Cyclocrossers: Father, son take rivalry off-road

Cyclist Fred Wittwer likes to joke that competing against his son, Greg, is all about bragging rights, but it's clear there's more than a little fatherly pride lurking under the surface. After all, Greg Wittwer, 20, is more than your average off-road bicycle rider: He's a two-time Mid-Atlantic champ who's currently ranked ninth in the country among amateur racers.

"It's been awesome to see him go out there and have the kind of success he's had," Fred, 52, beams, himself an accomplished rider with over 12 years of experience and half a dozen titles to his credit. "He's been really focused and has worked hard at it, so it's been great to see him do so well."

Father and son compete in a sport called cyclocross, a hybrid of mountain biking and road cycling that sends competitors on modified road bikes hurtling around a muddy off-road course, crossing barricades, sliding around corners, and generally trying to keep upright and moving– think steeplechase on bicycles.

And in Virginia 'cross circles, the Wittwers share more than just blood: Both are two-time defending Mid-Atlantic champions in their respective age groups and are beginning to make waves at the national level.

Why do they do it? "We often ask each other that," Fred laughs, recalling muddy weekends spent in the driving rain, "and a lot of times we just don't know. But it really comes down to the challenge, the social aspect of the races, and the chance to get down and dirty in the mud for an hour."

Cyclocross traces its roots to post-war Belgium, where European road racers took to riding off road in the winter as a way to stay in shape through the long off-season. After reaching the U.S. in the late 1980s, it has slowly evolved into a laid-back alternative to the sometimes stuffy road racing scene.

Camaraderie between the racers is generally high– in part because the community of riders in the U.S. is so small– and the relaxed, good time atmosphere has become a cyclocross trademark.

That said, Greg, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, remains realistic about the sport. "It's an hour of suffering," he says. "You're getting off the bike, getting back on, getting back off again; it's grueling and very intense."

Nevertheless, his first cyclocross experience "was instant love."

Craig Griffin with Extreme Sports bicycle shop, one of Charlottesville's cyclocross sponsors, has watched excitedly as the sport and the Wittwer dynasty have gained a foothold in the area.

"They're definitely some of the better East Coast racers on the circuit," he says, "and Greg is becoming a real regional-caliber cyclist, an up-and-comer, for sure."

Fred and Greg Wittwer