Something strange is happening. Cycling-related posts in my social media feeds used to dry up during the off-season – save for the odd snippet of transfer gossip or picture of pros training in Australia.
But now I’m being bombarded with images of mud-caked figures running around fields with bikes slung over their shoulders, more often than not tripping over a tree root or strategically placed fence, while drunken spectators point, clap, shout and hurl insults.
It’s called cyclocross, I’m informed, and its USP – at least from a fan’s perspective – seems to be its marriage of convenience with the drinking of beer. In particular, Belgian beer.
‘Duvel, Leffe, Hoegaarden, Maredsous, Kwak, Grimbergen, Westmalle, Brigand, Brugge, St Stefanus, Affligem, Karmeliet, Jupiler.’ This is the reply of cycling writer Chris Sidwells when I asked my Twitter followers to sell me cyclocross – or CX as the kids call it – in 140 characters or less.
That Chris spelled six of them incorrectly suggests he’s probably talking from recent experience. Either way, from his and other similar responses I quickly sensed a pattern – one that intertwines beer and mud, chips and cowbells.
Other stand-out snippets included ‘crashes where no one gets hurt’, ‘highoctane racing’, ‘ Mario Kart- esque circuits’, ‘cycling’s answer to Tough Mudder’ and ‘What’s not to love?’.
Not everyone agrees on that last point, though. ‘It combines the worst of mountain biking and time-trialling. You aren’t even cycling for a lot of it,’ opined one sceptic. But on the whole, the reaction was positive – unless, of course, you’re a tee-totaller obsessed with cleanliness, allergic to starch and susceptible to cold weather. (In which case, save for some prime exposure therapy, I’d suggest cycling in Doha.)
Cyclocross is huge in Europe – primarily Belgium – and it’s making ripples in the UK, Australia and across the Atlantic (where for some reason fancy-dress cross meets seem to have taken off).
With unclippings to rival those of a Koppenberg gruppetto, and more comedy dismounts than a Laurel and Hardy western, CX is thrill-a-minute stuff. I would call it the Twenty20 of cycling but unlike the shorter form of cricket, cyclocross has actually been around for over a century. Former Tour de France winners Octave Lapize (1910) and Jean Robic (1947) used to condition themselves through cyclocross in the winter. And many pro cyclists still cross the great divide today: Dutchman Lars Boom and Czech Zdenek Stybar are both former CX world champions.
Short, exciting races in a multitude of age categories, zany, accessible courses, plus those beer and chip stands all combine to make cyclocross a spectator-friendly sport with a festival atmosphere. A bit like Alpe d’huez but in a muddy field. Although where on Dutch Mountain the beers are usually offered to riders by spectators, in cyclocross, it seems, they often end up being thrown at them.
Yes, this is the darker side of the sport: heckling. An art form when done properly, cringeworthy when not, heckling is part and parcel of CX. In 2011, Belgian champion Sven Nys took to task a fan who had doused him in beer, chasing him through the crowds and under barriers before delivering the kind of lecture not seen again until Mark Cavendish stopped to confront a fan during this summer’s Tour of Britain.
And don’t forget mechanical doping. It was in a CX event where Femke van den Driessche, the European under-23 champion, was snared for having a motor concealed in her frame earlier this year. ‘It was a bad thing for the sport. But it was a good promotion for ebikes because they lost a bit of that old-people image,’ says Mike Kluge, 1992 cyclocross world champion and Focus Bikes founder. And while it may indeed have been bad publicity for cycling in general, it was great exposure for CX.
The fact that people are prepared to use motors underlines how tough cyclocross is as a sport. Dave Smith, a cycling coach and recent convert, agrees: ‘The main appeal to cyclocross is that they’re doing it, and I’m watching.’
Probably with a beer and chips. While ringing a cowbell. Despite his new-found love for CX, Felix nevertheless refuses to use the hashtags #fortheloveofmud and #crossisboss
Gimmick or game-changer? Felix Lowe looks into the meteoric rise and muddy mayhem of cyclocross