HYDE PARK — The first race of the 2013 Chicago Cyclocross Cup season kicked off Sunday afternoon at Jackson Park — with a focus by some groups on introducing the cycling community to a broader base as the sport's popularity grows.
Among the 800 riders in the year's season-opener were about 10 teens from West Town Bikes and Blackstone Bicycle Works, in Humboldt Park and Woodlawn respectively, in addition to another 20 who came to cheer their friends on.
Cyclocross combines off-road bike races and running, requiring racers to dismount their bikes and carry them for portions of a course.
Organizers estimated that around 50 kids ages 10-18 raced in Sunday's two junior sets, with the rest of the riders competing for top spots in other sets including women's, masters and single speed. The 2-mile course featured 59 turns and three nearly 1-foot tall barriers that forced racers to dismount and jump before continuing on their bikes.
But in a world of $1,000 bicycles and a majority white membership, the black and brown teen cyclocrossers from Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Humboldt Park aren't hard to miss — a reality that's changing as the growing sport is increasingly opened to communities of color, according to Lindsay Knight, a youth program coordinator with Blackstone Bicycle Works.
"We're a youth program in the shape of a community bike shop," she said of Blackstone, which, much like a separate youth program at West Town Bikes, combines educational support, health and wellness training and a slew of other free services to their young, mostly black and brown, members.
In cyclocross, kids who would otherwise not have access to the highest levels of professional cyclists bump shoulders and talk shop with them, Knight said — the interactions push boundaries in both groups, she added.
Michael Young, an operations manager at West Town Bikes, said many of these interactions in the cycling community are "not going to naturally happen except in a place like this."
The community has come together around West Town's youth program, he said — local businesses such as Johnny Sprockets, Village Cycle Center and Half Acre Beer Company contribute gear and dollars to get the young cyclists ready to ride.
Humboldt Park native Jose Gonzalez, 18, raced Sunday thanks to support from West Town Bikes and plans to compete in as many races as possible up until the championship.
Gonzalez said he's also been learning mechanic skills at the West Town Bikes youth program, alongside the clear health benefits he's experienced.
"And, little by little, my brothers started getting involved," he said, pointing to the 10- and 14-year-old boys who are following in his footsteps.
But aside from the benefit to young "urban" riders across the city, Young said the benefits of introducing black and brown youths to cycling cuts both ways.
"The cyclocross community needs it ... and these guys need to see that," he said, pointing to two West Town Bikes teens.
The kids, oblivious to the conversation, then fist-bumped as if on cue and proceeded to ride off and watch the races.