Photography: Andy Bokanev | Words: David Evans and Harry Dowdney
Words: David Evans and Harry Dowdney | Photography: Andy Bokanev
With more and more road cyclists rolling off the tarmac and onto the dirt, adventure riding is the new sensation.
At the forefront of this two-wheeled trend is the chaotic, infectious sport of cyclocross. With more bikes, more races – including a growing global calendar of Rapha Super Cross events – and more fun, the phrase ‘Cross is coming’ has never been more apt than this year.
The Rapha 2015 Cross collection is versatile enough to be worn at cyclocross races, on the road, or during your forays into the forest this winter. The collection includes a women-specific Cross jersey for the first time, as well as a Cross Aerosuit for racing.
Each piece features Rapha’s now iconic Cross livery and colour palette of medieval blue and fig, so stand out and get stuck into the mud this season – everyone is doing it.
The logistics for the 2015 Rapha cyclocross photoshoot couldn’t have been simpler: arrive at Jeremy Powers’ house in Western Massachusetts, drink coffee, and ask him where he’d like to ride.
Powers has called Western Massachusetts home for as long as he has been an elite rider, and over the years has compiled a repertoire of routes that take in the finest gravel roads, gradients, tracks and trails that his part of New England has to offer. After three national champion’s jerseys and numerous trips to the European races, he’s still happiest when heading a pack of riders on a long jaunt into the hills.
This is a trait he shares with Australian national champion Lisa Jacobs, who races under the Rapha banner in elite fields around the world.
For the launch of the 2015 cross collection, we took a moment to quiz Jacobs and Powers on how their racing and riding is informed by their sense of adventure.
Cross races rarely last more than an hour, but that doesn’t mean that cross rides have to be similarly curtailed. “We call the longest rides ‘Al’s adventures’,” says Powers, referring to his long time friend and training partner, Alec Donahue. “He’ll call you up and say he’s found some new trail that’s only a three hour ride out of town, and that getting to it only requires crossing two rivers – it’s madness, but it’s fun.”
This style of riding, which seeks out remote fire roads and gravel, has given rise to the concept of ‘gravel grinders’ – long, semi-organised forays that wouldn’t be considered suitable for a local race series. But aside from being an adventure, these rides are physiologically useful too. “Some of my fondest memories are of rattling through the Dandenong Ranges outside of Melbourne. You’re isolated, and you know that if you don’t keep your legs moving you’ll never get home,” says Jacobs.
There’s a certain level of technical aptitude that prevents cyclocross from becoming a white-knuckle ride. Seasoned racers speak of ‘driving the bike’ and of ‘flowing’ through corners and trails – in other words, using their momentum, weight and balance to hold speed over obstacles. But neither Jacobs nor Powers were born with these skills, and you’ll find both practicing even the most basic elements of cross riding throughout the year.
Jacobs works on her skills in dedicated sessions a couple of times a week. “We work on everything – dismounting, remounting, hopping, turns, roots – there’s really nothing that I wouldn’t mind being better at.”
There’s always something that’s too hard to ride first time, according to Powers. “I’d say that it’s a good habit to find things you can’t do, like off-cambers, sand pits, or drop-offs. Find places where you get scared, and then spend a session there.” After a few months, you’ll find yourself working on obstacles that are more difficult than most races. The more the better, claims Powers. “If the race course is the easiest thing I ride in the week, then I can feel quite relaxed about going fast.”
Crashes in road racing are gruesome and spectacular – but crashing in cross is more of a common inconvenience. The combination of slick mud and high speed almost ensures a mishap in every race, says Powers. “You know, getting back up quickly is a skill in itself. Everyone is going to crash, so it’s not worth a second thought.”
Despite racing in temperate Australia, Jacobs is no stranger to the perils of mud. “I’ve always thought that one of the best things about cross is that when you fall off – and you probably will – you get to slide around in the dirt instead of on the concrete.”
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?
The traditions of cross are arcane but pervasive. There’s no limit on the number of people who will tell you about the correct way of riding. But cross’s recent explosion in popularity means that new riders are finding novel ways of interpreting and reimagining these traditions.
“It’s the great thing about Aussie cross,” explains Jacobs, “we’re building our own identity and our own history, and it’s naturally different to that of Europe and America. We hold respect for the traditions of European cross, but the racing here is unique.”
Powers’ relationship to the European scene is more nuanced. He’s won almost every race that the States has to offer, and spent months of his life living in Belgium, hunting results in the sport’s hallowed ground. “I’m at a point in my career now that I can pick and choose where and how I race, and that’s a luxury. I remember those first few races in Belgium in 2004… each race felt like a beating. It made me tough, though, I can tell you that.”
With its walls of foam, ringing cowbells and tequila corners, Rapha Super Cross is the most fun you can have in a muddy field in the depths of winter. This year, look out for upcoming events in UK, Germany and Japan.