The road to being a national champion is a bumpy one, especially in cyclocross.
But Colton Bailey is ready for it.
At 13-years-old, Bailey, of Mason City, lined up at the starting gate against 39 men of all ages at the USA Cycling Iowa state championships on Nov. 25.
His goal was to podium, but he won, which punched his upcoming ticket to nationals in Reno, Nevada, on Jan. 13.
Bailey’s been hooked from the start. Born to a triathlon-loving family, Bailey and his dad, Steve, grew to love cycling more than any other aspect of the race.
“I had always been better on the bike than anything else, so he started racing and I watched him,” Bailey said. “A few years later, I fell into it.”
It started with mountain biking at 8, then road racing at 10, but Bailey would find his one true passion in cyclocross at 11.
Cyclocross has a little bit of everything: mountainous terrain, mud, sand, grass and occasionally pavement. It’s unpredictable in more ways than one, athletes won’t know how long the course is or how many laps they are racing until two laps into the race.
If the race is 45 minutes long, the officials determine how many laps the competitors will take based on the pace they set. So, if the first two laps of the race take five minutes, then the lap counter will tell the cyclists they have seven laps left, assuming that’s how long it should take.
MASON CITY — Cyclocross is a family affair for four Mason City residents.
The winner is determined by the order in which they finish, or, the fastest time. Not everyone will finish in the 45-minute time period.
Out of the three types of cycling races he does, Bailey says cyclocross is the most difficult because the athletes are scattered throughout the track.
“You can’t really draft and that drafting gives you a little bit of a break,” Bailey said. “Whereas, in cyclocross you’re always at your peak the entire race.”
There’s methods to getting over the obstacles, too. Each course has a set of barriers in height ranging from 11-15 inches. Athletes can pick up their bikes and run over them, or “bunny hop.”
As a competitive racer, Bailey has worked hours on mastering the bunny hop, where he lifts the front part of his bike off the ground to hop over the obstacle. It’s something he’s practiced this year and so far, he can hop 14 inches.
The training is rigorous and unlike road racing, Bailey is not working on endurance. He’s working on stamina.
“Leading up to nationals for 13-14, it’s a very short race,” Steve said. “Instead of him having to sustain power for 45 minutes like he’s been doing all summer, we target shorter, harder intervals because he’s only going to be racing for 20 minutes. What he needs now is high power input during a short amount of time, so that’s what we’ve transitioned into these two weeks after the state championships.”
The workout that night was two minutes all-out, then taking down the pace just a notch for four more minutes before allowing a recovery. He’d repeat this cycle over and over again for a set amount of time on the smart trainer in his basement, which connects to an online program called Zwift that monitors his power output, while connecting him with competitors using the same program all over the world.
But despite its challenging nature, Bailey says that his friends at school didn’t understand that cycling was a sport. He was discredited as an athlete, but Bailey saw this as an opportunity to share his passion.
“It’s more fun to talk about, and I’ve been doing presentations at school,” Bailey said. “I do almost everything about cycling so I can help teach people about it. It’s gotten a lot better over the years, people are more open to the thought of being a cyclist.”
His parents would start Spin Devo, a USA Cycling club in Mason City, where kids ages 9-18 can join and compete at all levels. The team currently has 27 members, including Bailey and his 10-year-old sister, Caelyn.
And while it’s not a team sport, Bailey says the community aspect of traveling across the Midwest for races is something special.
“Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Nebraska, South Dakota, each town and each race is difference, each venue is different,” Bailey said. “It’s fun to see each town … it makes for a really hard time to go back home.”
Bailey is currently ranked No. 7 out of 386 juniors going into his race at nationals. After nationals, he won’t ride a bike for two weeks, but road racing season starts in May, so he’ll resume training in February.
But that’s just the grind of a cyclist, it’s a year-round sport for a national competitor.
“If somebody loves soccer, they put hours and hours into soccer,” Bailey said. “So, I love cycling.”