Cyclo-cross Circus


The latest edition of RIDE Cycling Review, Issue 58 (Vol 4 2012), features a piece on the rapidly developing Australian cyclocross scene. Before our coverage of the local racing we published a piece on the sport in its homeland.

From the cold, muddy and at times bleak winter months Tom Lanhove looked at the sport that so few Australian’s understood…

This piece was published in RIDE Cycling Review Issue 43.


– By Tom Lanhove (January 2009)


Unlike the road bike pro, who loathes racing in stormy weather, their cyclo-cross equivalent actually welcomes the most dire of conditions. After all, a race full of drama and excitement is what pays the bills. It’s the fun of witnessing great sport with a penchant for extremes set completely in nature. That is key to understanding why the sport has such an enthusiastic following in Europe and America. Top events are elaborate parties with commercial stalls, music concerts and side animation to complement the actual action.

Cyclo-cross requires the highest level of fitness from riders and offers the viewing public immensely spectacular races, but it is in crisis. At face value, this curious and compelling facet of the sport has all the trappings of a success story. So why isn’t it taking the world by storm? It would appear this vibrant subculture is having an identity crisis that is blocking its development into a truly global sport.

Like road cycling, the origins of cyclo-cross lie in the late 19th century. There are conflicting founding myths, but the most persistent claims it started when a French soldier had to resort to some creative thinking to follow the horse of his lord. Just to keep up with the stallion through the fields and forests, the soldier was forced to use his sturdy road bike. The feat became famous and others started re-enacting his rides. Legends aside, cyclo-cross did indeed start in France around the same time as the road versions of the sport. Given the state of infrastructure in those days, both disciplines may well have been the same. And riders naturally developed the skills necessary to compete in both disciplines.

The link between ‘cross’ and races like the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix is clear to all. Dutchman Adrie van der Poel won the Tour of Flanders and was third in Roubaix in 1986; 10 years later he was the cyclo-cross world champion. Belgian legend Roger De Vlaeminck was world champ in 1975. His cross rainbow jersey fit nicely with his four first-place trophies from Roubaix. The foundation of skills required for cyclo-cross came in handy in the Tour de France as well.

Frenchman Octave Lapize, one of the early Tour winners, was an accomplished ‘crosser’ himself and actually credited his most famous victory to his off-road days.

Cyclo-cross developed as a winter sport due to a tactical move on behalf of the race organisers and teams. In order to avoid competition with bigger road events, cyclo-cross positioned itself as an occupation for road riders to stay fit – and wealthy – over the winter months. Until the recent high salaries for the best riders, cyclo-cross events saw the big stars of the road show up to pocket some extra winter cash. It was either that or heading for the smoke-filled bike temples of Six-Day events. However, with the modernisation of cycling, the link between road biking and cross has been all but severed. Alas, the season is also now much longer. It’s a loss for both disciplines; they complement each other extremely well.

From its beginnings in France, neighbouring countries joined the fray. Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy and the Netherlands were soon organising parallel seasons.

The sport stayed an unregulated mash of national events until the 1940s when the UCI recognised and underwrote cyclo-cross. It was only in 1950 that the first world championship was held, won by Jean Robic of France. He is the most recent rider to have won the Tour de France as well as a cyclo-cross rainbow jersey, and probably will remain the last person to do so.

The French continued to dominate for a few years until the Flemish, Swiss and Italians started to infiltrate the sport. Ironically, since then cyclo-cross has lost much of its appeal in France and its heartland has clearly shifted to Flanders, Belgium. For many reasons, this was a logical evolution. From its early days the sport of cycling has been a big hit in rural Belgium and the tiny population has produced a remarkable number of champions over the years. It still boasts two of the biggest Classics of cycle sport: the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Only a quirk of European history makes Paris-Roubaix a French race, as the ‘real’ part of the cobblestone challenge occurs in French Flanders, just below the border with Belgium. 

When you see how well Belgians perform in their natural habitat of cobblestones and muddy roads, it is no surprise that cross is such a big hit. Belgium has produced multiple cyclo-cross world champions such as record holder Eric De Vlaeminck (seven rainbow jerseys), Roland Liboton (four) and, most recently, Sven Nys.

A cross race is compact, fast-paced and to the point. It offers the viewing public repeated glimpses of the riders as they pass several times on a circuit mapped out by organisers. There are also nasty falls and plenty of acrobatics along the way. The elite race, however, is only one part of the event. Cyclo-cross is a day-long event that starts in the morning with the youth categories and continues through to the women’s elite division. The men race last. Considering everyone uses the same circuit, the elite male riders actually inherit the course when it’s completely torn up. That’s the beauty of this sport: the worse the conditions, the better the race for all involved.

