Kids these days with their video games and camera phones, backwards hats and baggy pants. They are even riding fat tire road bikes now! Back in my day we sent telegrams and took Daguerreotypes, and all of our road bikes had 21c tires. We certainly didn’t ride them off road, let alone with beer hand-ups, dollar grabs, and cowbells. What is this cyclocross all the kids are doing these days? And why do their brakes never work well?
Let’s face it. Cyclocross is blowing up, nay, has already blown completely and is now expanding like the post big bang universe in which we ride. People everywhere are adopting wide knobby tires and complaining about their brakes. Racing drop-bar bikes on the grass and mud in the mucky mid-Atlantic autumn is a lesson in toughness. Cyclocross is far from an American phenomenon, though. Like almost everything cycling related, its roots lie in Europe.
As you might expect, the acute origin of cyclocross is much debated. I think it is safe to say that the sport evolved out of off-season training rides in the northern European countries (mainly France and Belgium). Riders, in preparation for the coming road season, would brave the harsh elements of winter and resort to off-road riding to avoid disastrous road conditions. Running up impassable sections would warm the feet and toes, while also providing a more complete workout. Handling skills were honed. Muscles were honed. Men were made tough.
Interestingly enough, the first sanctioned cyclocross races took place in France in 1902—even before the Tour de France—although at this point in history, road cycling was already much larger than cyclocross. Racing grew organically until 1910 when Octave Lapize attributed his Tour de France win that year to off-season cyclocross training. The sport quickly became international.
In 1924 France hosted the first international competitions in Paris, and in 1950 UCI sanctioned the first cyclocross World Championships.
The first dominant force in the sport came in the late sixties in the form of a man named de Vlaeminck—but not the de Vlaeminck you already know. Eric de Vlaeminck, Roger’s brother, won 7 cyclocross world championships—six in a row from 1968-1973. Even “The Badger” himself, Bernard Hinault, was a prominent racer in cyclocross in the mid-80s, though he is better known for winning the Tour 5 times.
Storied past aside though, what has made ‘cross become so big in the US recently? That, I believe, has much more to do with the culture that surrounds ‘cross, in addition to the race itself. Much like mountain biking, cyclocross boasts an atmosphere centered on inclusion, drinking beer, and suffering—which for roadies who disdain the seriousness and occasional douchbaggery that haunts road riding, can be a welcome change. Plus who doesn’t like playing in the mud?
|Ben Berden gets dirty|
Cyclocross’s rapid ascension in the United States may also be due to the fact that we are simply SO far behind Europeans in this sport. In the entire history of the Cyclocross World Championships an American has only graced the podium once. A feat, which will surely be improved upon soon—or at least, we all hope, as 2013’s edition of Worlds will be held on American soil in Louisville. Recently the sport has been utterly dominated by Belgians, with many races becoming only a question of how many Belgians will finish before the next country breaks up the train of light blue, black, yellow, and red.
|Sven Nys, one of the most dominant Belgians of the last 10 years|
Recent Belgian dominance is actually quite astonishing. Since 2002, the Belgians have swept the podium at Worlds a remarkable FIVE times—winning no less than 25 medals (8 gold) during that period.
You shouldn’t have to worry about being lapped by a flying Belgian in your local races though, just expect good times and hard riding. The Mid-Atlantic region touts one of the most robust cyclocross race schedules in the country. You can surely fill most all of your weekends from now until the end of the season if you so desire. Check out the MAC series if you are looking for some really well run introductions to ‘cross racing and culture.
That is maybe the best part of the whole equation: Cyclocross is not about intimidation. It’s about just jumping in, giving it a go—and maybe drinking a beer on the way.
Speaking of “jumping in,” I will leave you with what might be the greatest 18 seconds of cyclocross footage ever recorded. Don’t worry though; Joey is okay.