Mud and glory – all hail cyclocross and its insanity


Mud, fries, beer and the hardest riders

In cyclocross, if there is no glory without mud, then the 2015/6 World Championships have to be one for the records. The Zolder course in Belgium had already been soaked with days of rain. The course was a slick parade of mud and grease with insane descents and maddening climbs. Living in Belgium, it seemed a cultural slight to ignore the event. This was an opportunity to see the very best of European cyclocross up close.

Barry Sandland/TIMB - Food section at European cyclocross event

Mud, fries, beer and the hardest riders

I have come late to cyclocross. It has been something in the back of my mind, a curiosity I have watched on  television on wet Sundays when I was flicking through the TV channels. But it took ages for me to persuade myself to make the physical trek to a race.

I started with Namur, considered one of the hardest of the season. A race along narrow trails until forced to carry the bike up the forest embankments before plummeting down the other side. It was an instant addiction.
Cyclocross has to be the hardest of the cycling disciplines. Road racing has an almost leisurely start and then, for riders feeling off par on the day, the opportunity to shelter in a  peloton, not far from the leaders, safe in position until legs return.
If you are a dedicate to road racing, then American style criterium are hard enough. The short course and the four corners, the acceleration deceleration. But that also pales. After all, the road course is smooth and paved, the only real peril with the speed at the corners. There is even a peloton for those who have been spent.
But cyclocross is a torture. The speed each and every rider leaves the line is an immediate entry into lactic acid and oxygen depletion before being obliged to leap on and off the bike, negotiate narrow trails, or just find traction amongst tree roots, clumps of soil, axle deep sand, and greasy mud that infuriates your climbs and terrifies the descents.
The riders come off the start line at a pace unmatched in any other bicycle race. They are all vying for one better position from what they had at the line, a chance to put at least one rider behind them get into a better position into the first bends. After all, the most dangerous rider is the one in front of you. On cyclocross courses, there is no guarantee they will be upright, maintain their speed, hold their line or be predictable in their performance. The safest place for any other rider is behind you.
©Barry Sandland/TIMB- Belgian spectators at the World Cyclocross Championships

Fanatical Belgian supporters

With the narrow trails, the mass at the start quickly becomes a long, thin line. The line quickly splinters into fragments. The fragments splinter into a collection of individuals all chasing the wheel ahead of them – if there is any wheel to be seen. Wheel sucking, drafting, is so limited, so momentary. It is a test of your personal condition. Almost an absolute.

Within the first lap, the peloton that never existed will have been shattered. Riders will exist a second, many seconds, behind the other. Far enough back there is no drafting. There may be some relief in being paced, seeing another wheel nearby. But drafting, getting some relief into your lungs, is limited to the occasional pavement regions. But if you like to draft, go road racing.
But this cyclocross brutality to the cyclists is the best for the spectators. Within a few laps, the difference in performance between the very best and the lesser gods would mean cyclists will be scattered throughout the course. At almost any minute, there will be another cyclist coming by to be cheered, studied, encouraged. While we scream support, the lead riders are closing in, preparing to lap the slower and send them from the course.
Cyclocross is built for spectators. You get to walk the course, looking for the space you feel the riders will be in the most pain, the greatest chance for skills, and settle in – until you pack up and move to the next torture zone.
But there is more for spectators in Europe than simply bikes on mud. The course is littered with beer tents, food trucks and outdoor toilets (I mentioned the beer trucks). At any race, but particularly rainy ones, the beer tents fill early, Beer is a staple and consumption is fuelled by music that counts through the tent all day long.
Cyclocross is a  Flemish specialty and the music caters to the hordes. This is oompa music. The sort of thudding sound of cheesy lounge lizards and bad weddings. The sort of spectacle, like family reunions where grandparents come back and tell you the music was wonderful. And all across the hall are masses of men, one arms embracing their friends shoulder, the second holding their beer glass, all cheering, chanting with each and every chorus.
The tents will remain unchanged for the entire event, save that more and more will join in as the day goes on, or the weather worsens.
I only visited three courses this year and, while I have great affection for Namur, it was the mud, wet, rain, cold of Zolder that makes it my favourite.
Zolder had a long straightaway, using the race tracks own design to aid the cyclists. Trouble was, the starting collective were so dismembered on each lap, drafting would be an option only for the occasional duo or trio who found themselves in mutual contact.

And they will walk around with these contractions all day

And, while the greatest attention will always fall to the elite riders, the hardest race of the year was definitely for the debutantes. The under-23 women were featured for the first time in a cyclocross world championship and they were served a brutal course. It seemed fitting that, as they entered their own stage, they be tested to the limits. While mud and terrain were the same for all the rides, only the under-23 women had the cascade of freezing rain that started as they pulled off the start line. They would be drenched after the first lap and then would continue to ride their distance soaked and cold, bearing the brunt of the best cyclocross weather (if you have a sadistic side).

The season is done, the champions named and praised. The bikes have been scrubbed and cleaned and the riders have been dispatched to their native countries where they will move on to road racing, track or whatever their taste runs.
On a last note, the under-23 women also brought the first instance of mechanical doping, with one rider being found with a motor in her bike. It has been denied and questioned and attempts to explain, but, it remains true that a motor enhanced bike was used in the race. With it has come calls for a lifetime ban for the rider. However, for me, the issue must have a far wider scope.
Tomorrow, a post and opinion on the mechanical doping issue in bicycle racing.

Sometimes you just have to accept what you see….

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