An odd question, you may think, given the differences between the two disciplines. Road cycling, as the name befits, is based upon roads that slither across nations taking in swathes of land, whilst Cyclo-Cross does it’s best to avoid the terror of smooth tarmac and asphalt and instead finds solace in muddy fields, preferably with what to the uninitiated appears to be a either a building sight or a child’s playground obstacle course erected in parts around the loop. Road Cycling spectators camp out for six hours to see the race flitter past in a few seconds, whilst Cyclo-cross enthusiasts can get a full hour of viewing in which they barely don’t see a rider pass by, and have a fully functioning pub a few steps away. How then, are the two so similar?
The first clue is in the word ‘discipline’ – they are of course inherently the same thing after all. Cyclo-Cross is simply road biking with knobbly tyres, except on a course that comprises laps rather then the point to point nature of a road race. Cyclo-cross is also infamous for the obstacles, such as sand, mud, ramps and the sadistic planks of wood they jam across the road that the blood thirsty gather by to see if any rider who attempts to bunny hop said feature fails spectacularly and eats mud. But road cycling has flirted with similar obstacles – obviously, the ‘climbs’ of cyclo-cross aren’t exactly the Galibier, but there are similarities in the cobble stones of Paris-Roubaix or the white dirt roads of the Eroica and the Giro. Both disciplines even have events built around the Koppenberg, with the Tour of Flanders and Cyclocross Koppenberg centering on the infamous cobbled climb.
But more interestingly, road cycling has been becoming increasingly close to Cyclo-cross in recent years, and not just in its spirit to find tougher, more interesting challenges such as dirt roads (Interestingly, Cyclo-cross seems to be one of few sports where the competitors claim the course ‘isn’t hard enough’ – Sven Nys moaned the other winter that a course was so easy that ‘even Philippe Gilbert could come 1oth.’ Yes, he said 10th.) Road riders ride cyclo-cross as training, as well as holding charity events, such as Tom Boonen’s event in Mol. Cyclo-cross races also have an affinity for skin suits, a craze that is tearing through the peloton ever since Castelli unveiled their aero jersey for the Cervelo Test Team in 2009. Also, seemingly due to to cyclo-cross, which is somewhat more profitable because of its looped nature, certain races have begun experimenting with the circuit race format, which is becoming increasingly prevalent in cycling. For instance, the Tour of Flanders recently became a circuit race, however unpopular, and a stages of the Giro, Vuelta and Tour of California as well as various other smaller races ended with runs around circuits. The first stage of next years Giro will even be a circuit race around Naples.
This is seemingly a reaction to the economic conditions which have seen the death of various smaller races, no longer able to compete with short, sharp events, as well as attempting to bring in a new cycling public who don’t want to sit watching 4 hours of gruppo compacto before it kicks off for the last couple of hours. Circuit races add a bit more fizz for the spectators as they see riders multiple times, and, if the Tour of Flanders plans are to be believed, fans will pay for such a privilege. Hey presto – suddenly your race is guaranteed income. It would certainly be sad to see the past joy of cycle spectating, namely standing around for hours meeting people from across the world before the race flys by, die out, but thanks to Cyclo-cross, this may be the way the sport is going. Laps of Arenberg, anyone?
Similarly, the technology trickle down from Cyclo-cross is sure to hit road cycling at some point. Disc brakes are now allowed in Cyclo-cross, and surely, surely will be moving across to road cycling at some point. The big opponent to this is romanticism and nostalgia, where people simply dont want new technology to have too much of an effect, or, like me, simply think they look awful. That said, I recently saw a Colnago C59 Disc, one of the only, if not the only, Disc enabled road bike, and was pleasantly surprised at how unobtrusive the new technology was on the looks. Disc brakes are certainly safer, and if we’ve brought in electronic gears, we should be bringing in Disc brakes – I can imagine the response will be similar, in that everyone will ask how we ever lived without it in the first place.
One thing I’d like to see from Cyclo-cross but probably won’t is the pit stop. Like F1, it can decide races, and it would be interesting to see if riders would take the opportunity to switch bikes before, say, a heavily cobbled sector of a race or before the final climb of a race, or stay on their normal machine. Indeed, some already do – Contador has regularly switched machines at points in the race, as have Boonen and indeed Cancellara, although the later got accused of using a motor for his troubles in doing so.
Regardless of what happens, Cyclo-cross is great fun, and I urge you to watch it. The wintery settings, breath in the air hit by the late pulsating orange sun and wacky races feel are great entertainment for the Hour or so the races last. And they way things are going, you should probably get to know the format, as it’s how road racing is going…