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Why isn’t cyclocross bigger?

18 Apr 2019

Words: Richard Moore Illustration: Luke Brooke

Having spent more than two decades attending and competing in some of the biggest cycle races on the road, Dean Downing was unprepared for his first Cyclocross World Championships in the Netherlands last year.

He had been to one or two cyclocross races when he lived and raced in Belgium as a professional rider, but it was as a coach that he went to Valkenburg to watch one of his charges, Ben Tulett, represent Great Britain in the junior race.

It was, says Downing, ‘insane, in a great way’. Twenty-five thousand people packed the course, creating what he describes as ‘a phenomenal atmosphere.

‘I was there with Ben’s dad and it was the most nervous day of my life, barring my wedding day. Ben’s dad was in a worse state, but I knew Ben was in great shape.’ Less than an hour later the rest of the world knew that, too.

Tulett won by a relatively comfortable 22 seconds, and he had looked in control throughout, pulling away during an early on-foot section, then attacking again decisively halfway through the final lap to cross the finish line alone.

‘It was a fantastic day,’ says Downing. ‘But it was overwhelming – 25,000 people, all big cycling fans, seemingly all trying to get a picture of Ben once he’d become World Champion.

‘I used to go and watch one or two cyclocross races when I was Belgium, and it’s incredible. The sport is absolutely massive there, and in Holland too.’

There’s also a lively scene in the United States, and a fine tradition of races and riders in the UK – as well as Tulett, Evie Richards won the women’s junior race in Valkenburg and in 2017 there was a British 1-2-3 in the men’s junior race led by Tom Pidcock.

But nowhere on Earth does cyclocross have the same mass appeal as in the Low Countries. In one sense, this is a little curious, especially given the trend for alternative forms of racing and riding, which was covered in a recent feature in these pages following the news that in 2019 the EF-Education First WorldTour team will tackle an ‘alternative calendar’.

While off-road and gravel riding and endurance racing appear to be thriving, and are now part of a cycling zeitgeist, cyclocross stands a little apart.

It remains firmly rooted in a different kind of tradition. For example, while there is talk of, and excitement about, Education First riders doing an event like Dirty Kanza, the cult race over gravel roads in the US, there is no buzz around WorldTour pros doing cyclocross races.

Some do, and always have done, but with a lot less fanfare. At the same time, cyclocross’s profile has risen in the last couple of years thanks in particular to its two current superstars, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel – and more particularly their rivalry.

The Belgian and Dutchman have excelled off-road in the winter and, in 2018 in particular, on the road in the spring and summer. In 2018 Van Aert went straight from winning his third consecutive world title in Valkenburg to finishing third at Strade Bianche, top 10 at Ghent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders, then 13th at Paris-Roubaix.

Still only 24, in 2019 Van Aert will join WorldTour team Jumbo-Visma (formerly LottoNL-Jumbo), which might see him focus more on the road in the future.

Meanwhile, Van der Poel (the son of Adri Van der Poel, who was second five times in the Cyclocross World Championship and won the Tour of Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège) has had an equally impressive season.

A year younger than Van Aert, Van der Poel won the men’s senior world title back in 2015, before Van Aert took over.

But Van der Poel has been dominant this winter, winning three consecutive rounds of the World Cup in such convincing fashion that it has led to complaints that men’s racing has become boring.

Long term, Van der Poel’s future might also be on the road. In 2018 he won the Dutch Road Race title, then came second to Matteo Trentin at the European Championships in Glasgow.

He followed that with two stage wins at the Arctic Race of Norway. In 2019, clearly following in Van Aert’s tyre tracks, he will have a crack at the Classics.

Cross purposes

For diehard cyclocross fans, it will be a little depressing that there seems to be more excitement about their superstars’ future prospects on the road than about their phenomenal performances now. Meanwhile it is the women’s scene that has produced closer, more competitive and more exciting racing this winter.

Marianne Vos skipped the Road World Championships in Innsbruck to prepare for a winter off-road and she has been in good form, winning two of the first three World Cup events.

Vos is a seven-time former cyclocross World Champion, but racing all year round took its toll, and after her last world title in 2014 she suffered a dramatic loss of form – something she put down to burnout.

She still managed a bronze medal in 2015 and a silver in 2017, but Vos did less cyclocross and has not returned to her previous all-conquering form – until this year, perhaps.

The demands of racing all year round haven’t deterred one of her rivals on the road, fellow Dutch rider Lucinda Brand. The Team Sunweb rider only started doing cyclocross seriously in 2016, and has steadily increased her commitment each year.

In 2018 Brand had one of her best seasons on the road, finishing fourth at the Giro Rosa, before diving into a full winter season of cross.

Mainly, she says, it’s because she enjoys it. But she is also improving year on year, claiming a bronze medal at the World Championships last year and winning the fourth round of this season’s World Cups, in the Czech city of Tábor in November.

In a sense, Brand’s career is going in the opposite direction to the leading men’s, Van Aert and Van der Poel, who most expect to gravitate from cyclocross to road in the manner of three-time World Cyclocross Champion Zdenek Stybar, who now rides for Deceuninck-QuickStep (formerly QuickStep Floors).

Brand is proving that you can do both, with some careful planning. ‘It’s hard to balance it, and there’s always a fine line between what you are capable of and what you think you are capable of,’ she admits.

‘But together with the coaches around me we made a good plan this winter. I listen to my body. And mentally it’s very important to have a little break.

