Cross pur­poses

Cyclist - - Last Gasp -

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

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