As USA Cyclocross team member Sarah Kerlin rounds the corner of the course, she sees the “Death Drop,” the steepest portion of the World championships course in Germany. The entire course is covered in snow but the “Death Drop” is covered with ice. The frozen grade was the most extreme obstacle Kerlin had ever faced, but in Cyclocross, the danger is half the fun. “Pure Sweet Hell,” a new documentary film on this bizarre form of cycling called Cyclocross captures the awesome brutality of the untamed sport. In Cyclocross, riders carry their bikes over obstacles and maneuver through trails in extreme weather conditions.
“In Cyclocross, there are barriers and steep hills that require you to dismount and run to negotiate the obstacles,” said Allen Lovewell, a member of the UCSC Cycling team.
Races typically last an hour, and the rider that completes the most laps in the allotted time wins.
“It’s a beautiful sport but it’s like hell to race,” co-producer Willie K. Bullion said. “You come out of it destroyed.”
Filmmaker Brian Vernor thinks that that the sport is more entertaining than other forms of cycling because, “Cyclists go as fast as they can for the full hour so its 100 percent effort for the whole time.”
Vernor and Bullion used super eight film and hand-held cameras to film the movie.
“We wanted the sport to be portrayed on film in a way that if you are watching it’s like doing it,” Vernor said. “Super eight looks bad, and in some ways Cyclocross feels bad.”
“We decided to use hand-held filming,” Vernor said. “Like hand-held camera work, when racing you are never comfortable, you are always off kilter.”
Kerlin enjoyed Vernor and Bullion’s portrayal of Cyclocross in “Pure Sweet Hell.”
“It really captured the essence of what Cyclocross is,” she said. “The extreme suffering mixed with the beauty and the technique of the sport.
The premiere screening of “Pure Sweet Hell” packed the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz full of interested racers and fans on Sunday Jan. 16th. Although Kerlin had to prepare for her race, she was still able to attend.
“It got me excited for my race the next day,” she said.
Since “Pure Sweet Hell’s Debut at the Rio Theatre, curiosity about the sport spread throughout the community.
“People are saying to themselves, `why are these guys getting on and off their bikes?'” Bullion said. “‘Why would you jump on the little bicycle saddle?'”
Cyclocross began as a winter sport for professional road racers in Europe. In order to break free from the constraints of the seasonal sport, cyclists created a hybrid sport that could be done in winter without subjecting themselves to below freezing temperatures for lengthy periods of time.
“They created this sport that kept them moving for a short amount of time [one hour],” Vernor said.
“It takes a certain mindset to overcome the cold,” Lovewell said. “They race in wet and harsh conditions in the winter when everyone else has put there bikes away for the season.”
The sport, which has long been popular in Santa Cruz, was dubbed Uncle Charlie Cyclocross in its early days referring to UC Santa Cruz’s old nickname. Often races, including the national championships, were held on University property.
Cyclocross began in the US in the mid to late 1960s as an outlaw sport. Uncle Charlie’s Cyclocross sprang to life circa 1974, as the organization and popularity of the sport grew. It later became the Surf City CX series. Two decades later, the Surf City series is still attracting new riders and competition.
Since Cyclocross is raced around a track, the competitors must complete many circuits in order to win. This creates a much more spectator friendly environment.
“Even if you don’t race, it’s a kick ass time to go out and watch. You can see most of the course from the same vantage point,” Bullion said. “If you go to a road or mountain bike race, they leave the start line and you won’t see them again.”
Cyclocross racers are a special breed of athlete.
“They have to train and race in foul weather and be willing to suffer more during times when other racers are ramping down,” USA Cycling federation expert coach Kam Zardouzian said.
Sarah Kerlin, a native of Santa Cruz County, competes in Cyclocross worldwide. She is a member of the American National Team, recently competed at the world championships in Germany.
“You can be really creative. In mountain biking you’re supposed to stick to the trail, in road racing you have to stick in the pack,” Kerlin said. “In Cyclocross as long as you’re inside the course tape, you can take whatever line you want. If you cut off 20 riders with a crazy move it’s totally expected and ok.”
Cycling as a sport has been growing due to the recent success and popularity of Lance Armstrong.
“He has created a resurgence in the sport,” Lovewell said.” “People are now getting into the sport because they have someone to look up to and relate to. Americans in general wouldn’t be following cycling if it wasn’t for Lance.”
Although Armstrong has created a rise in cycling popularity it is specific to Road Racing and not Cyclocross.
“Cyclocross has traditionally not been as popular in the U.S.,” Zardouzian said. “I am hopeful that it will rise in popularity because it incorporates all the elements that popularizes sports in the U.S.”
The unique Cyclocross community allows people like Kerlin to stay enthusiastic about the sport. “It is very casual and laid back, we are all there to have a good time,” she said.
This relaxed atmosphere is very different from other cycling race events. “At the starting line of an amateur road race, I tried to be friendly like it was a Cyclocross race,” Kerlin said. “The other girls were giving me the bitch look.”
DFL Urban Outlaw Series, a Cyclocross race event held in San Francisco, offers free race entries for anyone who comes cross-dressed.
“It’s a super nice community-based sport, and hopefully it will stay that way,” Bullion said.
Although the community of Cyclocross is laid back, Kerlin thinks that it may be specific to the northern California competitors.
“My team had a competition on Halloween in Massachusetts, we had costumes on and no one else had a costume on,” she said.
“It’s kind of a contradiction,” explained filmmaker Brian Vernor. “You’re doing something that is just really uncomfortable, but for some reason feels kind of good when you’re done.”