Cyclo-Cross is Great

(The following is as much an appeal for information as it is an imparting of knowledge. If I’ve made any glaring errors (or indeed, any minor errors) please let me know, as I’m on a steep learning curve at the moment and need all the help I can get).

Taking an interest in a new sport can be as daunting as it is exciting. Usually, it’s quite straight forward to learn the rules of a sport. There will always be obscure rules which only present themselves in very specific scenarios, but in general, following what’s going on is simple. What isn’t simple though is figuring out what events and competitions are important, which are the most prestigious, which are the ones everybody wants to win, where does each event fit in with the sport’s calendar as a whole?

Having had an interest in cycling from a very young age, these are notions with which I’ve grown up with and learned through osmosis rather than by actively seeking answers. This week however, I have taken the plunge into the world of cyclo-cross without the benefit of a knowing guide to show me what’s what.

I’ve often thought how I would explain the world of professional road racing to someone who had previously had no exposure to it and have concluded that the best way would be to relate it to a sport most people are famliar with – football. I would start by saying the Tour de France is like the World Cup, only it takes place every year and not just every four years. I would go on by saying the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana are the same length as the Tour de France, but are more like the European Championships in terms of prestige.

Then the other races which take up the calendar become the Premier League, with a race (or two, or three) on every week for the whole season. But, like football, although a win is a win, some wins are more important than others. Just like a Manchester United fan enjoys when his team beats Liverpool far more than when they beat Blackpool, a cycling fan gets far more excited about Paris-Roubaix than they do about,say, the Dutch Food Valley Classic. Then finally, although it is only a one day competition, winning the rainbow jersey of World Champion would be of a similar stature to winning the European Champion’s League.

I’ve always been aware of cyclo-cross but have never given it too much attention. I know it’s very mucky and that riders are required to dismount and remount impressively quickly depending on the obstacles littered throughout the race. But apart from the obvious, the breadth of my wisdom on the sport was knowing that Lars Boom used to be quite good. So before I watched my first race, I took the time to familiarise myself with the ins and outs of the sport. The following is what I learned about cyclo-cross:

Every cyclo-cross race lasts a nicely palatable 60 minutes and is like a rather pleasing mix between a mini Tour of Flanders and a Formula 1 Grand Prix. The similarities between the Tour of Flanders lie in the short sharp efforts and the attritional nature of the racing. The parallels with Formula 1 are evident from the off, literally, as a set of lights above the startline indicate the start of the race. There are also, like Formula 1, a number of laps to be completed, the length of which are of a comparable length to motor racing circuits.

Zdenek Stybar - Current cyclo-cross World Champion

Furthermore, there is a ‘pit lane’ where riders can enter during a lap, dump their mud-caked bikes and replace them with shiny clean new ones. There are also only four or five competitors in with a chance of victory in any given race, namely, Sven Nys, Zdenek Stybar, Niels Albert, Bart Wellens and Kevin Pauwels. It is actually this final characteristic of cyclo-cross which makes it nicely accessible. A new viewer need only familiarise themselves with half a dozen riders to appreciate what’s going on. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of noteworthy performances being hammered out further down the circuit by young up and coming riders and such like, there are. But for someone introducing themselves to the sport for the first time, five or six names and faces at the front of the race is rather manageable.

The cyclo-cross season begins in September and ends in February, nicely squeezing into the gaping hole left by the end of the road season. The calendar consists of three similar season long competitions in the style of the old UCI Road World Cup. In fact, one of the competitions is called the UCI Cyclo-Cross World Cup which is raced by national teams rather than trade teams. It consists of eight races and was first contested in 1993. The Czech rider Zdenek Stybar is currently leading the World Cup, as there have been two races and he has won them both. He also won the World Cup overall last year. For the last round of the World Cup, the points count double.

The second competition is called the SuperPrestige and has been going since 1983. This also consists of eight races and is currently being led by the Belgian national champion Sven Nys, although Stybar also won this competition last year. Funnily enough, despite its name, from what I gather the SuperPrestige is considered slightly less prestigious than the World Cup.

Sven Nys has dominated the sport of cyclo-cross for ten years - Belgian Champion x 7, UCI World Cup x 7, SuperPrestige x 9, Gazet x 7 and one Rainbow Jersey

Belgian champion Sven Nys has dominated the sport of Cyclo-Cross for ten years.

The third competition, and third in the pecking order of importance is the Gazet Cyclo-Cross trophy, which again is a series of eight races with points awarded according to the finishing order of each race. This competition, first held in 1983, is currently being led by Zdenek Stybar who lies just ahead of Kevin Pauwels. It was won last year by Sven Nys.

So, on the face of it, it seems a tad confusing that there are three competitions which are run concurrently consisting of eight races apiece. Also, I haven’t managed to ascertain whether any particular round of a competition means more than the others. For instance, in the old road World Cup, winning Paris-Roubaix was worth the same number of points in terms of the season long contest as winning the Championship of Zurich, but in terms of reputation, Zurich didn’t compare. Does winning the SuperPrestige race in Zonhoven mean more than winning the SuperPrestige race in Hoogstraten?

Apart from the three season long competitions there is the World Championships, which is held in January. The current wearer of the Rainbow Jersey of World Champion is, unsurprisingly, Zdenek Stybar.

From the few race reports that I’ve read it seems that Sven Nys has been dominating the sport for years and he passed the metaphorical crown of the king of cyclo-cross to Stybar last year, as Stybar won pretty much everything. But this year, helped in part by Stybar suffering a bit of knee trouble, Nys has been winning a lot, and although 10 years Stybar’s senior, is poised to take back the crown.

So having learned this much, I dabbled in a bit of downloading and I watched a race called the Jaarmarktcross Niel. Having researched what was what in terms of competition, it was only half way through the race that I realised that it wasn’t part of any of the three season long competitions. There are in fact, a few one day, stand-alone races on the calendar and this was one of them. It didn’t take away from my enjoyment of watching it though. The conditions were horrific, gruesome, ghastly and any number of other adjectives that can describe a group of wet and mucky cyclists going around a wet and mucky circuit. The crowd was massive, with thousands of fans lining the route the atmosphere round the entire circuit was similar to that of the Kapelmuur during the Ronde. It immediately made me eager for more.

Unfortunately, none of the European cyclo-cross season is shown on Eurosport or any other channel available in Ireland. But despite this, or perhaps because of it, a live stream of every race is nearly always available on t’internet, is the best bet. This weekend sees the third round of the World Cup competition from Koksijde in Belgium on the Saturday and the fifth round of the SuperPrestige from Gieten in the Netherlands on the Sunday. The races tend to start at 2pm Irish time, and are a great way to spend an hour on a winter afternoon, provided you’ve been out on the bike yourself that morning and you deserve to be lazing about!

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