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Contact News Tribune sports editor Rick Lubbers at rlubbers@duluthnews.com or (218) 723-5317.

Cyclocross challenges Wrenshall cyclist

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There isn't a stretch of dirt, gravel, mud, sand, snow, ice, tar or grass that intimidates Josey Weik and his bike.

If the surface or obstacle proves too treacherous, the 16-year-old cyclist from Wrenshall simply dismounts and carries his bike to where it's again safe to pump pedals.

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Such is the mindset of a cyclocross rider.

"Josey likes it the colder, the muddier, the better because it gives him a little bit of an advantage when the weather conditions are more on the poor side," said his mother, Sara, who home schools Josey with help from her husband, Matt.

Not for cyclists who prefer to keep their uniforms clean or their bodies unbruised and unscratched, cyclocross riders tore their training wheels off as toddlers and purposely rode their bikes through puddles to add a few layers of mud to their paint schemes.

"The (courses) really twist and turn and have obstacles," said Weik, which, appropriately enough, rhymes with bike. "There are a variety of surfaces depending on the time of year and the course. There are barriers on the course which are hurdles that are about 25-40 centimeters high.

"For those, you either have to get off your bike and run over them or hop them. There are also staircases that you have to run up. Sometimes there are just run-ups that are so steep and slippery that you can't ride up them, you have to run up them."

With all of those variables occurring on looped courses with races that last 40 minutes, cyclocross features more mayhem than your average mountain bike or road races, which Weik also competes in. But his focus, for the moment, is cyclocross. And he excels on those challenging courses.

Weik's Red Zone Cycling team, based in Louisville, Ky., has sent him and teammate Gavin Haley, another up-and-coming junior rider from Kentucky, to participate in a group of races in Europe - most of them taking place in cyclocross-crazed Belgium, the sport's epicenter.

An early race collision stymied Weik's efforts at the International Cycling Union's World Cup stop at Valkenburg, Netherlands, on Sunday, but he has another half-dozen races ahead of him through the middle of next month.

"Josey finished 32nd out of 64 starters," wrote Matt in an e-mail to the News Tribune on Monday. Follow Josey's exploits at his blog. "He had someone hit him in the back wheel on the start, taking all his momentum. So he was dead last around the first corner. He has pretty good form as it is pretty hard to pass that many guys on a course like this. Hoping for better luck next weekend."

It's noteworthy that Weik, who is 5-foot-9, 120 pounds, is always among the youngest competitors in his 17-to-18-year-old division. Cycling's governing body does not allow juniors in the 15-16 class to compete internationally, so Weik routinely faces older and more experienced competition at events in order to race around the world.

That degree of difficulty is appropriate considering his steep trajectory in the sport.

While mountain biking and road racing as a 13-year-old, one of Weik's coaches suggested he try cyclocross. He was hooked almost immediately. Eventually he started placing well enough at national races (making the leap from an 18th-place finish at nationals at the 15-16 level two years ago to placing sixth last year with the 17-18 competition) that he was the youngest rider ever invited to participate in the prestigious EuroCrossCamp last year in Belgium, which prepares young U.S. riders to compete with the world's top cyclocross athletes.

In Belgium it's typical for 60,000-plus spectators to cheer on the riders, and professional cyclocross athletes are routinely featured on reality TV.

Stateside, Weik is sponsored by Focus Bikes and locally by Ski Hut and Thirsty Pagan. Since cyclocross is not an Olympic sport, it receives little funding, so riders must scramble to find sponsors. The Weiks currently are attempting to raise money to fully fund Josey's season.

Weik said that while U.S. courses are challenging, European courses boost the level of difficulty several notches.

"Not only are the courses muddier, but the courses have more varied terrain and the obstacles are a lot crazier," he said.

And a lot more treacherous.

A rider has two choices when approaching an obstacle - either hop it or jump off the bike and carry it over the obstruction.

Since most obstacles come in pairs, Weik said the danger in hopping them is hitting the second barrier wrong and being sent headfirst over the handlebars.

Carrying the bike has its dangers, too.

"Cyclocross is a really on-and-off the bike sport," Weik said. "There's a lot of running involved, depending on how tough the course is. The dismount and the carryover aren't too hard. The biggest thing is getting back on."

And not damaging his ... um ... manhood.

"There is a special technique to doing it," he said. "If you don't do it right, it's not pretty, and I've done it wrong plenty of times."

But more often than not, Weik's dismount, carry and return are quick, precise and fluid.

Fortunately his Focus bike only weighs about 17 pounds ... unless it's caked with mud. In which case, he hits the pits and switches to one of his two backups.

"It's a shorter type of racing than most cycling, so inherently it's very intense and fast," Weik said. "You're going all out the whole time."

And he doesn't let anything slow him down. Not dirt, gravel, mud, sand, snow, ice, tar or grass.

Contact News Tribune sports editor Rick Lubbers at rlubbers@duluthnews.com or (218) 723-5317. Follow him @ricklubbersdnt on Twitter.

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