Why We’re Cyclocross Fans, and why it’s important to North America

Photo by Sasha Eysymontt | flickr.com/photos/sashae

We recently caught wind of Joe Lindsey’s blog post Why I Love Cyclocross. It’s a response to our colleague Inner Ring‘s post Why I Hate Cyclocross. We feel compelled to chime in.

Here in the United States, bike racing isn’t the biggest scene. There are few large races that attract spectators, major sponsors, and popular media coverage. Sure, there are some – a couple stage races held out in the wilderness a couple thousand miles away, or a big ninety-minute crit held in a city half the continent away, but for the most part, road racing a niche sport with a slim Pro scene spread thinly throughout a huge country. 

The opportunities to be entertained by cycling are those that one makes for one’s self. 

Enter cyclocross. In the United States, cyclocross brings bike racing to the people – in so many ways. It’s the discipline at which the barrier between Professionals and amateurs dissolves a little bit. There’s a healthy and growing pack of UCI races filling the calendar; there’s even a professional series in New England. All this is enough to attract people like Bart Wellens, Francis Mourey, and many more to start their seasons here.

And as cyclocross brings Professional racing into our local parks, it also builds relationships with new riders. It’s undeniably a major avenue for growth of the sport. As the top tier of bike racing is riddled with real politik, strange scandals, backdoor deals, teams collapsing, corporate intrigue, curious economics, and other highfallutin nonsense, here in the United States, cyclocross is the sport of the people. Races can be less intensive to organize than crits or road races, can be held on private property circumventing the need for town permits, and so can be cheaper, smaller, and more ubiquitous. And perhaps most importantly, it’s a beginner-friendly sport. What better way to remove the fear of crashing by making it slow, soft, and in a park? Beginners can get dropped in road races and plod around the route, alone and miserable, never to return to a starting line. In cyclocross, I’d happily wager that it’s as easy to have fun at the back of the race as it is as the front. Quite possibly more. In a country that’s spend a hundred years making people forget about their bicycles by dangling shiny cars in front of their faces and building freeways outside their homes, we have to develop cycling and bike racing from the ground, up. Cyclocross does that. 

As Lindsey points out in his piece, cyclocross has a lot a lot going for it. It’s dense, all-out racing that is spectator-friendly. We find cyclocross easy to love - around in the dirt on long autumn days, riding over challenging terrain, hanging out in a park with your friends. But we also find it very easy to be cyclocross fans. There’s a chaos to cyclocross that makes it entertaining. It rides like the last hour of a classic race – dense, full-throttle racing, demanding perfection deep into the red. Tangle in a corner, put a foot down in the mud, or bobble in a corner and watch as your favorite rider’s race is nearly over. 

The beauty of the racing, therefore, is that it demands perfection in a way that road cycling can’t match. To watch the top tier of the sport, it’s immediately visible in the combination of fluidity and grace, power, perseverance, pain, and anaerobic awe. We can watch a race take place on the other side of the world, watch the smoothness with which somebody takes barriers or lets their bike float over miserably rutted terrain, and realize that we too can get better. We can take those lessons home – we can go to the park or to the local singletrack. We may not be genetic freaks with huge engines, but if we practice the barriers a thousand times we can go over as smooth as any Belgian pro. We might not do it as fast as they would but if we ride this stretch of trail a few more times we’ll get that corner carved perfectly, with barely a touch of the brakes. 

We are inspired.

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6 Responses to Why We’re Cyclocross Fans, and why it’s important to North America

  1. Mary Topping says:

    The more I think about this as comments continue to come in at the Inner Ring, the simpler this becomes. Anything that gets people on bikes — as long as it's not criminal — is good. Any bike racing is good. Therefore, cyclocross is good. I think that's all there is to it. Thanks for chiming in.

  2. Bryan says:

    Interesting post. While I do believe that CX's need to give itself validity is also a sign of it's inherent weakness (note: NORBA 1995-2005), I don't fault the discipline and it's fans for yelling and screaming as loudly as they possibly can for attention. After all, you are correct that CX is a wonderful discipline of cycling which requires a unique mix of power and bike handling skill. Watching the best transition through a section of barriers or sand is phenomenal! Did you see Zonhoven or Kopperberg? Wow.

    Having said that, you loose me with "The beauty of the racing, therefore, is that it demands perfection in a way that road cycling can’t match." This is beyond a stretch of imagination, and although you are entitled to your opinion, you shouldn't get too carried away. :)

    • mattio says:

      Thanks for the comment, Bryan. I'm interested in getting some elaboration on the point you raise about need for validity, weakness, and NORBRA 1995 – 2005. Can you go more in depth with that?

      Might be a stretch of the imagination, and I occasionally get carried away with purple prose. But I really do think that the margin for allowable error is much smaller in cyclocross than it is in road racing. A 10-sec gap in road racing is nothing, it's doom. A 10-sec gap in CX is very potentially race-winning and you do everything you can to preserve it. A minor mistake can bring you to a complete standstill. Therein lies the need for perfection.

      Thanks for encouraging me to clarify.

      • Bryan says:

        Mattio,

        When I hear this discussion about how great cross is, it reminds of the rise and subsequent fall of mountain bike racing in the 90's / 2000's. CX is not an olympic sport, which propelled MTB racing into the mainstream…at one point easily eclipsing the Tour de France in popularity pre-1999. So, I guess I'm asking – how is CX any different than MTB racing of the 90s? To me, it's not.

        Regarding your comment about CX requiring perfection where road racing does not (paraphrase), I'd ask you if Cavendish's winning world champion sprint did not take perfection? Of course it did, and that perfection started at KM 0, at the beginning of the race. Perfection in road racing to me, is the finest form…it requires a truly refined eye for the discipline to see it and appreciate it.

  3. Hunter says:

    I thought about giving a long winded response but this is all it really takes.

    Who gives a shit if cross is in the Olympics, cross doesn't need the Olympics whatsoever. Curling, 2 man luge, bobsledding, and 500 other totally inane sports are in the Olympics. The Olympics are commercial, they aren't some high pedestal of sport that transcends all other.

    All cross needs are its fans, and they aren't going anywhere. If you don't like cross; good, I don't want you to, I race cross because I get tired of the elitist roadies that I race with all year, because I think its beautiful, and because its damn fun.

  4. I agree with the sentiment of any racing is good racing and anything that gets butts on bike seats. All bike racing — be it an alley cat in NYC, trials up a cliff (is that "racing?"), downhill, or the Paris-Roubaix — has a degree of passion, perfection, training, drama and luck. Hard core roadies annoy me as much as some dirty hipster, but the racing is always good. It's silly to argue over which is better or more perfection-driven.

    From what I've seen of CX it's awesome — both the racing and the hardware. A cyclocross bike is a like a road bike one can take deep into the woods, or a mountain bike one can race quickly on paved roads.

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