A Defence of Cyclocross
A defence of Cyclocross you say? It seems an odd concept doesn't it, given its current popularity amongst the British audience... Alas, here we are, because I can understand where critics are coming from. Imagine your non-cycling friend sees a photo of Mathieu van der Poel carrying his bike across a beach on the Belgian coast, how on earth do you explain this ridiculous concept? Once you've explained the idea of cycling across these different terrains, you are then hit with the question of "why don't they use mountain bikes?", to which you roll your eyes. That... is... not... the... point. Before December 13 last year, I myself was a sceptic, having stuck to watching road racing, bar a one off visit to the Rapha Super-cross event in Yorkshire some years ago. But over the course of this winter, with England suffering yet another mind-numbing lockdown, I have fallen in love with this bonkers sport and after reading Ned Boulting's terrific piece on Tom Pidcock this morning, which sheds a sceptic eye over the sport, I am here to explain why it is time you jumped into watching Cyclocross (should you not already do so that is).
Before we dive into the great UCI Cyclocross events on the continent, let us first look at one of Britain's finest races, the Three Peaks Cyclocross in Yorkshire. Taking in the Three Peaks of the Yorkshire Dales (Ingleborough, Whernside and Pen-y-ghent), the race offers a completely varied course which encapsulates the sport perfectly. With road sections, grassy fields, mountains and severe off-road sections, there is no perfect bike for tackling all of these obstacles. A road bike would be good only for the tarmac, a mountain bike would struggle when dismounting and running is the only option. A cross bike with drop handlebars is the weapon of choice and the riders have to put up with whatever is thrown their way. In all seriousness, a mountain bike would be perfect for the majority of Cyclocross races (Yorkshire's mountains possibly excluded due to the need to dismount), but that is not the point. The fun is in the challenge of dragging the beautiful drop-handlebar machine around the course, tackling sand, grass, tarmac, mud and everything in-between. Fell runners would probably be best served on the tarmac roads, but the fun is in the challenge.
Cyclocross is not a normal way of behaving. The best way to go from the Wellington Racecourse in Oostende down to the seafront is obviously on foot.
Where Ned sees sheer lunacy in the sport of tearing a bike across a beach in Belgium, I see beauty in the art of finding a path across a seemingly impregnable terrain. The drop-handlebar is the epitome of what a bicycle should look like, the challenge is how far you can push it (literally push it, perhaps). Sand, mud, grass, these all point to the unique selling point of Cyclocross racing, the mixture of different terrains which offer an incredible viewing experience that is sure to bedazzle the uninitiated.
The unique and stunning visual effect of Cyclocross was on full display yesterday in Ostend at the World Championships, and if you looked closely at the coverage, you may have noticed a black silhouette bobbing up and down in the ocean. My dad turned to me and said "I think he must be there in case the riders get into difficulty in the waves"... unlikely I thought, given they would be stupid to cycle directly into the ensuing North Sea. As it turns out, the black silhouette turned out to be Maarten Van de Velde, a "salty-sports photographer" who took his opportunity to get a unique perspective on the winter's most important race. Bidon Magazine managed to track Maarten down and his story is brilliant, should you wish to learn more about the brave Belgian who faced ocean temperatures of "about 5-6 degrees".
Shooting his lens from the ocean and capturing the leading riders as they skipped across the ever-unreliable beach surface, Maarten had encapsulated the beautiful essence of Cyclocross, the notion of the world's best cyclists battling it out on terrains that are a long way from the smooth, resurfaced parcours of the Tour de France. Three months after Wout van Aert and Mathieu van Der Poel duked out an iconic sprint finish in Oudenaarde at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the once-in-a-generation (somehow simultaneously) riders faced off on the beaches of a 'down-at-heel Belgian seaport and resort'.
© Kristof Ramon
Whether it be the sandy beaches of Ostend or the muddy off-camber sections at Baal, the parcours of Cyclocross offer a mind-bending exhibition at the testing of a bicycle's limits, with their heroic masters battling through wind, rain, hail and snow in order to come out on top. It is this varied terrain that drew Maarten Van de Velde into donning his wetsuit once more, in order to photograph the world's best riders fighting not just each other, but the North Sea also. What the great mountains are to road racing, the mud and sand are to Cyclocross, to my eyes at least. If you are yet to delve into this fun and wacky world and need a grasp on how tough the courses are, just think that Heinrich Haussler recently reported to Mitch Docker that on many courses, the bearings and components of the bikes only last a singular race before needing to be replaced completely. The dirt, salt and general enemies to bike maintenance are all part of the fun with Cyclocross, a reason why you will see riders swapping machines occasionally throughout races. The bikes can become so clogged with mud that using game theory, the riders choose to swap bikes in the pits because the time lost during the bike exchange will actually prove less than time lost carrying the extra weight of mud, as well as considering the risk of a mechanical issue. There is no luck for those who suffer mechanicals in the world of Cyclocross, no Mavic or Shimano help in sight, as Wout van Aert found out once more yesterday, with his puncture possibly costing him any hope of taking the rainbow bands. It is a vicious sport and when paired with the cobbled races, it is no surprise the Belgian pro riders are notoriously tough.
