Some call it a folkloric offshoot from real bike racing. Others see it as the perfect way to learn superior bike-handling skills and stay fit in the winter. And in Belgium it’s almost a religion, attracting huge crowds of fans both at events and watching live on TV every Sunday afternoon once the season has kicked off. But what is it, and how does it work? (Photo above: Getty Images)
Cyclo-cross is racing off-road on a bike that looks like a road racer (it isn’t, but more about that later). The races take place around laps of a short, marked-out courses, usually around 2km to 5km long. The season begins in late September and runs through February. This means bad weather, mud, cold, falling over, filthy machinery and filthy clothes, and very tough racing. The courses often contain obstacles, which mean that running ability and fitness, as well as cycling skills, can be key in cyclocross.
Anyone who has ever raced cyclo-cross knows this: the start is the scariest and most important part of the race. It is a mass start, just like motocross on motorcycles, and all riders sprint hard from the gun to gain position in the first corner. Often the courses are designed with short strips of asphalt in them, often at start and/or finish. There are often crashes and verbal exchanges during this crucial part of the race. If you’re not in the top 20 by the first corner, there’s quite a good chance you never will be. It’s a high adrenalin experience and not for the faint-hearted.
Each race lasts around an hour. Older riders and juniors generally race for around 45 minutes, and elite riders for just over an hour. This means really challenging physical activity for a relatively short time—nothing like a Tour de France stage, which lasts a whole day. Cyclo-cross is fast, it’s furious, and extremely intense. This makes it tough on the riders and an exciting spectator sport at the same time.
You need to be able to sprint a lot on uneven ground, run up and over obstacles, and cycle through very technical sections as fast as possible. Cyclo-cross is an excellent discipline for improving all-round fitness, and bike-handling skills at the same time. Training for cyclocross involves lots of high-intensity interval training, such as Tabata sets (20 seconds full gas, 10 seconds off, done eight times with a short rest in between, and then repeat until you vomit—not really, but it can happen).
In addition, you should think about training your bike handling skills (mounting and dismounting the bike incorrectly can lose or win you time), and a running programme if you are really serious about it.
Cyclo-cross is big in the Netherlands, but it’s simply huge in Belgium. The riders are heroes, the crowds are magnificent, and the discipline is taken very seriously. Many of the greatest names in cyclo-cross are Belgian, although the sport originated in France. The sport really got big once the races became official international events in 1950. One of the greatest cyclo-cross riders was definitely Erik de Vlaeminck (1945 – 2015), who won the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships no less than seven times.
Sven Nys (pronounced like the word ‘nice’ in English) is one of the more recent cyclo-cross legends, winning the World Championships twice, seven UCI Cyclo-cross World Cups and 140 race victories. Nys, who retired in 2016, was definitely the best of his generation in this discipline, and his bike-handling skills are legendary.
There is now a Sven Nys cycling centre near Antwerp, where you can ride free of charge around a well looked-after cyclo-cross and mountainbike track. There is also an excellent exhibition centre where you can learn about the history of the sport.
Today, there are two major talents in men’s cyclo-cross racing who are regularly pitted against one another during the big races: Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel and Belgian Wout van Aert. Watching these two battling it out at full-speed cyclo-cross is top sporting entertainment.
In the women’s races, Dutch cycling legend Marianne Vos and Belgian rider Sanne Kant (who has won the World Championships two times) are the major forces to be reckoned with.
Cyclo-cross bikes are different
The bikes might look like racing bikes (they have the typical dropped handlebars), but they are actually quite different. The frames are wider to leave adequate clearance for mud, the tyres are nobbly and wider than road tyres (but still much narrower than mountainbike tyres), and the frame geometry is designed to make riding off road (slightly) more comfortable.
These days most cyclo-cross (CX) bikes have disc brakes, while in the past cantilever brakes were most popular as they do not get clogged up with mud.
So even if you don’t feel bitten by the cyclo-cross bug enough to go and enter a local race, try and find a Belgian TV channel on an Autumn Sunday afternoon if you want to watch an hour’s serious cycling action after the road racing season has ended.