This article was written by Gabe Konrad and originally appeared in the Bicycle Trader Magazine as “Cyclocross: History & What You Should Know”. I have retrieved and republished it here. The article is Gabe Konrad’s Original Work
Cyclo-cross is nearly as old as the bicycle itself, and as fresh and full of vigor as if it were born yesterday. It’s a sport that enjoys rampant popularity in Europe, and in America, after it’s heyday of the late 70′s, is picking up momentum once again in areas rich with the history of road racing: Boulder, Boston, Chicago, Santa Cruz, Seattle, and even Montana where Geoff Procter teaches ‘cross clinics. It’s been called a “fringe sport” and “outlandishly demanding,” but at the same time some of cycling’s greatest heroes, including numerous Tour de France winners, have used it for winter conditioning. More and more ‘cross bikes are being taken from the race scenario — the ultimate hybrid for commuting, for fun. A skill and a tremendous machine that can cover all the bases.
The History of Cyclo-cross
Turn of the century “dead seasons” would find the young French army private, and later secretary-general of the French Cycling Union, Daniel Gousseau cycling through the forests along side his horse-mounted general, sharing their love of the outdoors. He enjoyed these winter outings so much that he invited a few of his friends along and soon dozens of cyclists were rolling along the trails. Impromptu racing occurred among the sporting cyclists and soon organized events were scheduled.
In 1902 Gousseau was given the opportunity to organize the first French championship, which was won by F. de Baeder. For years this “rough stuff” and “mud plugging” remained mainly a French indulgence until its popularity exploded when Octave Lapize attributed his 1910 Tour de France win to the off-season sport. The first International Criterium, which was won by the Frenchman Gaston Degy, was held in 1924 in Paris. Following Gaston to the podium were many of cycling’s greats: Charles Pelissier in 1926, 1927 and 1928, Sylvere Maes, the handlebar namesake, in 1933 and Robert Oubron who won in 1937, 1938, 1941 and 1942!
In 1950 one of the international events became official, and in Paris the 1947 Tour winner Jean Robic was the first to pull on the rainbow jersey. Like the International Criteriums, the World Championships saw many of cycling’s brightest stars cross the finish lines. But among them, Belgium’s Eric de Vlaeminck was definitely king of the ‘crossers having, at the tender age of twenty, won in 1966 and then each year from 1968 to 1973.
The open format of the World’s was changed in 1967 with the addition of a special amateur world title and the junior title was adopted in 1976.
‘Cross races are generally held on circuits one to two miles in length. The perfect course will have paved and unpaved sections, wet areas and dry, will be about 75 percent rideable, the rest for running. It will have a variety of natural obstacles, like muddy banks, streams, and fallen trees, and man-made obstacles, like bales of straw, wooden barriers, and even flights of stairs. Depending on you classification and age the race will last around thirty to 75 minutes. After a season of multi-hour hour road and mountain races this may seem to be a short run, but for even the most prepared, this is a lung-blowing experience. Cyclo-cross is a very demanding, incredibly precise sport.
More like road racing than mountain, ‘cross racers are allowed “pit crews” where they can do bike exchanges, replace wheels or take care of any other mechanical problems they might have. It’s common on muddy courses to exchange your filthy bike for a clean one after each lap. The mechanics using buckets and brushes, high-powered hoses, and even rushing streams to clean off the bikes.
The only real way to learn the cyclo-cross ropes is to get out there and do it. If you happen to live in a ‘cross-friendly area, you can find folks to help you learn the tricks of the trade. Everyone else? Try finding some Euro-Pro ‘cross videos, look out for the fall ‘cross tip articles in VeloNews and the like, and, if you can track down a copy, read Simon Burney’s definitive work on the sport, Cyclo-Cross.
Why do it?
At a time when mountain biking is so popular, the question of why to take up cyclo-cross is often heard. There are basically three reasons to cross over. One is for the same reason you might, in this time of clinchers and STI, use sew-ups and down-tube shifters: history. Cyclo-cross has been around for about 70 years longer than its fat-tired grandchild. Its courses weave a rich tapestry of cycling heroes and two-wheeled feats. Its time tested and time proven.
Probably the main reason for taking up cross is for training. Nothing can beat the incredible workout afforded the roadie by this off-season sport. It builds stunning arm and upper-body strength and bike-handling skills that will eliminate the fear of rainy criteriums and gravel spotted roads, increases cardio-respiratory endurance and takes up surprisingly little time, since a one hour workout can be more advantageous than hours on mind-numbing rollers.
But the third, and my main reason for crossing, is that its just plain fun! Nothing beats the quick handling and lively feel of the cross bike on the quickest descents and trickiest singletrack. In his Feb. ’93 Bicycle Guide article “Mountain Bikes: Who Needs Them?” Chris Kostman called these modified road bikes “the first and only real all-terrain bike.” And he’s right! I believe they’re also the perfect commuter, or, as Grant Peterson would call them, all-rounder bikes. No throw-back balloon tires, elastomer bumpers, springs and OPEC drippings to separate you from the feel of the Earth. Just you, your wits and the perfect trail bike. The simplicity of a cross bike, and the very act of riding, running and walking, enable you, as Robert Oubron and Rene Chesal write in their book Cycliste 100, serie cyclo-cross (Paris, 1967),
“to discover hundreds of interesting things which you would have ridden straight past is you had not been tempted into hitching the bike over your shoulder, or simply pushing it along, and following a riverbed, or a footpath that may end in a spring or an unexpected view, or a lane that suddenly yields up some unexpected historical monument, or a lake you did not know existed.
…Just try doing this on a bridal path in Savoy or in the Pyrenees and I’ll be surprised if you don’t find yourself singing for sheer joy. And when you’re back down again, after clattering through streams and gullies and stony paths, sometimes on the bike, sometimes on your feet, you will have enjoyed a wonderful experience.”
The main bikes of my wife, Melanie, and I are ‘cross bikes. In the country area where we live there are too many dirt roads to just jump on our road bikes and ride — and way too much asphalt to lug cumbersome mountain bikes around on. With the sluggish and unresponsive geometry of the common hybrid, what’s left? If you want a machine that has precision slo-mo handling and can really pull out the speed when you want it, the cyclo-cross bike is the answer.
‘Cross bikes aren’t just for racing any more. “To call it only a sport,” says champion ‘crosser Laurence Malone, “is demeaning. As people seek increasingly creative and self-reliant means of transportation, this hybrid of foot and bicycle travel will take on new dimension and importance. As perceptions of the bicycle shift from that of toy to tool (and they will), two-wheeled expertise cannot remain confined to sport alone. What is regarded as ‘recreation,’ ‘sport,’ or ‘leisure’ today will be the challenge of mobility tomorrow.”