Cyclocross World Championships review, by a road racing fan.
On Sunday the final event of the cyclocross season was held in Oostmalle, Belgium.
This occurrence always gets me excited as it means that the the road racing season, proper, would be about to start. Sure there have been some silly little races in the Middle East and other places that aren’t Europe but with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Paris-Nice on the horizon things are starting to get serious.
This year is different however. I finally got round to watching my first weekend of cyclocross recently. It was the World Championships in Zolder and as it was only three weeks ago and the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed things means that this February the end of the cyclocross season has come to soon.
Before I sat down to watch my first race, the Womens Elite Final, I thought I’d have enough knowledge of ‘cross’, as they call it, to understand what was going to happen. While I had never watched a full race, never mind a weekend of racing, I had seen plenty of clips of the sport on the internet, though mostly of racers bunny hopping over obstacles, to show me what went on. I was also aware of some of the riders, past and present, from listening to podcasts and from them popping up on various social media time lines. I was familiar with recent World Champions Lars Boom and Zdeneck Stybar. Marianne Vos and Pauline Ferrand-Prevout were the two huge names on the womens side of the sport and like Lars and Zdeneck had changed disciplines and were now riding on the road.
So I was expecting some form of road racing on mud with things playing out the same way as in a one day classic. The terrain would certainly be different but the riders and the equipment were essentially the same. I thought I would be watching a condensed version of Roubaix or Flanders where the strongest team would gradually grind down the opposition allowing their team leader to claim victory. Right from the start though I became aware that I didn’t have a clue. So here is my guide to cyclocross, for a roadie.
1. The thing that struck me first was that they race straight from the start, unlike on the road. The fact that grid positioning is so important shows that racing starts from kilometre zero. After the Men’s Elite Final many people were raving about Lars Boom finishing 14th. That was because he started towards the back, in 59th position on the grid. Getting near the front for the first corner is essential if you want to get into your rhythm quickly. Passing is also difficult on much of the course due to the many narrow sections. On the road you might get a brake right at the start but for the next few hours nothing much happens and you’re left having to listen to Carlton Kirby’s dreadful jokes. In cross the shorter race distance allows for a more action packed spectacle, something is always happening. The race is always evolving and that’s what makes it so exciting.
2. Another difference is tactics. There seem to be very few. In the World Tour riders seem to be constantly on their radios to their director sportive’s. In cross the riders might have a plan on how they will ride beforehand but there doesn’t seem enough time to formulate tactics during the actual race. On the road, tactics and team work are key. Whether protecting the leader going up a mountain or forming a sprint train, a strong team unit can be the difference between winning and losing for the protected rider. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of protected riders in the Belgium team. Each of them were desperate to win and could have jeopardised their ‘team mates’ chances to get that victory. Working together wouldn’t have had much benefit if road cycling tactics such as drafting were employed anyway . Again, there is just too much going on. Too much twisting and turning and up and down for boring old drafting to be of much use. The one team tactic which is used in cross is a few team mates crowding out near the front to let their team mate get clear.
3. At the end of the first lap of the women’s race I got a little confused as the commentators started debating how many laps there would be. Apparently the number of laps not know until the 2nd 0r 3rd laps have finished. Each race hasn’t got a specific distance but needs to be completed in a certain time, I think. Elite mens races take about an hour and the Women go for roughly 45 minutes. So, after the second lap is completed the race commissaires take the average lap time and the overall time that the race should last to calculate the total number of laps. This was confusing to someone who hadn’t seen cyclocross before but even one of the riders, Adam Toupalik of the Czech Republic, had difficulties with the system. As he was completing the penultimate lap in the lead he raised his hands in a victory salute thinking it was the finish. This allowed the Belgium Eli Iserbyt to catch up to him and ultimately beat Toupalik in a sprint at the actual finish.
4. I was aware of one fact about cyclocross, through word of mouth, but it was great to see it with my own eyes. Sven Nys is bad ass. This was cyclocross legend Sven Nys’ last World Championships. Although he’s had a few victories this season, the 39 year old had decided to let the younger stars get on with things without him. Despite his age and after a measured start ‘The Cannibal from Baal’ managed to power to the front and led the race for a while, driving his fans crazy. His Belgium team mates may have allowed this to happen, out of respect, but Nys still managed to finish 4th, only 39 seconds behind the winner Wout Van Aert, who is 18 years his junior.
