"I had been warned it would be a bit ... Belgian. But it was really Belgian."
I can pinpoint the exact moment I understood cyclocross. It was during the Women’s Elite race at the World Championships in Belgium, which I travelled to with my friend and sometime client Paul Maunder. He’s writing a book about the sport (published by Bloomsbury next year) so went to the Zolder circuit for research.
I had been warned it would be a bit ... Belgian, but it was really Belgian. A rainy day at a shabby ex-Grand Prix circuit, next to an industrial estate in a flat, soaked landscape. And then there was the racing. 70,000 fans must find something to like about this, I thought, but what? I had the words of Velominati’s Frank Strack ringing in my ears: “It’s a sport of savages, like some nutter crossed Cycling with mini golf”.
And cross is a bit contrived. You have a road bit, a sandy bit, a bit so steep the bike rides you up it, and mud is considered essential ... why is that fun?
Back to my moment. I was standing right by the barrier of one of those insanely steep, muddy bits, watching a string of riders tear up to it, dismount with barely believable grace and run up with bikes across their shoulders. Then it happened: the spectator next to me had his camera belted out of his hands by a passing knobbly tubular. That’s why cross is great; compared with other disciplines it’s amazingly intimate. The riders are right there, literally within touching distance, lap after lap. And, because of the extremity of the course, the field is strung out in ones, twos and small groups, so you feel the exertions of individual riders and their personal duels. Unlike the stage-managed, anti-climatic unreality of a Grand Tour, a cross race is a profoundly physical, real experience.
What else? Drunken Belgians, banks of frites, air-horns, Dutch-abuse and HUP! HUP! HUP! I imagine you’ve heard enough about motors by now ... The commentators were an unexpected treat One Flemish and one American English, specifically Richard Fries; something of an institution in the ‘cross community I’m told. He is very American and leans heavily on two key analogy-sets: cycling-as-boxing and cycling-as-warfare. And he only talks in capitals: “HE’S THE ROCKY BALBOA OF CYCLOCROSS AND HE IS MAKING EVERY. PUNCH. COUNT!” and “HERE COMES THE DUTCH CAVALRY!!” For me, his finest utterance of the weekend, though, was his almost Miranda “what I call” Hart style “AS WE SAY BACK IN AMERICA, HE’S KEEPING HIS POWDER DRY!”
In fact, nothing, nothing was dry that weekend, but it was glorious. Cyclocross won me over and I cannot wait to return to Belgium.
James Spackman is a publisher and cyclist. He co-developed the first Velominati book (The Rules) and will be publishing its follow-up (The Hardmen) along with other high quality cycling books under a new imprint called Pursuit, which is part of Profile Books in London. He rides, quite badly, with London Dynamo and occasionally troubles the tarmac at Herne Hill. He is on Twitter as @Pursuitbooks and @Blackpooltower.