An average circuit uses anything it can find. Sand banks, muddy fields where riders sink in ankle-deep, artificial mounds, frozen ground and whatever the heavens throw at them are all part of the equation. Apart from the sporting aspect, an event organiser will go out of their way to banish the winter blues among the European spectators. At the high end, organisers provide VIP stands and there are even guided shopping tours for women whose husbands hang around the course all day.

At the other end of the spectrum the course is lined with throngs of stalls selling everything from waffles, fries and – very profitably – beer. It’s a rowdy bunch of supporters and incidents between spectators and riders are not uncommon. A few years ago Bart Wellens karate-kicked a taunting fan, and former world champion Richard Groenendaal punched a Belgian spectator who went too far mocking the Dutchman. Yet no one would deny that such incidents and beer-guzzling crowds add a unique vibe. It’s a toned-down atmosphere that the UCI is hoping to export across the globe, with mixed results so far.

It’s with tongue in cheek that I call cyclo-cross a circus. No one in his or her right mind would belittle the physical intensity of the sport, or underestimate the technical skills required to succeed. Every rider needs to exhibit a combination of bike handling, endurance and raw power. And this is just to keep up and not get caught by the leaders after a few laps!

Every winter stars of the road join a cross or two for ‘fun’. Despite their credentials, these hardened professionals get eclipsed halfway through the course as the top cyclo-cross riders are able to lap them without much difficulty. Many of the latter are accomplished road cyclists or mountain bikers in their own right. For example, the leader in the UCI cyclo-cross rankings, Sven Nys, was ninth in the MTB Olympic race in Beijing and current cyclo-cross world champion Lars Boom is Dutch national road cycling champion as well as time trial world champion in the under-23 division.

Clearly, many riders could have a bright future on the road but something about cyclo-cross keeps them away – for the time being – from the bigger money offered there. Boom’s Rabobank team has been begging him to switch to the ProTour and wants to pull him out of cyclo-cross. He has refused thus far, but with his impressive talent and young age (23) it’s only a matter of time before he too will make the shift.

This push-and-pull power of the road season underlines that despite all the hype and tradition, cyclo-cross is undeniably a small subculture of global pro cycling.

During the last world championship in Treviso, a grand total of 22 nations participated in the event. This number covers all the youth, men’s and women’s elite categories. The men’s race had 64 participants from 18 countries; the women’s had 38 starters from 11 countries. Only 20 nations have regular cyclo-cross seasons with national championships. The bulk of the representation was from western Europe, although more and more eastern European nations have launched into the sport. The Czech and Slovak republics, Poland and the Ukraine are among the most noteworthy. Outside of Europe only the US, Canada and Japan are regular participants at World Cup events. These numbers regrettably reflect the limited exposure of the sport on a global level.

Still, cyclo-cross has managed to develop into a mature and professional discipline. There are several classifications based on accumulated points. In Europe the most important of these are the Superprestige, the Gazet van Antwerpen Trophy and the World Cup series. There is also the one-off world championship. Below these top classifications you have minor events all season – essentially from September to February – and national championships.

Teams are smaller than those on the road and are usually organised as Continental squads. This allows the riders to compete and train with road teams throughout the regular summer season. Another important feature of cyclo-cross is that, apart from their monthly salaries, riders can negotiate starting fees independently with race organisers. The two top riders, Nys and Boom, usually receive between $8,000 and $16,000 per race, excluding prize money at the end. This has become a sore point of late as the appearance fee of every rider has increased in line with the top-ranked riders. It is hurting minor event organisers both in Belgium and most certainly abroad. This entrenched financial structure is a massive stumbling block whenever the UCI wants to invite the top riders to compete elsewhere in the world.

Unlike road racers, a cyclo-crosser’s starting position relates to their accumulated UCI points. The higher their ranking, the closer to the front of the pack they start. Like in MTB, a good start at a cyclo-cross race is critical. The UCI stipulates that the course must be a minimum of three metres wide to allow overtaking. In reality, with the difficult terrain, overtaking is not a common feat for the lesser gods of cross.

A good cyclo-crosser must do more than ride fast. He must be able to ride close to 100 per cent heart rate for about one hour. Sven Nys has released heart rate graphs showing how his Polar watch recorded that he rode over 60 minutes at 191bpm average, when his maximum heart rate is 196bpm. This astonishing feat seems to be the rule, rather than the exception.

Cyclo-cross does not provide the benefits of slipstreaming or team tactics. The course is short – typically around two to four kilometres – and full of chicanes. These are placed deliberately to force riders to sprint, run, jump, shift gears strategically and sprint some more. Not content with that, course designers build at least one set of wooden planks, placed in rows of two or three, to jump over. Specialists can bunny hop their bikes but most riders must unclip, jump off, hurdle over the planks, jump back on and click back into the pedals within a matter of seconds. Pros make it seem simple, but I encourage anyone to try this in their backyard with their road bike. It takes tremendous skill to perform correctly as well as gracefully. 