Pidcock looks crestfallen as he finishes third in Namur after a stellar ride. © Getty Images
But who am I to disagree with the legendary Ned Boulting, after all, his 2020 Road Book Almanack was my favourite Christmas present! Where we do agree is on the subject of Tom Pidcock... At the time of writing at the start of February (where on earth did January go?), Pidcock is now an Ineos Grenadier and destined for the WorldTour, one would say, destined for WorldTour success. This extraordinary Brit from Yorkshire has taken the cycling world by storm, if not quite as much as his older counterparts Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert, and yet I have not mentioned him once thus far in my love letter to Cyclocross.
I would like to take you back to the Namur round of the UCI Cyclocross World Cup in December last year, where Tom Pidcock shook the foundations of everything the cycling world knew about Cyclocross. For 7 or so laps, it appeared that Van der Poel and Van Aert were vulnerable to the might of the 'Little Big Man', as L'Équipe have since dubbed him, with Pidcock storming the course of Namur before unfortunately succumbing to third place behind the two greats. Pidcock's coming of age in the sport arguably came a week earlier, when he took victory in the Superprestige Gavere ahead of the reigning World Champion, Mathieu Van der Poel. This was the day that Cyclocross first peaked my attention once more, with the internet abuzz about the outstanding ride from Pidcock. Time to get watching, I thought, and I haven't looked back since.
To watch the rise of Pidcock on the road scene over the past few years has been tremendous, with the ceiling of his talent seemingly never-ending as he sailed his way to victories at the Tour of the Alsace and the Giro Ciclistico d'Italia (affectionally known as the 'baby Giro'). But I have missed out on his rise through the ranks of Cyclocross, where he has taken both the Junior and u23 World Championships, before going on to take the silver medal in the absence of Wout van Aert at last year's Elite Worlds. Pidcock drew me into the sport and it has been his progress which has been a joy to watch over this shortened winter season, as he firmly establishes himself as at a level nearing Van der Poel and Van Aert, who share a staggering seven World Championships between them. Despite a ride dogged by a few struggles yesterday, Pidcock still battled hard to take fourth place, coming from behind a pack of Belgians to go toe to toe with Toon Aerts in the battle for bronze.
One inescapable truth of men's elite Cyclocross, as eluded to in the previous paragraph, is the stranglehold on the racing held by Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert. Understandably, this is not everybody's cup of tea and just like in Italy, where Alfredo Binda became a nuisance with his sheer dominance of the Giro d'Italia, some people will be put off by this monopoly held on the races. If this is the case, it is time to remember that Cyclocross is not just a male sport, in fact, just as in WorldTour road racing, the women's events are often far more interesting than the men's. With a dynamic field that lacks a true hegemon, the women's elite Cyclocross racing is not to be missed.
Lucinda Brand makes her move on the final lap in Ostend. © Getty Images Sport
The women's elite World Championship race was a ding-dong of a battle between three Dutch women of the highest calibre, with the pre-race favourite and defending champion Ceylin Del Carmen Alvarado not even featuring at the head of the race. Lap after lap the trio of Lucinda Brand, Annemarie Worst and Denise Betsema went toe to toe, with Betsema taking an initial lead before ultimately succumbing to the bronze medal. On the final lap it was the leader Worst who took a tumble on a slippy corner in the mud and grass, allowing Brand to gallop away on her own and bring home her first World Championship title, after being on the podium for the past three years.
The race was the epitome of why Cyclocross is a brilliant sport to follow. In a blockbuster 47 minutes of action, we were treated to an extremely close race with thrills and plenty of spills. It is a pulsating watch that you can't take your eyes off for a minute, whilst simultaneously only forming a small part of your day given its shortness in length. It is an explosive sport that doesn't take up half your day and consists of some of the world's best riders. I saw a brilliant comment on Twitter earlier which summed up the magic of this all-out battle... "regular cycling is like flat horse racing. Cyclocross is like the Grand National held at a First World War battlefield with added sea and steps". Whilst I do think regular racing has a lot more to it than Richard describes, he hit the nail on the head when describing Cyclocross.
Whether it be the men's or women's races, Cyclocross guarantees around an hour of high-paced action which sees the riders battle through elements you wouldn't imagine a bicycle could make it through. Alas, with grit, determination and admittedly a bit of destruction, the riders and their trusted steeds make it through a varied parcours that serve up a treat in racing. During the down time of winter, when we all lust for the return of road racing, Cyclocross fills that void and more. Sorry Ned, Cyclocross is brilliant and I've not even seen a race with fans yet... I can't wait! Until then I shall continue to ride my bike across the beach of Weston-super-Mare and pretend to be the plucky Brit that is about to be unleashed on the WorldTour. Thanks for drawing me into Cyclocross, Tom.