Cyclo-Cross: My New Sport Obsession
It’s cold, wet, and muddy. I’m standing on the sidelines of a bike track with a beer and a cone of fries. Then suddenly a pack of racers, covered head to toe in mud whip by me, with muscles bulging out of their spandex suits and a fierce look in their eye. Within 10 minutes being a newbie cyclocross spectator I was hooked!
It’s a fast and furious race, typically one hour long plus 1 lap. It requires endurance, cycling technique, strong running, and mental strategy. A lap is typically 2.5 to 3.5 km long featuring pavement, wooded trails, grass, steep hills and obstacles requiring the rider to quickly dismount, carry the bike while navigating the obstruction and remount. The sport is most popular in road racing countries like Belgium (especially Flanders), the Netherlands, and France. Flanders is considered the motherland of cyclocross because this is where the highest level of competition can be found, as well as it’s huge base of supporters and challenging courses.
The whole experience really tapped into my Canadian ‘outdoor’ mentality. Bundled up in scarves, jackets, and mittens, outside in the fresh air, enjoying some extreme sport. Me and the boys were stomping through the mud walking through the woods around the track with the rest of the folks. The spectators were jovial. There were quite a few families around, many with little boys running up and down hills and jumping off rocks. The mood was so exciting and fun that it was easy to forget about the impending rain, and the fact it was coming didn’t seem to matter much anymore.
The winner of the race, Niels Albert, had a commanding lead on the rest of the pack. I was told this race in Leuven was only the 2nd edition and so the crowd was relatively ‘small’. It didn’t seem that small to me under the big party tent after the race, but I guess these races can attract up to 30,000 people! I was happy the race I went to was small because it was easy to get a front row spot beside the track in various locations.
After the race had finished, everyone made their way to the big party tent. This is where things got a bit crazy and I got to see the ‘hick’ side of the Flanders. We were all packed under the tent like sardines. It was clear most people had drank a fair amount by this point. There was a live marching band on stage. To our left was an aggressive love-triangle soap opera of young gay men playing out. On the right was a dance party with a full-grown man sitting on his friends shoulders and then a little boy sitting on his father’s shoulder having some sort of singing match. In general, the people watching was fantastic.
Until the mood took a sharp turn, from jovial drunkenness to aggressive brawling. One man decided it would be a good idea to climb the pole that was holding up the tent. His tomfoolery was not appreciated by many, and beers were hurled at him in large quantities. Suddenly a HUGE fight erupted beside us after a drunken idiot threw a glass bottle at the man climbing the pole. In the process, he narrowly missed hitting the head of the little boy sitting on his father’s shoulders. After the brawl broke up a bit, we skid-addled out of there because it was getting weird in a hurry.
Since my first race, I’ve done a bit of research on cyclocross because I can’t stop thinking about it! I’ve tried to follow various European sports since I moved to Belgium. I’m still trying to understand the team mentality and strategy of road racing. I finally learned what offside is in football. The effort was there but nothing had sparked my enthusiasm yet. However, something about cyclocross spoke to me immediately. It’s rough, it’s tough, and I wish I was badass enough to do it myself. Lucky for me, there are lots of opportunities to watch cyclocross right now. It’s the high point of the season – the World Cup Tour leading up to the Championships in February.
Men to follow:
Niels Albert – the guy to beat right now.
Sven Nys – Belgian champion and veteran cyclist – 36 years old and races like a young dude. Recently, had a quarrel with a fan who chucked a beer at him. Here’s the footage below! He’s been praised by fans and the press about how he’s handled the situation afterwards.
Zdenek Stybar – A Czech cyclist who can be pretty cutthroat. Here is the race where he was disqualified from first place by pushing Albert of his bike just before the finish line (fast forward to 1:15:00 in the clip)
From his last interview, sounds like he is making a move to compete in road cycling.
Lars Boom – Dutch cyclist who won the world championships in 2008. Just returned to cyclocross after a brief hiatis.
Bart Wellens – Belgian cyclist who was also the start of his own reality TV-series. He’s been described to me as “the guy you want to have a beer with after the race”.
Women to follow: There are a lot of women from North America who are coming over to compete in the World Tour in Europe.
Marianne Vos – has been described as the “best cyclist of her generation”. At London 2012, she won the gold medal in the Women’s road race.
Katherine Compton – American cyclist. In the past, she biked in tandem with blind partner, Karissa Whitsell in the Paralympics. Here’s a good interview with her via Cyclocross Magazine
Amy Dombroski – American cyclist who just made the podium at the Leuven race. Here is a Rider Diary article of her moment.
Meredith Miller – American rider, performs great. From her website she looks a bit cray … in a good way.
Nicki Harris – British cyclist and mountain bike champion.
And we have a big Canadian Team we’re sending to Louisville 2013! Here’s an article of who’s on the roster complete with twitter accounts to follow.