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Originally published January 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 10, 2008 at 7:56 AM

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Cyclocross biking picks up speed around Puget Sound

Just as we begin our descent, I discover something that I find more than a little bit interesting. "I don't have any brakes," I say aloud. It's true. I pull on my brake levers and nothing happens. No sound. No sliding. ...

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If you go

Cyclocross exploring

Where to try it

Cyclocross bikes are great for riding on roads, greenways and most non-technical trails (which is one reason they're popular as commuter bikes). Here are some hot spots for more cyclocross exploration:

Lower Woodland Park, southwest of Green Lake.

Saint Edward State Park, Kenmore.

Galbraith Mountain, Bellingham. From Interstate 5 take Exit 246, just south of Bellingham. Follow Samish Way for 1.2 miles to the top of the hill and park in the gravel parking lot on the south side of the road. (Across from Galbraith Lane.) On your bike, follow Galbraith Lane for about a quarter-mile to the vast network of dirt roads and trails that make up Galbraith Mountain.

Chuckanut Mountain, Whatcom County. From I-5, Take Exit 231 near Burlington. Follow Chuckanut Drive north (Highway 11) for about 15 miles to Larrabee State Park's Clayton Beach parking area. Park here. Choices include pedaling up Fragrance Lake Road (big climb), climbing Cleator Road (about 2.5 miles north off the Interurban Trail) or following the mostly flat Interurban for about 7 miles to Bellingham's Fairhaven district.

Where to get a bike

Peruse most major bike companies' Web sites and you'll find that just about all of them offer a cyclocross bike, usually for about $800 to $1,500 and up. Some choices include the K2 Enemy ($799 at REI), Redline Conquest ($899 at Gregg's Cycles at Green Lake) and the Kona Jake ($800).

Or, you or you can do what I did and go the cheapo route, through www.bikesdirect.com. For $499 I scored a Motobecane Fantom CX that's been perfect for riding the roads, not-too-technical trails and lining up for the occasional race. It's relatively heavy (24 pounds) but so far, sturdy as a Mack truck.

A book to read

Would you rather read about other people riding through yuck and muck than actually do it yourself? "Paris-Roubaix: A Journey Through Hell" (Velo Press, 2007) follows the rich history of the incredible 160-some-mile Paris-Roubaix race held each spring since 1896 in the north of France. Spectacular photos of the race's blood, mud, crashes and epic breakaways — as well as its renowned cobblestones — will leave you breathless as well as itching to get out on a ride yourself.

Get ski and boarding conditions all winter long with webcams, snow alerts and more at seattletimes.com/snowsports

GALBRAITH MOUNTAIN, Whatcom County — Just as we begin our descent, I discover something that I find more than a little bit interesting.

"I don't have any brakes," I say aloud.

It's true. I pull on my brake levers and nothing happens. No sound. No sliding. No grinding. No nothing. "Nope. No brakes," says fellow rider Ryan Rickerts, with nary a trace of surprise in his voice. As if it's a given. A foregone conclusion not even worth bringing up.

A few hundred yards ahead of us, Mark Peterson, the third person on this Galbraith Mountain-Bellingham Greenways jaunt, pedals hard and pulls away from us, even less concerned by our lack of stopping power.

OK, in truth, we probably don't need brakes right now. We're riding cyclocross bikes, mashing on the pedals trying to muscle through several inches of heavy, wet snow. Our brakes are caked with so much snow that the excess is shooting out from both sides of our front forks like an open fire hydrant. The front of our bikes look like piña colada Slurpee machines that have sprung a couple of leaks.

It's slooow going.

Our descent, as I called it, has probably raised our speed from 4 mph to say, a whopping 7 mph, and if we fall, it would be onto soft, if wet, snow, but still. It would be at least a little bit comforting if my brakes offered some sign that they were trying. But no. They can't be bothered.

'Cross encounters

Rickerts, Peterson and I are on what I've come to call a cyclocross exploration. (Or CX'ploration, for slightly shorter.) Riding the roads, trails and gravel pathways around Bellingham on cyclocross bikes. It's not mountain biking. It's not road biking. But it's kind of both.

"When the trails around here start getting really nasty and muddy in winter, it's nice to get on a 'cross bike and rally around the Greenways of Bellingham," said Bellingham's Peterson, who is athlete and sponsorship coordinator for Kona Bikes. "It's a nice break from all the mud."

Cyclocross bikes look like road bikes but are more sturdily built and have fatter tires with aggressive, knobby tread. Though heavier than road bikes, they're lots lighter than most mountain bikes because they have no shock absorbers or suspension systems.

