a small squad. I had a great CX season last year but I think I’m more excited to watch those guys tear it up this year than to race myself.

What advice do you have for new riders looking to get faster on the dirt?
It sounds cliché but, practice, practice, practice. You can’t expect to get a nice new bike and just be able to ride away from the field. You obviously have to have a certain level of fitness to be competitive, but where you might not be as strong as another rider you can make it up with skills. There are informal cross practices in the evenings all over the city during the week, and people are always happy to have others join them. You just need to commit and get out there and learn and improve.
The trick is knowing your strengths and using them at the right times, especially if you know what your competition’s weaknesses are.

What advice do you have for Chicago to continue the foray into Cyclocross racing?
Just like in CX racing at the personal level, I see it all as carrying momentum. The CCC now has a core group of promoters that have been involved with the series for the past few years and everyone generally just knows what they have to do. It’s getting easier every year to put on the series since we learn from our mistakes the previous year and just get things done the next year. However, more “community” involvement is going to be very important going forward, and by community, I mean racers, spectators, land owners, etc.
The draw of CX for a lot of riders is the friendly, almost party like atmosphere, at every race. It’s the same guys and gals you raced against the previous weekend, but somehow we all enjoy seeing each other again, testing ourselves, and then standing around talking about it week after week. It’s sad when it ends in December.
I think as Parks and land owners see the welcoming community type atmosphere the CX races encourage, they’ll be more open to hosting races on their land.

What is the best contribution the local racing community can give to increase off-road cycling participation?
That’s a tough one. Living in the city there really aren’t a lot of choices for off-road riding as it is, especially in the summer when all the city parks are filled with other people recreating (baseball, futbol, sun bathing, etc). Our races in the CCC are busting at the seams as it is. We had to add another Category 4 race last year because so many people wanted to play in the dirt. Maybe I’m just more involved and aware this year, but from all the chatter I’ve been hearing, this year promises to be even bigger and we’ll likely have to turn people away as the races hit their field limits. So from all indications cross is alive and well here in Chicago. We would always love to see more Women and Juniors, but those are historically difficult races to fill in all areas of cycling.
I’d just ask clubs and teams to come out, bring a cow-bell, and see what all the hub bub is about, even if you don’t race. I’ve never heard any spectator walk away from a CX race and say, “That was boring…”

Since you are a true dirtbag, will you admit that road riding makes you gently weep for dirt season?
As long as you don’t tell my teammates! Seriously though, both road and dirt have their plusses and minuses. Riding MTB or CX is always more fun on a personal level, but you don’t quite get the same camaraderie and teammate warm-and-fuzzies you get from racing on the road with a close-knit group of guys. It’s nice to look forward to each season as something new, like the changing weather seasons. Maybe if I didn’t live in the city, I’d get in a little more trail time. I know this is going to sound weird coming from a ‘crosser, but I really do not like getting dirty and riding in mud.

There you have it – The Bonebell concludes that Jason Knauff is highly skilled off-road cyclist who would prefer to stay clean, and organize the best cyclocross race experience he can for Chicago.

Visit him at the races and say ‘Thank You!’ to him and the awesome group behind Chicago Cyclocross Cup.

    NOTE: The 1st Cyclocross Race of 2009 at Jackson Park as reported by Stiggity saw a record number of over 400 race participants – that is indeed a great sign for races to come.

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  2. Joe Doyle on Wednesday 23, 2009

    That was a solid article, mates. I’m super impressed with Jason’s pedigree and vision.

    I hope the Nov 8th race comes to be – I’ll be in town. Talk soon.

    – jd

  3. Dave on Wednesday 23, 2009

    JASON KNAUFF….Chicago racer with big shoulders !! You da man….. And THE Joe Doyle in da house in November??!!! Cmooon…just when you think this series couldn’t possibly get any better…it does !

  4. Robert Sliwinski on Wednesday 23, 2009

    Jason was a clear choice to run the Cup for 2009. After a solid season of assisting me in 2008, there was little he could not tackle. His East coast experience increases the flavor in the Chicago Cross scene. Each of the past CCC directors (including Joe Doyle) has worked hard to make things happen in Chicago and the last season was the launching board for the great things we will experience in 2009. Jason has the wonderful support of the promoters and the volunteer CCC staff. I look forward to the events… they all will rock!

    Robert Sliwinski
    Past Director Chicago Cross Cup 2006-2008