5. Cyclocross is almost as old as road racing, some say it originated in the early 1900’s as a way for road riders to train during the winter. But the sport doesn’t have seemed to have spread out of the heartlands of France, Belgium and the Netherlands, in terms of elite participation of the sport, in the same way that road racing has got champions from all over the globe. The Belgium national championships are sometimes referred to as the world championships in a funny tongue in cheek fashion. In the Men’s Elite Final twenty different nations were represented but all the top 8 were from Belgium or the Netherlands and 16 of the top 20 from the three traditional countries. The monopoly these countries have on the podium at the Worlds is almost constant, apart from when real superstars from other countries appear such as Zdeneck Stybar from the Czech Republic. Going into the past other stars from outwith the cyclocross triangle were the Swiss riders Albert Zweifel and Peter Frischknecht in the 70’s and 80’s, and before them Italian Renato Longo and his German rival Rolf Wolf Shohl were on the World hampionship podium 20 times between them. Things seem to be slightly different for the women though, perhaps due to the fact that elite level women’s racing took off in a time that globalisation of the sport was easier to encourage. There were 7 different nations in the top ten.
6. Road riders benefit from having good bike handling skills. They are needed to avoid crashing, either into each other or some unexpected road furniture. The cyclocross rider uses their skills to gain an advantage over his rivals, whether that’s taking a sharp downhill corner fast, dismounting and picking up the bike in one fluid motion or changing bikes in the pits, yes there is a pit lane. Some of the moves were breathtaking and the concentration from the riders must need to be extreme throughout the race.
7. One thing that even the most avid cyclocross follower wouldn’t have expected over the weekend was the whole mechanical doping thing. I will only say one word on the topic. Parakeets.
8. I was hoping that watching the CX, there’s some more lingo for you, would shed some light on the technological ‘breakthrough’ that has come to road bikes recently. Disc brakes are being allowed in the World Tour this year for the first full season. There has been quite a hoo ha about the whole situation. There have been concerns raised about the safety of a braking system that uses rotors and with only some of the teams bikes in the peleton using discs, with the rest still on calipers, some riders are worried about 100 or more riders suddenly pressing their brakes at the same time but decelerating at different speeds. The biggest argument against disc brakes though is the question, “Do we actually need them?”. I was thinking that cyclocross would be a sport that would benefit greatly from disc brakes, there is plenty of quick decelerating needed on the downhill and tight corners and discs would solve the problem of getting mud in between the rim and brake pads. However although the technology has been allowed by the UCI in the sport since 2013 only some of the riders take advantage of it. Sven Nys still uses cantilever brakes, maybe no big surprise given his age, he has been using them to great effect for years. But you can’t accuse Sven might of being a Luddite when you consider that some of the cross riders in their early 20’s are also using canti’s. They clearly see no huge advantage of changing to disc brakes and feel the lighter system they already use is just fine. What this may mean for road riders is that the transition to the whole peleton using disc brakes will be slow. Some top riders will insist on continuing to use caliper brakes. This may put them at odds with the bike manufacturers who supply the teams who ultimately want to sell new bikes fitted with disc brakes to the public. Some manufacturers only produce bikes with disc brakes now so cross riders are even using older models of bikes to ensure they can still use cantilever brakes.
9. The thing that didn’t surprise me when watching the World Championships was the huge and enthusiastic crowds. This was Belgium after all were cycling, in all forms, is pretty much the national sport. The scene was the type of thing I have been used to seeing on the major mountain stages of grand tours. The fact the cyclocross is on a short circuit, usually 2.5 to 3.5 km, makes it the perfect setting for a spectator sport. Zolder is on a motor racing circuit so there were some stands to watch the race but anywhere on the course you were watching from you would see the riders go past a number of times. The Belgium public are the most knowledgeable and therefore fanatic of cross fans so that added to the atmosphere but perhaps the thing that raised the volume of the crowds most were the beer tents. On each day of the weekend fans would have arrived in the morning to watch a junior or under 23 race leaving plenty of drinking time before the elite race later on in the afternoon. This though is probably a reason for the ugly abuse that the home fans dished out to some of the Dutch riders, and Lars Van Der Haar in particular. The instances of spit, beer and urine been thrown at him are similar to what has been happening in road racing. This sort of thing has been happening for a while but has the danger of getting out of hand. Some sort of self policing is needed amongst the fans and cross might have a better chance than road racing to put an end to this idiotic behaviour. Although each rider has a large and passionate fan club, the members are true cross fans and say they hold all the riders in high esteem. With these sort of spectators track side the ‘minority’ which are getting carried away might think twice about their beer and other liquid throwing antics. The abuse dished out on the road side of races such as the Tour de France seems more spiteful. There is also perhaps more of a chance that a hateful, once a year cycling fan, believing the narrative being spun in the media, will piss in a bottle and wait until the villain of the day passes by to throw it at them. This sort of thing might be more difficult to stamp out.
So while I found out that cyclocross is ‘majorly’ different from the cycling that I normally watch I thoroughly enjoyed it and can’t wait till the road season finishes to see some more.