"They're the best form of all-around transportation in this area, because you can cover both pavement and dirt roads quickly," says Rickerts, a Web designer and developer. "They stand up to a lot more abuse than a road bike, too."

Given today's half-foot of snow, perhaps "usually cover dirt roads quickly" would be more accurate. But any bike would be slow in that.

Our ride started from Peterson's house, where, after enjoying tiny cups of some of the richest, tastiest espresso I've had in my life, we headed up a steep, rocky gully called the Pipeline Road trail. (Peterson, who's also president of the WHIMPs Mountain Bike Coalition, the local mountain bike club, is legendary for starting off group rides with cups of black gold from his espresso machine.) Parts of the trail are so steep and slippery we had to carry our bikes, which is kind of fitting given that that's what cyclocross racers end up doing quite a bit. Rickerts, also from Bellingham, is an avid 'cross racer and promoter; he quickly darts away up the hill until we regroup when we hit the snow.

A race to ride

Usually held in fall, cyclocross races are like cross-country running races on a bike. Up and down through fields, over natural and manmade obstacles, they're fast, furious and loads of fun.

"Plus, it's a very social outdoor activity during a time when people in the Northwest usually hide out and get depressed," Rickerts says.

Portland has long had a reputation as a cyclocross haven, but in recent years the sport's popularity has boomed in the Puget Sound area. This past season, the typical event in the Seattle Cyclocross Series drew 445 riders, up about 13 percent from 2006. Which was up 10 percent from 2005. Overall, participation has more than doubled from just five years ago.

Personally, I race a couple times a year — Rickerts' Bellingham-based Cyclocrazed Series (www.cyclocrazed.com) is ridiculous good fun — but mostly I just love riding the dirt roads up into the hills around Bellingham. To me, it's like trail-running on a bike. The dirt roads that fan out to the upper reaches of Galbraith Mountain, as well as Chuckanut Mountain, above Larrabee State Park, are two of my favorite places for CX'ploration. Cyclocross riders in the Seattle area head to Lower Woodland Park, Saint Edward State Park and adjacent Big Finn Hill.

Bumps and cruises

Once through the Pipeline snow, we pop out at Galbraith Mountain's south flank, where we come to the technical trails above Lake Padden. A few hundred feet lower than Galbraith, there's almost no snow here, just mud. Peterson and Rickerts are more accomplished than I at riding 'cross bikes on single-track trails — I'll take wide trails and gravel roads, si vous plait — and, unaffected by the slippery conditions, they fly down the mountain, slaloming through trees, roots and rocks like it's no big deal.

I roll over what I can, gaining confidence with each obstacle I'm able to negotiate until my front wheel slips out and I go down, bashing my knee against a rock and sending me into a temporary fit of knee-jerk profanity. (That night, I find myself icing a golf-ball-size bump. Cool.)

But I'm OK, and soon enough we're cruising the wide, gravel path that circumscribes Lake Padden and drops down along its gorge for about a mile. When we come across dog-walking pedestrians deep in conversation, or iPod-enchanted joggers, Peterson rings a little high-toned handlebar bell (Ting!) to alert folks that we're approaching from behind. (I've got to get me one of those.)

After a couple-mile stretch of road, on which we hit 20-plus mph and draft like road cyclists on a breakaway, we're back on trail. I pretend we're riding Paris-Roubaix, one of those spring classic bike races in France where they race on roads then cobblestones then mud and dirt then roads and back to the cobblestones — for like 165 miles! (All told, today's loop is probably 25 miles.)

We pass through Fairhaven on some of Bellingham's glorious greenways, then down the waterfront to Taylor Avenue Dock, Bellingham's primo water promenade that extends out over the bay. (Ting! Ting! Ting! goes Peterson's bell.)

Passing through Boulevard Park, we make note of the always-bustling The Woods Coffee shop — the Lynden-based Woods chain is like Whatcom County's own Starbucks — that opened a waterfront shop in a formerly pretty-much-forgotten parks department building. It's the only business in a Bellingham city park any one of us can think of. (An avowed line-loather, I've never been in there because it's always so busy.)

Continuing north, we hit downtown Bellingham, eventually returning to Peterson's house.

We're cold, a little wet, but we've got that satisfied, we-got-in-a-good-ride-today glow. However, one thing has been gnawing at me ever since we saw that Woods coffee place. Something I just need to take care of. So I take a risk. I go for it.

"Hey, Mark," I say. "Can I get another one of those little cups of espresso for the ride home?"

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of "Day Hike! Central Cascades" and "Day Hike! North Cascades" (Sasquatch Books). He can be reached at mikemcquaide@comcast.net. His bike-centric blog is mcqview.blogspot.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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