‘But I can have those even when I’m racing. For example, after the World Cup [in Tábor, which she won], I went to Prague to have a nice day off the bike and explore and enjoy the city. I look forward to small breaks like that – they keep me fresh and help me find a balance. For now, it works for me.’

Bridging the divide

It’s staggering to consider the range of Brand’s talents. To go from fourth at the Giro Rosa, and a particularly mountainous edition at that, to excelling at hour-long cyclocross races in the mud and cold is quite something. How did she do it?

‘I focused a lot on my climbing, and made a big step in races like the Giro,’ she says. ‘But it’s true that climbing a mountain in Italy is very different to cyclocross.

‘I always have an ideal plan, which is to get on my cyclocross bike earlier, and to ride it during the road season, to work on the technical things, like jumping on and off the bike.

‘In my first year doing cyclocross that was very important because I had a lot to learn. Now I feel that it’s something I can do, but which I don’t need to do.

‘If I can do some skills training in August it’s helpful, but not essential. I find that cyclocross really helps me on the road, especially in the spring.

‘The power and intensity of a cyclocross race is much higher than I can train at. I find that when I start racing on the road again I have something left at the end when others are tailing off – I think that comes from cyclocross.

‘You do need a good base, of course, but in the winter I train two hours on my cyclocross bike on a Wednesday. The rest of the time I am on the road.’

The question is whether the intensity of racing all year round is sustainable. ‘That’s why I take breaks,’ Brand says. ‘I took a break after Innsbruck then had a week training on the road in Spain before the cyclocross season.

‘For me, the main thing is that I enjoy it,’ she adds. ‘I started racing when I was eight years old and did the same road races for many years.

‘It was very familiar and I felt I maybe wasn’t learning so much any more. With cyclocross, I need a different kind of focus, and I’ve got so much to learn still. But I love the adrenaline that it gives me – it’s something I need.’

After her bronze medal last year she’s likely to be one of the favourites for this year’s championships in Bogense, Denmark.

‘It’s a course that suits me and, if can keep my form, anything is possible,’ she says.

Back to the dirt

One of Brand’s rivals could be Nikki Brammeier, who’s had a few tussles with the Dutchwoman this season.

Unlike Brand, Brammeier has left the road behind, having spent a couple of seasons at the world’s best women’s team, Boels-Dolmans, to now focus exclusively on cyclocross.

She rides for and helps to run Mudiiita, the project to develop cyclocross in the UK (see below). ‘For me it all started when I was really young with my dad taking me and my brother to local cyclocross races in the Notts and Derby League,’ Brammeier says.

‘It was really just about having fun, and winning goodie bags with Mars bars. There was a good group of young riders – Ben Swift and Adam Blythe used to do cyclocross in those days.’

Now she lives in Belgium, where ‘there’s a completely different scene. Cyclocross in Belgium is like football in Britain – that’s how much they get behind their favourite riders.

‘There’s a real spirit to it, and it’s such a spectator-friendly sport. You kind of see the riders in slow motion – well, it is, because we’re riding through mud a lot of the time!’

Brammeier’s decision to focus on cyclocross came because she didn’t think she could sustain a year-round racing programme. ‘You can do it for a couple of years, and carry your form from cross into the road season, but it catches up with you.

‘We’ve seen it with Marianne and [2015 World Champion] Pauline Ferrand-Prevot. They’ve paid for it. I’m really happy with my decision to focus on cross. 

‘At the moment I enjoy cycling more than ever before. I know the races and the courses and I can enjoy them. All my competitors are super friendly off the bike, then we’re elbow-to-elbow when the races are on.

‘But I love the whole atmosphere. I love everything about it. As for her prospects in Denmark, Brammeier points to the openness of the women’s race, in contrast to the men’s, where Van der Poel looks like being the outstanding favourite.

In the women’s race she says there are 12 riders who could potentially win – including her. ‘There was a World Cup there last year and it’s an interesting course,’ she says.

‘The steep hills are unrideable, you have to run a lot, and in Denmark at that time of year there could be snow and ice. I wouldn’t say it’s really suited to me. But it’s very open, and I think it’ll be an exciting race.’

Olympic struggle

Would a place in the Winter Olympics give cyclocross the recognition it deserves?

There is frustration among cyclocross followers that their sport isn’t bigger, and that it can often be seen merely as a stepping stone to a career on the road.

Particularly irksome is the phenomenon of a great cyclocross rider emerging and then being asked not if but when he or she might transfer their talent to road racing.

It is the view of Nikki Brammeier, the multiple British Champion and World Cup winner, that cyclocross is held back mainly by its absence from the Olympic Games.

‘At home, British Cycling backs riders in the Olympic disciplines, which cross isn’t. If it was, the sport would grow massively.

‘I think that’s one of the main reasons it hasn’t developed more. It would be an amazing Olympic sport. We have so many races on snow and ice, that wouldn’t be a problem – they are often great races.

‘I don’t know whether it could happen. People talk about it, and some are pushing for it, but I think it’s mainly wishful thinking.' Instead, Brammeier is involved in trying to grow her sport through Mudiiita, a cyclocross project she set up with her husband, Matt.

As well as helping promote the sport, they introduce youngsters to it, and take groups of juniors and under-23s to Belgium for skills workshops and to see cyclocross at its biggest and best.

‘Cyclocross can be a mainstream sport in the UK,’ reads the Mudiiita mission statement. ‘If the Belgians can do it then why can’t we? We have the history, we have the passion. Let’s change the face of cross and make it happen.’

This article was originally published in issue 84 of Cyclist magazine

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