NASCAR, meet cyclocross. Road cycling's offbeat cousin features high speeds on a closed course, cerebral tactics, the ever-present prospect of carnage, even pit stops during 60 minutes of furious pedaling. Now add burning thighs, seared lungs and treacherous course conditions that typically include mud, gusty winds, hail and snow. At last year's cyclocross national championships, for example, an arctic cold front transformed the Overland Park, Kans., course into a single-digit tundra. "We were racing on solid ice, with 30-mile-per-hour crosswinds," says Jesse Anthony of Beverly, Mass., who would win the gold medal in the 15- to 16-year-old division.
Jesse, 16, and his brother Josh, 19, are two of the fastest-rising stars in this niche-but-gnarly sport and are favorites to win gold again in their respective age groups at this year's nationals, which will take place in Baltimore on Dec. 14 and 15. The most spectator-friendly of the cycling disciplines, cyclocross races last only an hour and are usually run on enclosed, cloverleaf-shaped courses, which enables fans to catch more than a fleeting glimpse of the competitors. Yet cyclocross has never enjoyed the wild popularity of its off-road cousin, mountain biking, owing to its cutthroat nature and a brutally inclement fall-through-midwinter schedule with terrain that often makes carrying, and not riding, a bike the fastest course of action. It is not a sport, say its practitioners, for the weekend warrior.
"You have to be a competitive person to enjoy it," says Jesse, who like his brother is a member of the elite Saturn development team. "In road cycling Joe Schmo goes out on a road ride, has fun and feels that he can relate to Lance Armstrong. But no one rides cross just for fun."
The Anthony brothers got their cycling starts on mountain bikes, but by the fall of 1998, Josh decided to try his hand at something new. Not an exceptional endurance athlete, Josh found his explosive bursts of power were much better suited to cyclocross's shorter races. Jesse soon followed in his brother's tire tracks.
Sticking with the sport, however, required a resolve that few teenagers sustain. ("There are always times when I want to quit," Josh admits.) The Anthonys recall the 1998 national championships at Fort Devens, Mass., when a semifrozen dirt hill thawed in the morning sun, creating a wall of mud that was virtually impossible to climb. For those racers who did make the ascent, the descent proved even worse, because nasty spills left several of the roughly 650 competitors battered and bruised and sent at least one racer home with a broken collarbone. "Most kids get to that point where it really hurts, and they quit," says Stu Thorne, a former cyclocross racer and an early mentor to the Anthony brothers. "These guys can suffer a little more."
Fitness has always been a priority in the Anthony household, though traditional sports are not. Nor is traditional education: Along with their two sisters and three brothers, Josh and Jesse are homeschooled. While that enables the brothers to train virtually anytime they like, their days aren't all fun and games. They adhere to an almost monastic regimen: sleep, eat, ride, study, repeat. "You have to give up a lot of things," says Josh, "movies, concerts, just hanging out with friends."
Says Thorne, "It's a different lifestyle for a kid that age, but I don't think Josh and Jesse are missing out on a whole lot. They have a lot of young friends on the team, or friends they see at the races. Their friends just happen to be world-class cyclists."