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In praise of cyclocross

In-depth
29 Jan 2021
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Words: Trevor Ward Photography: Danny Bird

January 1962 saw snow cover most of Britain, wiping out weekend sport fixtures. Faced with an empty schedule, the BBC’s live Saturday sports round-up, Grandstand, took drastic action. Deprived of their usual fix of football, rugby or horse racing, viewers instead tuned in to hear commentator Peter West welcoming them to the ‘first live transmission ever of cyclocross’, adding, ‘I think you will find it tremendous fun.’

The 40 minutes of action that followed, from a half-mile circuit in the shadow of Rugeley Power Station in the Midlands, were lauded as ‘a great day for cycling’ by the magazine Cycling & Mopeds.

‘While the much-publicised £100-a-week stars of football and the tough giants of professional rugby found the bitter conditions were too bad… the gay cavaliers of cycling and cyclocross slithering in the snow looked like heroes,’ the report added.

A few weeks later, the British Cyclocross Championships took place on the Tingley Gas Works Circuit near Leeds. While the footage from Rugeley Power Station has been lost to history, a wonderful, half-hour, full-colour film of the National Championships exists at the Yorkshire Film Archive and is definitely worth viewing online.

‘This is the part that makes the knees go strange towards the top,’ says commentator CB Lockwood in a refined Yorkshire tone, before adding witheringly, ‘There’s a chap who looks at the camera and comes a-cropper – serves him right!’

The event, organised by Beryl Burton’s club, Morley CC – she is seen winning the women’s race comfortably – attracted 127 riders, including 18-year-old London ‘wonder boy’ Keith Mernickle.

He would later turn pro, being paid £100 a week by his sponsor, London jazz venue The 100 Club, and race against the likes of Eric de Vlaeminck, seven-time Cyclocross World Champion and brother of Roger.

The Leeds event also played host to Coventry RC rider John Atkins, who went on to win the second of his 13 national titles, and the prize of a double bed-size Philips electric blanket.

‘Look at the speed of Atkins through the mud. There’s no getting off with this chap,’ marvels Lockwood.

Mud is the key word. ‘Riders with more mud than blood in their veins’ look forward to ‘sunny frosty mornings, icy starts, biting winds, water splashes and even snow’, writes Ken Nichols in his history of British cyclocross, Mud, Sweat And Gears.

But by the time of the 1962 Nationals, riders were despairing of the circuits.

‘British organisers have always tended to overdo the rough stuff and there has often been little scope for bike-riding,’ said one rider at the time.

And the British Cyclocross Association handbook for 1964 included this plea: ‘It is hoped that organisers will promote events on fast rideable courses with not too much mud, etc, in an attempt to attract perhaps some of the independent and amateur roadmen.’

The clue is in the name. The Dutch word for cyclocross is veldrijden, which literally translates as ‘field-riding’. But it was a French army officer who pioneered the sport.

Around 1900, most European armies included cycling battalions, and Daniel Gousseau believed riding across fields and other country terrain in the winter was perfect training.

The idea caught on and in 1902 the first French National Cyclocross Championship took place – a year before the first Tour de France.

After winning the 1910 Tour, Octave Lapize said he had only been able to endure the challenges thanks to the cyclocross he had raced during the previous winter.

Eugene Christophe, the first rider to wear the yellow jersey after it was introduced during the 1919 Tour, had previously won the French national CX title six years in a row.

The UK cycling press was in awe of such achievements, with Cycling magazine reporting in 1931, ‘French cyclists are a hardy breed. The professionals have their Tour de France, the most terrible endurance test of all sporting events in the world, while amateurs, not content with ordinary road racing, invent improvements such as the “cross-cyclo” in which competitors leave the road frequently in order to run across ploughed fields or ford rivers carrying their machines.’

British versions at the time often consisted of ‘riders v runners’ races or ‘rough stuff’ events such as the Bagshot Scramble, which in early 1950 saw 139 riders compete over a 13-mile course in front of 8,000 spectators.

Describing a pile-up on a 45-degree slope, Cycling reported, ‘Like sheep to the slaughter they plummeted down to disaster. Surprisingly, though, only two lost interest in the race; one with a wrecked front wheel and the other unconscious. Despite falls, knocks and cuts it was voted by all to be a great success – especially for the trade repairers.’

Today, cyclocross continues its tradition of producing riders blessed with such all-round skills they excel both on and off the road. Following in the footsteps of Lapize, Christophe and the De Vlaemincks, today we have Wout van Aert, Tom Pidcock and 2019 Tour of Britain winner Mathieu van der Poel.

But cyclocross is about much more than professional races and UCI points. At grassroots level it is one of the most accessible, inclusive and enjoyable disciplines of cycling.

From now until February, weekend CX events will be taking place the length of Britain, attracting men, women, families and children to muddy circuits for an hour of high-intensity, high-adrenaline competition.

Unlike with road racing, you don’t need expensive aero equipment and you will burn off more cake doing an hour up and down slippery grassy banks than you will doing a steady three hours on tarmac.

The downside is that your bike will accumulate several coatings of gunk in the process. But as BBC commentator Peter West announced to a TV audience on a snowy Saturday afternoon nearly 60 years ago, ‘I think you will find it tremendous fun.’

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