There’s a mild absurdity to cyclocross that would seemingly stop it from ever being considered ‘cool.’ It lacks the grandiose scale and grand vistas of road racing, replacing them with decidedly unpicturesque farm pastures and greyed skies. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking that ‘cross’ is little more than a muddy and dangerous hassle, pursued only by oddballs who can’t, or won’t, get their fix from an abundantly long and varied road season.
And you’d be right, at least partly. Cross is weird, hard to define, and difficult – yet it has become the fastest-growing sub-genre of cycling in the past decade, inspiring riders to hop on unfamiliar bikes and to ride in inhospitable conditions. What has made cross cool?
There’s a concept from the work of American poet and essayist Gary Snyder that is apt here. Snyder writes that fear of the wilderness has the power to totally disconnect someone from the modern world. If you’re afraid of a cliff, or a bear, or of becoming lost, you can’t possibly think about your email inbox or to-do list. Day-to-day stuff is pushed from your mind.
And this, in essence, is why cyclocross is gaining so much attention. Flying over a drop-off on a cross bike is exhilarating, and it’s also all-consuming. The same can be said of sliding a bike through a wet, grassy turn, or trading elbows on the way into a section of singletrack. It’s just dangerous and wild enough to offer the disconnect that Snyder is referring to, if only for a couple of hours.
Doubters might say they get the same feeling from criterium racing or even their café rides. That might be true, but I dare anyone to seek out a challenging cross ride and to not come back slightly changed. Londoners: travel out to Epping Forest, slip across the tree roots and mud, and return in time for a late breakfast. Melbourners: the trails out by Bunyip and Yarra are, apparently, brutally fun. New Yorkers: go to Cunningham Park and Wolfe’s Pond, then the city’s surprising density of talented cross racers will seem slightly less surprising.
The point is that any location will reveal patches of wilderness, even the most urban metropolis. These relatively unknown fields and trails – where a rider might not come across a dog walker, let alone a car – feel like a well-earned refuge to their aficionados, and cross riders soon become experts in urban escapology.
Seen in this light, the 200-rider fields at amateur races in the US seem less anomalous, and the bright-lights spectacle of CrossVegas is the show business re-telling of an older story, one of riders wanting to get lost for just a little while, riding away from an over-flowing inbox and towards something more primal.
There are other ways of explaining cross’s appeal – such as its tendency towards equal prize money that far outpaces road racing’s, its exceptionally rich history, the mystique of European racing, or even its insistence on tyre designs that are pushing forty years old – but for most, these are secondary to the immediate and visceral experience of flying through fields and forests. A fine example of this is the reaction of US cross champion Jeremy Powers when asked if he’d like to host this year’s cyclocross photoshoot on his hometown roads: “I know some places around here that will blow you away. We have a secret sandpit that has everything you’d ever need – there’s no better place to ride your bike. I promise.”