With all this fun, why is cyclo-cross in trouble worldwide? The plethora of big-money races in Belgium is crowding out smaller races elsewhere. Pro riders are not interested in travelling to poorly funded events; the quantity, quality and financial backing of races in Flanders keep most there for the entire winter. This creates two distinct hurdles, as the case of the Czech Republic illustrates. Despite having promising riders like world championship silver medallist Zdenek Stybar, the Czechs cannot find the sponsors to establish a thriving local season. With their limited budget, they simply cannot attract the top riders. Worse yet, they can’t even keep local stars like Stybar at home for more than a few races.

For years event organisers and the UCI have been promising bigger races in eastern Europe, the US, the Middle East and Japan. The European pros pay lip service to these efforts, but the financial picture is usually too meagre to cover travel expenses and appearance fees. For cyclo-cross it seems the lure of the Belgian money undermines all the best intentions, coaxing away the biggest stars and keeping local sponsors uninterested in the sport at large.

A second factor undermining the search for global sponsors is the direct competition of road cycling for limited sponsorship budgets. To exacerbate this problem, cyclo-cross is not even an Olympic sport. More than anything else, this lack of ‘Olympic branding’ compromises the growth of the sport in non-traditional countries. Due to its position on the UCI calendar, cyclo-cross is labelled a winter sport. However, in order to become an Olympic winter sport, competition must take place on snow or ice. This is not the case with cross. Making the sport a summer Olympic discipline, on the other hand, would require an overhaul of the current calendar and all established patterns. Apart from resistance by the entrenched powers, it would also bring the sport into competition with road and MTB events.

To break the deadlock, former Belgian pro-crosser and UCI delegate Peter van den Abeele wants to “fuse” the sports of MTB and cyclo-cross. Of course, MTB will retain its identity and cyclo-cross will remain a winter event, but his aim is to bring both disciplines closer to each other. Conceptually, the UCI is thinking of an “off-road championship”, where the top crossers will battle the top bikers.

To level the playing field, the UCI wants to limit the length and structure of MTB courses. He points to the Beijing Olympics as a case in point. Sven Nys accumulated enough UCI points to participate in Beijing and ended up ninth, after briefly flirting with a bronze medal. The UCI intentionally adopted a more cross-like circuit: compact, explosive and not too technical. The result is that spectators will see the riders more often and the sport becomes less exclusive by inviting more top cyclists to compete. The success of the Beijing race does lend credibility to this intriguing concept. Also, according to UCI stipulations, riders in MTB events are not required to use a conventional mountain bike. If the course permits, and so willing, riders can compete with their cross bikes.

It seems the small print of regulations allows a lot of scope to bring this UCI dream to life.

Despite being an imperfect solution to an intractable problem, it does offer opportunities to both sports. If riders can be ‘swapped’, it implies that both sports will grow their level of competition. It benefits the respective race organisers and spectators, but it also may open the purse of non-traditional cycling countries to develop cyclo-cross as a sport.

China has already established a small cross season in Beijing, and other countries like Australia and Mongolia have flirted with the sport as well. Japan has been leading the way in Asia for some time now and in the US the sport has advanced impressively. Still, despite all the hopeful signs, no European riders will participate in Japan or the US this year. In fact, the promise of an international race in Las Vegas hasn’t been fulfilled and a cyclo-cross exhibition in Hong Kong was cancelled due to the lack of financial guarantees. The peculiar financial structure of cyclo-cross lies at the root of both setbacks.

Cyclo-cross is a sport with a high level of amusement; it is also an easy and cheap sport to set up in non-traditional countries. Sure, you need major sponsors to attract the top riders but if you look at it from an organisational perspective, the sport has many benefits. A cyclo-cross event is usually held in nature, far away from public roads, requiring little municipal involvement and no disruption to normal traffic.

Entrance fees raise money unheard of in road races. The biggest races in Flanders draw crowds of up to 60,000 people, each paying $10-$20. The course is compact so, with a few cameras, you can televise every inch of the course. Finally, spectators see the riders pass dozens of times in the course of one hour. Simply put, there are no dead moments in cyclo-cross events and therein lies its beauty.

For the moment the sport is alive in Europe but obstacles threaten to quash the burgeoning cross cultures in Asia and America. The UCI is dreaming hard about launching the sport worldwide, but a more comprehensive overhaul of its incentive structure and some innovative thinking seem necessary before dreams can become reality.

– By Tom Lanhove


RIDE Media publishes RIDE Cycling Review, a quarterly magazine all about cycling.
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Author: rob@ride

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