USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships take place at Zilker Park this week

Athletes race in the 2014 Cyclo-cross National Championships in this file photo by Eddie Clark for USA Cycling. This year's event is at Zilker Park.

Athletes race in the 2014 Cyclo-cross National Championships in this file photo by Eddie Clark for USA Cycling. This year’s event is at Zilker Park.

Video: Cyclo-cross National Championships rider Fred Schmid, 81

Think of cyclo-cross racing as steeple chase contested on bicycles instead of horses.

Competitors zip around a short course, leaping on and off their bikes, dashing over obstacles like rocky steps, steep hills or downed logs, and getting covered in mud. The fan base mirrors the sport – spectators get rowdy, cheering on their favorite athletes, drinking beer (and even offering it to passing cyclists) and getting splashed with mud themselves.

This week, the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships take place at Zilker Park, 2100 Barton Springs Road. Cyclists will scramble through woods, cross railroad ties, hop down limestone stairs and over wooden ramps, carrying their bikes on their shoulders at the toughest points as they compete for the national crown.

The athletes ride bikes that combine elements of road racers and mountain bikes – they’re lightweight with narrow tires and drop handlebars, but they also have knobby tire treads, lower gearing and bulkier frames. Races test riders’ aerobic endurance and bike handling skills – and their pit crew’s ability to get mud out of bike chains and make on the fly repairs.

The event is actually a second for Austin. The championships took place here 37 years ago. This year, they’ll unfold on a course that weaves all over 350 acres at Zilker Park. Packet pickup starts Tuesday at Bicycle Sport Shop. The course will be open for pre-riding from 2-6 p.m.The real competition begins at 10 a.m. Wednesday with non-championship races, and continues through Sunday, when the pros line up at the start line. In between are juniors, collegiate, masters and relay races for men and women of all ages. The pro women race at 2:45 p.m. Sunday, followed by the pro men at 4 p.m. Sunday. To see a complete schedule, go here.

Here’s the course:

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