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Published July 31, 2013, 10:00 PM

Rough rider: Former Fargoan makes name for herself in all-conditions cycling

LEE'S SUMMIT, Mo. - The first time Alyssa Severn entered a cyclocross race, she won. “I was kind of hooked after that. Anything you do well at right away, it’s a little more addicting,” the 33-year-old says.

By: Meredith Holt, INFORUM

LEE'S SUMMIT, Mo. - The first time Alyssa Severn entered a cyclocross race, she won.

“I was kind of hooked after that. Anything you do well at right away, it’s a little more addicting,” the 33-year-old says.

In the three years she’s been competing in the off-road bike discipline, she’s taken home a dozen first-place finishes.

Severn, a former Fargo resident who now lives in Lee’s Summit, a suburb of Kansas City, has always been a cyclist.

Growing up in Fargo, she rode bike and worked at Island Park Cycles (now Great Northern Bicycle Co.) for eight years.

She set school and state records in high school and college in swimming and track and field.

Severn compares cyclocross to track and field’s 800 and 400. They’re shorter but require bursts of energy and power.

“You’re not at a full sprint, but you’re almost there the whole time,” she says.

Cyclocross, which began in Europe, places racers on tough terrain with obstacles along their way.

They bike through grass, dirt, gravel, mud, ice, snow – you name it.

“The racing conditions aren’t always the kindest, so it’s a sport that kind of brings out the survivalist in everybody,” she says.

The sport’s season typically falls between September and January, but races aren’t canceled because of weather.

“The only time I’ve been in a race that was shortened, lightning was actually striking on the course,” she says.

Severn says the toughest conditions she’s raced in were at last year’s Masters, held on a golf course in Louisville, Ky.

It’d been raining for three days before, and the temperatures were hovering around freezing. The course was covered in 4 inches of tacky mud.

She was picking up a new bike every half-lap, but the “frozen peanut butter” slowed her nonetheless.

“By the end, my wheels could barely turn because there was so much stuff getting stuck in them,” she says.

Because the weather’s unpredictable, cyclocross is a sport that doesn’t favor the same top athletes.

“You can have somebody who does really well in one race, and then the next weekend, the course is totally different and they get last place,” she says.

Along the 30-, 45- and 60-minute courses, barriers force competitors to get off their bikes and shoulder them up stairs or hills.

Spectators are encouraged to heckle the competitors and give them “hand-ups” of hot dogs, marshmallows or dollar bills.

Instead of “Good job!” and “Keep it up!” they hear “My grandma can ride a bike faster than you!”

“You can’t take yourself too seriously when you’re racing,” Severn says. “Even the best in the world are tripping over barriers sometimes and falling on their faces and crashing, and it’s always in front of people who are there to heckle you anyway.”

‘That next step up’

Severn says women’s cycling has lagged a little behind men’s.

“Historically, the cycling industry and bike racing in general, it’s very much a man’s world. There’s still a lot of the big races where they don’t even have the equivalents for females,” she says.

But since she started working at Island Park Cycles 18 years ago, she’s noticed the industry has been focusing more on women.

“Some of it’s fluff, but the big positive that’s come of the women-specific marketing is that women are being paid attention to and listened to,” she says.

She says cyclocross’ accessibility makes it one of the fastest-growing cycling disciplines for women.

“They’re more welcoming to all levels. There are people who get dead last every single weekend and they could care less,” she says. “It’s really family-oriented. You see a lot of people who have kids come out to the races on the weekends.”

It’s been tough, but her athletic discipline has helped her break into the sport and make a name for herself.

Severn’s five-days-a-week training schedule includes dismounting, remounting and running with her bike.

“If you get a flat tire, you have to run with your bike until you get to the pit. So if you get a flat tire after the pit, you can’t go backward, you have to keep going forward. You could be running half a mile with your bike,” she says.

She says growing up in the Midwest and living in some really cold areas helped her prepare.

“When you grow up in a place where school’s canceled if it’s 80 below – and that happens – nothing else really seems that bad,” she says.

In Fargo-Moorhead, where Severn got her start, the cycling community has been trying to grow interest in cyclocross the past few years.

“We’d love to see more action happen with it,” says Great Northern manager Jeremy Christianson.

His shop organizes the annual Red River Cyclocross Challenge and an off-road ride every Thursday in the summer.

“As we turn into fall, it kind of becomes a little bit more of a cyclocross training ride,” says Christianson, who’s also raced in cyclocross for several years.

The community’s one of the reasons Severn loves what she does.

“I moved from Madison, Wis., to Chicago last summer, and I immediately had a good group of people I knew who were helping me figure out this big city,” she says.

Cyclocross has not only given her friends in different cities but also introduced her to her fiancé, fellow racer Craig Harding.

Severn and Harding occasionally train together, and he provides the technical expertise she needs.

During races, he’s her “pit mechanic,” getting her new bikes and wheel sets ready as she needs them.

“I’m very fortunate to have him support me in that way. He does all the work on my bike, so he’s a big part of me being able to continue doing this,” she says.

When things get stressful on the course, one or the other says “Huddle up” as a way to signal a separation between their romantic and racing relationships.

“Once we say that, we know this isn’t involved in our relationship. This is the athletic side of the relationship,” he says.

Harding, 43, calls his fiancée an “A++ athlete” and a “very serious competitor.”

“Anything that’s thrown at her, she’ll do. And it takes that kind of focus to be at that level and to take that next step up,” he says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590