Do you love cyclocross? Are you counting down the days until you can curl up on the sofa and watch, enthralled, as men and women throw themselves around muddy fields, jumping on and off their bikes and running up and down stairs like determined duracell bunnies? Then this piece probably isn’t for you. However, if you’ve a family member or friend who you’d like to convince that cyclocross is worth their time, then please use the following manifesto for good.
If you haven’t watched cyclocross before, then I’m here to tell you why you should get into it this winter. Perhaps you’re relatively new to the world of cycling - maybe you’ve been drawn in by the increased availability of live bike racing on your screens, or the Netflix Unchained series hooked you, or perhaps you’ve been a fan of road racing for years and you gracefully accept the passing of the seasons but feel a yearning inside for something to plug the gap, something that isn’t simply hanging around on Twitter waiting for the latest new kit to drop (it’s OK don’t worry, you can still do that too).
If you belong in any of these categories, or are simply ‘cross-curious’ then read on.
Cross is Boss
Cyclocross governs my weekend winters and my Christmas holidays like a big muddy clock. It’s predictable, reliable, comforting, and crucially, unlike some bicycle races I could mention (um, most of them), it doesn’t suck up all of your time. And did I mention the muck? Glorious, low country mud, mostly splattered all over riders, what could possibly go wrong?
Let’s delve into the reasons why cross is the perfect companion to your off-season.
No Cold Turkeys
OK, there’s no road racing for three long months and yes, this is very sad, but we have to let our favourite tired athletes rest. But fear not - there’s no need to go cold turkey - stoke the fire of your cycling passion during the cold season with a lovely dose of cyclocross. It’s like keeping a finger on the pulse of the sport without needing to be fully immersed in it, and it does wonders for the withdrawal symptoms, which really start to sting once you hit mid-December, I find.
Keeping up with your favourites
And you’ll be right at home as there are plenty of familiar names to keep up with. It goes without saying that the headline acts are Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, whose cyclocross rivalry far precedes their road rivalry and is truly legendary. You’ve got Tom Pidcock - he loves a bit of off-roading - and a few other select names from road fame such as Gianni Vermeersch, Thibau Nys and Quinten Hermans.
On the women’s side, while we sadly don’t have the pleasure of the GOAT Marianne Vos to look forward to this winter due to her recovery from surgery, there are some other familiar faces who regularly make the transition from tarmac to mud come winter. Shirin van Anrooij, Silvia Persico, Yara Kastilijn and Blanka Vas can be seen at cross fields around Europe and even Lorena Wiebes has been sighted on occasion.
Get to know future stars
Off-road is well known as the perfect proving ground for young riders, and we’ve seen no shortage of talent develop on the cross field before moving into the road peloton. Last season’s top billed rivals Puck Pieterse and Fem van Empel both made their road debuts this year after fruitful cross upbringings, and there are plenty of other young riders rising through the ranks who’ve inked deals with road teams, including the reigning junior champions Isabella Holmgren and Leo Bisiaux. Be the envy of your cycling friends in years to come when you regale them with stories of 'when they were kids' as you watch the latest hot shot multi-disciplinarian transition seamlessly into smashing it on the road.
So we’ve dealt with the personnel, now it’s time to look at what they’re up against. And all I can say is: rather them than me.
I jest of course; cyclocross is actually brilliantly inclusive and the mere fact that anyone can rock up and have a go at their local cross race is pretty darn cool. On the flip side however, it can be quite nice to feel a bit smug on a grim and grisly December afternoon: aww, but they look so cold and muddy, and I’m sitting in front of a roaring fire with a blanket, a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. Sad times. Cue evil laughter.
High octane excitement
It’s fast. And furious. And sometimes that’s even between team mates. Unlike road cycling, cyclocross is pretty much every man for himself, which can lead to some fascinating battles and grudge matches, along with the racing itself which is relentless and unpredictable. In road racing, the bunch race to the line. In cyclocross, they race FROM the line. So make sure you don’t miss a second.
The locations are what makes cyclocross what it is. OK, it may not be the Alpe d’Huez, or the Forest of Arenberg, but each week is unique, with some courses on sandy beaches, some in woods, some by lakes - even one on a wildlife park. The unique characteristics of each course make each week a different prospect, as some riders excel on the sand, some courses are hillier and favour the climbers, others feature long finishing straights where explosive power can come into play. And of course there are the conditions to contend with: driving rain, thick mud of several different varieties, sometimes even snow. It all makes for an intriguing prospect as different riders come to the fore depending on the unique set of conditions and parcours.
A nice neat package
Speaking of which, I mentioned the time commitment: it’s really not that much. Just a couple of hours on a weekend. Think Saturday and Sunday afternoons, when it’s raining outside anyway, and you're bedding in for a nice winter hibernation. It’s a nice neat package tied up with a big muddy bow. And if you’re new to the sport, don’t worry. It may look utterly bonkers but it’s easy to get drawn in, and really not that hard to get into, rules-wise. You’ll be up to speed in no time.
Ducks and stairs and sandpits, oh my!
Well, have I convinced you? And if not why, not? OK, it’s time for drastic measures. Pass the computer over to your kids. If you don’t own any kids, just pretend you are one instead.
Hey kids, tell your grown-up to watch cyclocross. It’s a toddler’s dream. Giant yellow duck trophies, huge sandpits to surf your bike down, bridges to zoom along and big ole flights of stairs to run up and down. If you don’t love it, your kids will. It’s quirky and a bit weird just like, well, basically all kids. And with their attention spans, it’s perfect.