Cyclocross in Australia is all about the individuals. Those dedicated racers who have created a close knit and competitive community in a sport which is growing year on year in the southern hemisphere.
There’s English expat, Norm, from Victoria – well into his fifties – who’s been at pretty much every race for the last six years. There’s the 13-year-old whose Dad put out a call to borrow a tiny bike a few days before a race and was swamped with offers.
Or there’s the woman who got into bike racing in a big way after a race a few years ago and at this weekend’s national championships grabbed an age group medal.
Cyclocross, or CX, down south has a character distinct from its northern origins. It’s a new breed of bike racing here; one for the misfits, but also one that prides itself on kids’ balance bike races and the fact that many people pin a number on for the first time at a local cross race.
Where cyclocross has really excelled in Australia is in women’s racing. It has allowed superb athletes like three-time national champion Lisa Jacobs, who is sponsored by Rapha, to find their niche.
The full-time lawyer had been battling a serious hamstring injury for much of the brief southern winter but any doubts about her fitness were banished after the first lap of the Elite Women’s race on Sunday as she rode away solo to another national title, barely troubled by the steep climb – a nod to the Heusden-Zolder course in Belgium – or the bitterly cold winds that raked the course, called ‘Fields of Joy’.
“The season had been going so well – I’d been riding better than ever before. I’d started racing the guys and was really enjoying it, and I really felt I’d taken a step up since coming back from Belgium in February. Then I got this injury and all of a sudden I got thrown into a completely different mindset.”
“Winning again today was a huge relief. I can’t describe it,” says Lisa. “It’s a relief that the last four weeks are over and I can go back to thinking about something else. It wasn’t until I went to Europe to race the World Championships in 2014 that I realised how special it is to wear a national champion’s jersey overseas.”
The origins of Australian CX are murky. There had been cross races in Australia in the 1950s, 60s or 70s, but not even the old hands who haunt the clubrooms and velodromes of cycling clubs across the land can confirm if they actually happened.
The story goes that some aficionados who had seen cyclocross racing in Europe put on a few races in paddocks, making do with whatever natural barriers were at hand.
If you search for the history of cyclocross in Australia, it isn’t there. There’s no tradition, no legendary riders. The story has been made up as it’s gone along over the last six years, taking a bit from Europe but more from the scene in the US.
“Back in 2009 you could probably count the number of proper cross bikes in Melbourne on one hand, and people were cobbling together old touring bikes or running road bikes with generous clearances just to be able to race in the CX category,” says Andrew Blake, one of the creators of the Dirty Deeds Cyclocross series.
Yet the scene in Australia is evolving, says Lisa Jacobs, who came to cross from the road.
“There’s no doubt people are taking it a bit more seriously. We’ve had teams at the last two world championships and people recognise that we’re not just messing around. I love it.”
“There’s a sense of frivolity in CX that you don’t get at other races. You get supporters who are really into it and the athletes are generally grounded and fun to be around.”
To show how quickly it’s grown, there’s now racing in every state and even ex-pro sprint star Robbie McEwen is promoting a series in Queensland. And Phil Anderson, the first non-European to wear the yellow jersey at the Tour de France, was present on Sunday. He liked what he saw:
“It’s very inspiring. I’d like to get out there and give it a go myself. Maybe this time next year.”