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The rise of cyclocross

29 Jan 2021

Ahead of the 2021 Cyclocross World Championships, we look at why some of the biggest talents in road racing have cut their teeth in 'cross

Words: Joseph Delves Photography: Kristof Ramon

Outside Belgium, an interest in cyclocross often used to be seen as a weird and potentially unhealthy trait in a developing rider. If you wanted to be a successful road rider you raced and trained on the road, full stop.

But with cyclocross-obsessive Wout van Aert recently securing a new three-year deal with Jumbo-Visma, and rival Mathieu van der Poel winning the 2020 Tour of Flanders, that has all changed.

Just behind them, Team Ineos Grenadiers’s latest signing, 21-year-old Tom Pidcock, not only built his career in the discipline but had the option to continue in the sport written into his contract. Marianne Vos has long dominated both styles year-round, while Julian Alaphilippe and Peter Sagan also got a start in the muddy winter discipline.

A sort of steeplechase with bicycles, cyclocross has always been popular in the Low Countries, but why is this formerly niche off-road pursuit now producing some of the biggest stars in road racing?

One man who should know is Andrew McQuaid, who as head of Trinty Sports Management set up the cross-focussed Trinity Racing squad to guide racers such as Pidcock and Abby-Mae Parkinson towards road-based pro contracts.

Building in the mud

‘Cyclocross is a very particular type of racing,’ explains McQuaid. ‘It’s full gas for one hour with lots of accelerations. Add in some endurance and it’s particularly suited to Classics-style riders.’

Coinciding with the way one-day races now tend to play out, the trend for riders who can threaten anywhere – winning in a massed finish, a reduced sprint or via a solo effort – owes a debt to cyclocross.

Watching the slight figure of cross-specialist Van Aert pick his way easily past some of the sport’s top sprinters at the finish line might have come as a surprise to some fans last year. However, all top cyclocross riders carry a serious sprint in their back pockets for just such occasions.

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This is because unlike road racing, which starts at a leisurely pace, in cyclocross the first 20 seconds are crucial. Riders sprint off the line because if you don’t get towards the front of the pack fast you’ll spend the rest of the race fighting back through the field.

‘It’s something Tom worked on a lot this winter,’ says McQuaid of Pidcock. With attacks throughout, plus a potential sprint for the line, the ability to repeatedly attack and recover while close to the limit is essential for success in cyclocross.

There’s also the fact that despite the changing pace, cyclocross’s hour-long format and the way the riders are distributed about the course means the pace never lets up. This is the reason it’s rare to find a cyclocross rider who can’t also produce at least a serviceable time-trial performance.

Then there are bike-handling skills to consider. A decade ago any racer with an off-road background could reliably have a laugh watching most roadies trying to tackle anything remotely technical.

However, the days when the average wheelie kid could outperform the world’s best road riders when it comes to tricks and stunts are long gone. And with these skills comes an enhanced ability to avoid crashes and other mishaps.

Riders such as Pidcock, Sagan and Van der Poel are now coming to the road from different disciplines and bringing their array of skills with them.

‘A multi-discipline approach allows you to get the benefits of each,’ says McQuaid. ‘That will help a rider develop and then excel at whatever they choose to focus on.’

Looking at the wider development potential of cyclocross, there’s also the fact that it’s a fun and accessible way to get into racing. For the big teams there’s also now greater acceptance of year-round competition.

‘A generation ago there was the belief that you couldn’t do both,’ says McQuaid. ‘With modern coaching, athletes now know their bodies better and there’s no reason not to race throughout the year.

‘There’s also more acceptance that you can switch between disciplines, that you don’t have to focus on just one to be the best at it.’

Big teams, small races

The muddy fields of Belgium have been a traditional hunting ground for scouts from outfits such as Lotto-Soudal, Jumbo-Visma and Deceuninck-QuickStep, but now the likes of Ineos Grenadiers and Movistar are just as likely to be paying attention.

‘Every team has realised the potential of the athletes involved in cyclocross,’ says McQuaid. ‘And if they already have riders who are interested in doing it they realise that will help them on the road too.’

There are other, more commercially driven reasons why teams are now keener on seeing their riders dirtying up their kit. Despite possessing the glamour of a rainy school sports day, around a million people will watch a high-profile cyclocross race – nothing compared to a Grand Tour, but still useful exposure for sponsors during otherwise quiet winter months.

For racers, competing is a more exciting and lucrative prospect than logging long solo miles.

Unlike road racing, where pro teams are obliged to attend, cross riders with enough star quality can pick up an appearance fee simply for turning up, plus any prize money they might bag.

With teams now accepting the benefits of racing year-round, getting involved with cyclocross can add a useful extra source of revenue, while improving conditioning during the off-season.

Smaller and less costly to run, cyclocross teams are also unique in bringing together mixed riders. ‘Having a mixed-gender team is a huge selling point,’ says McQuaid. ‘A cyclocross team can be male and female, racing on the same day, using the same infrastructure’.

With Trinity’s Parkinson and Josie Nelson sharing a camper with Pidcock and Ben Turner, the team also acted as a springboard for Parkinson signing with Lotto-Soudal.

As unlikely as it sounds, letting people continue doing what they enjoy is also of real benefit. Surrounding his young clients with a supportive team, McQuaid reckons a happy bike rider is a successful bike rider.

‘Mathieu and Wout have shown what’s possible. When we were planning what to do with Tom, their success made it an easy model to replicate.’

To that end, although Trinity Racing was created specifically as a vehicle for Pidcock, even before he signed with Ineos it had grown to be an incubator for the agency’s riders more generally.

Cycling’s biggest names are increasingly pursuing their own interests too. Van der Poel could have signed for a bigger team than Alpecin-Fenix but wanted the freedom to pick his races. The same goes for Sagan, who still sometimes hops aboard his mountain bike at elite level.

For a young rider Pidcock has built a strong brand and while his ability to whip big jumps might not directly help Ineos win races it does make him a very marketable proposition for sponsors, especially when it comes to targeting a younger audience driven by social media.

It’s why Pidcock is kept in a steady supply of fizzy drinks by Red Bull. Once irredeemably nerdy, it’s just possible that cyclocross has become cool.

Of course, it’s not that cyclocross hasn’t produced great road riders before. Zdeněk Štybar and Lars Boom both dominated the off-road discipline. What has changed is that today’s cyclocross stars seem disinclined to turn their back on the format that brought them to the road.

Van der Poel has an agreement with Alpecin-Fenix to keep competing across road, cyclocross and mountain biking until at least 2024, along with a not-so-secret ambition to hold all three rainbow jerseys simultaneously. Van Aert doesn’t seem likely to cede the winter pickings to his long-term rival anytime soon either, while Pidcock will also be getting his new Ineos skinsuit muddy in the coming years.

With any discipline only as exciting as the riders competing in it, if cyclocross can stay as it is currently it should continue to provide great entertainment and a steady stream of multi-discipline champions long into the future.