As the road season winds down and the autumn leaves wither and fall, those smitten with two-wheeled pursuits turn their attention to the sport of cyclo-cross. Once seen as a somewhat crazy but fun way to get in some off-season training when the weather turns bleak, cyclo-cross has now become a serious sport with many calling for it to be added to the Olympic programme.
Cyclingnews will be running a number of cyclo-cross themed articles this week, including tips on how to get started racing cyclo-cross, how 'cross is evolving in the USA, the challenges in globalizing the sport as well as guides on the major race series. But first, where did 'cross get started?
The beginning of cyclo-cross
Cyclo-cross evolved in the primordial cycling soup that was France at the turn of the 20th century. The first French 'cross races pre-dated the first Tour de France, but they share a common name: Géo Lefèvre.
Not only did Lefèvre hatch the plan for the first Tour de France together with Henri Desgrange, but he is said to be responsible for organising what was then called cross cyclo-pédèstre at Ville d'Avray in January 1903.
The first 'cross races shared little resemblance to what we now see: rather than wind through a tightly regulated course in a field full of man-made obstacles, the first cyclo-cross events looked more like a mix between mountain bike cross country and an urban assault. Riders navigated dense woods, stream crossings, hopped over natural barriers such as chest-high fallen trees and hauled their bikes up the church steps.
Over the years, the sport evolved into a more consistent format which is described by the UCI as such: "Cyclo-cross races last approximately one hour. Races are held on technical and hilly circuits of 2.5-3.5 km. Cyclo-cross provides a real education in cycling as it requires accomplished bike handling skills and unfailing physical fitness. Competitors have to carry their bikes over some sections."
France was the first country to adopt 'cross and hold a national championship, and when the first world championships were held in 1950, it was a Frenchman, Jean Robic, who claimed the gold medal. The sport then spread to Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands.
France won the world title for the first nine years before Italy and Germany took over dominance. Although they rule the sport now, Belgium didn't produce a world champion until 1966 - Eric De Vlaeminck. He would go on to win seven. The USA first held a national championship in 1963, but the concept did not catch on until 1975.
If one looks down the names on the podium of cyclo-cross history, it is clear that the sport is less international than it once was: what used to be a healthy mix of German, Swiss, Italian, Czech, Dutch and Belgian names has become dominated by Belgium. Since 1998, the country has taken three-quarters of all podium places in the elite men's fields, and has won 11 of the 14 world titles. Earlier this year, Belgians occupied the top seven spots in the men's race. Later this week, Cyclingnews will examine why this is the case.
The race calendar
Belgium also hosts two of the most lucrative race series: the Superprestige, which began in 1982 and the GvA Trofee, first organised in 1987 (to get a new name this week). The UCI got on board with the concept, and launched the World Cup in 1993. These days the World Cups are obligatory as the massive points garnered in the races give the riders the best starting positions at the world championships.
Inside Belgium, tens of thousands of people attend races, braving rain, mud, ice and snow to cheer on their favorite riders. They have highly organised supporters' clubs and wear branded clothing as they swill beer, chow down on frites and yell words of encouragement. It's a big league sport, second only to road cycling and football.
But outside of Belgium, the sport is quickly catching on on a more grassroots level: in the USA a typical Oregon race has upwards of a thousand entrants in the various categories. There are three major race series in the USA: the US Gran Prix of Cyclo-cross, the Shimano New England Professional Cyclo-cross series and the Verge New England Cyclo-cross series, all made up of UCI races and amateur racing series in every region of the USA.
In the UK, cyclo-cross is also catching on, with the professional National Trophy series as well as numerous local race series. Canada also boasts an ever-growing 'cross scene, and there are UCI races across the globe: in Denmark, Japan, Finland, Slovakia, Serbia, Poland, Austria as well as the more traditional 'cross countries, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Luxembourg and of course, Belgium. You can find ourcomplete 2012 cyclo-cross calendar here.