Cyclocross is as niche as cycling gets. It is also one of the more exciting spectator events in cycling. Let’s be honest, watching road racing is difficult for all but the most ardent fan. With the exception of some of the Spring Classics, such as Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders, I’m happy to only watch the final 40k. Cyclocross however offers a respectable race length over a circuit featuring challenging terrain. Unfortunately for those of us who live in Southern California, our environment doesn’t exactly lend itself to good cyclocross riding. Regardless, when the days start to getting shorter as late summer begins to transition to early fall, that can only mean ‘cross is coming.
The true origin of cyclocross is far from clear. The origin story that seems to make the most sense dates back to the turn of the Twentieth Century. Racers in Europe would race each other to the next town, with no restrictions on route. The shortest way to the next town would generally take riders across farmers’ fields, up and over hills, over fences, and through forests.
Held during the winter months, these races helped cyclists maintain their form during the off season. Riding often difficult off-road courses allowed for high intensity efforts. A difficult task to acheive on winter roads of the time. The riders also could work on their technical riding, improving bike handling skills. Portage sections, where riders have to run their bikes up unrideable sections, exercise muscle groups not generally associated with cycling.
an organized sport
It wasn’t long until cyclocross went from a way to train in the off season to an independent sport within cycling. The first National Championship in the newly formed disciple of cyclocross was held in France in 1902. When the winner of the 1910 Tour de France, Octave Lapize, credited his win to his off season cyclocross training, the sport took off. Belgium held it’s first National Championship in 1910. Switzerland followed two years later. The first international race was held in 1924 in Paris. By 1930, Luxembourg, Spain, and Italy all held National Championships. The first World Championship was held in Paris in 1950.
jumping the pond
In the United States, the first National Championship wasn’t held until 1963. The sport continued to grow in the Midwest with championships held until 1969. Popularity in New England and California saw the National Championships restarted in 1975 in Berkeley.
a unique discipline
Cyclocross appeals to a wide portion of cyclists due to the fact that it combines so many different aspects of the sport. While incredibly specific in format, cyclocross is combination of cross-county, mountain bike, and criterium racing. The machines ridden are also an assortment of these different kinds of cycling. With drop bars, fat tires, wide gear ratios, disc or cantilever brakes, a cyclocross bike mirrors the parcourse. The bike has to be competitive in a forum where it must excel on not only grass or dirt, but mud, snow, sand, and tarmac.
viewer friendly bike racing
The race format makes cyclocross viewer friendly. It’s a cycling sport where someone with no knowledge of the even can still enjoy watching the race. It’s difficult to say that about other cycling events. The course is generally between 2.5 km and 3.5 km, where 90% of the course is rideable. Man made obstacles include barriers, and stair run-up, forcing riders to dismount and carry their bikes.
The course makeup depends on when in the season the race is held dictates . Early season races over grass and hard packed dirt give way to muddy spectacles as Fall sets in. The later parts of the season means snow and ice. Part of the thrill of following the cyclocross season is seeing the weather and course conditions turn against the riders. There’s never a dull moment in a cyclocross race.
While I’ll be missing out on actually riding cyclocross, I love watching the sport. Especially as the winter sets in and the weather starts to offer yet another obstacle for the riders. The UCI races are next level fun when it comes to watching a bike race. The race strategy is completely different from road racing, and the rider’s bike handling can seem super human at times. If you haven’t had a chance to check out a cyclocross race, and you happen to get the chance, don’t pass it up. I doubt you’ll regret it. Thanks for reading, and as always, keep the rubber side down!