The title of the 2004 cyclocross film by Brian Vernor probably summed it up best: Pure Sweet Hell. It’s a form of pedal-powered bike racing that has been around for more than a hundred years. It’s kind of like road racing (particularly criterium racing), and kind of like mountain biking, but at the same time nothing like either of them.
Pure Sweet Hell, premiered at the 2004 US Cyclocross Nationals, in Portland, Oregon. Featuring: Justin Robinson, Gina Hall, Rick Hunter, Barry Wicks, Mike Ferrentino Music…
Cyclocross was born in Europe. Legend has it that in the road racing off season the riders would race each other from town to town across the fields via the fastest route they could find, cutting through farms and over fences. Where the ground or conditions (often including snow and ice) made riding impossible, they would simply run with their bikes.
The French were the first to legitimise cyclocross with a national championship race in 1902. Belgium has a stronghold on the men’s discipline today, but it wasn’t until 1910 that they started competing for a national title. Other European nations followed including Switzerland (1912), Luxembourg (1923), Spain (1929), and Italy (1930).
With the UCI taking on the governing role in the 1940’s, the first world champion was crowned in Paris in 1950. (It was another fifty years before women were given the chance to compete for a rainbow jersey, in 2000.)
The english speaking world caught on in 1955 with the first UK championships, and the first US championships were held in 1963. British immigrants were responsible for the very first CX race in Canada in 1964 but their national champs didn’t follow until 1996.
The globalisation of ‘cross really started in the 2000’s with Japan hosting their first UCI races and the Dirty Deeds series in Australia drawing hundreds of racers and international attention. Australia’s first formally recognised national champs took place in 2013, the same year that China came online with UCI races (they don’t have a national championships yet). New Zealand held formally recognised national champs in 2012 and 2013.
Until 2013 the highest levels of cyclocross racing had been all Europe, all the time. Enter Louisville, Kentucky, and the globalisation of ‘cross took a giant leap with the world championships hosted outside of Europe for the first time.
Since then the World Cup has visited the UK (Milton Keynes, 2015) and set up permanent residence in the US (Las Vegas, 2015/16; Iowa City, 2016/17; Waterloo WI, 2017). Waterloo and Iowa City are set to host again in 2018. International UCI races have made it as far as Australia, with Fields of Joy in 2017 and 2018.
That’s a lovely bit of history, but what is it exactly?
Traditionally it’s a winter sport, but recently world cup and other top level races in the US and Australia have seen sun, dust, and temperatures in to the 30s and 40s (Celsius, but it would be normal in Farenheit!). The world champs video above shows the highest level of event, but the fundamentals are the same at every level. Typically raced in city parks around the world, courses of 2.5-3.5km in length and 3m wide include a variety of surfaces such as grass that often quickly gives way to mud, gravel, sand, dirt, and sealed surfaces. Elevation can range from flat to undulating and can include short, steep, sometimes to the point of unrideable, climbs. Natural and man made obstacles include off-camber, barriers (up to 400mm in height), steps, logs, water features, and flyovers. A lot of tight and technical turns are also common.
Mountain bikes are commonly used as a gateway to the sport, and most events cater to them with certain grades allowing their use. Among the serious and elite CX bikes adhere to the rules: drop bars and skinny tyres (formal rules are 33mm or narrower and at UCI races you will find commissaires using special tools to measure as riders are called up to the start line). Due to the nature of typical conditions multiple bikes are allowed and racers may change bikes up to twice per lap in the designated pits. While it induces severe chest pain among some, these bikes see plenty of pressure washer action with bikes needing to be turned around in minutes ready for a few more minutes on course. Next time you see a race involving use of the pits, spare a thought for the support crew doing the hard yards behind the scene.
It’s best to leave the baggies at home for CX – muddy clothing gets heavy, flaps around, and can cause crashes. But bring your MTB pedals and shoes – you can get specific CX gear that performs better in thick mud and ice, but flats will turn any muddy slope in to a slip’n’slide.
After 45 minutes to an hour of red line effort, bar to bar racing, the occasional acrobatic feat, sometimes a bit of rolling around in mud, a bell rings signalling the final lap of the race. One of the attractive aspects of cyclocross is that it can quickly become difficult to tell who is in which position. At club level lapped riders are never pulled, so the rider in last position may well cross the line immediately after the winner.
While the courses don’t include the type of technical terrain seen in mountain biking, the conditions, bikes, and obstacles result in a discipline that requires the most specific skill set in cycling. Small differences in technique can save significant time and energy, and highly drilled athletes are much less likely to succumb to fatigue induced errors and crashes.
The very best way to find out what ‘cross is all about is to get along to a race. Better yet, give it a go! Just remember to dress appropriately and, assuming you’ll be partaking in traditional conditions, warm and dry clothes to change in to afterwards. Most events have at least a coffee cart on site, so a bit of cash is a good idea for a hot choccie to warm you up while you watch some other races.
Check out the A-Z of ‘cross pictorial here.