Cyclocross & Speedskating

I read cyclingnews.com every day, keeping up on my old passion of bike racing. It’s been quite painful to be a fan of elite racing recently, but the sport itself is still wonderful.

Recently they had this article about Cyclocross, one of my favorite kinds of cycling, and the article interviewed someone I used to drive to races with, good fella extraordinaire Adam Myerson. There is much food for thought in this, if these lessons are extrapolated to speedskating.

What is cyclo-cross?

Imagine steeplechase, but on road bikes! conditions usually combine mud, sand, logs, slop, hills & barriers requiring dismounting and running with the bike on your shoulder, some mandatory fast asphalt for the start/finish, and generally appalling “more fun” muckitude.

To the right is me, at 19, happily covered in mud while racing at Wompatuck state park, just south of Boston.

Basically cyclocross is riding road bikes off-road with knobby tires. Although mountain bikes can compete, they are often at a disadvantage to a true cross bike due to the nature of the courses.

Here is an image gallery from the elite men at the recent US nationals. And here are the women, A typical slop-fest fun ‘cross race!

In Europe, road racers have been doing ‘cross since the 1950’s to keep in shape over the winter, and it is HUGELY popular due to the short spectator friendly courses & “festival mentality” surrounding Euro-racing. Lance Armstrong has even raced ‘cross, here is a photo gallery, and this particular one is priceless and channels the spirit of the sport.

Racing cyclocross helped me train the physical aspects of cycling I am awful at, and made me very confidant while riding a road bike in terrible conditions. I very rarely ever cracked the top half of the results in any cross race, but it did not matter. The mud-spattered, endorphin-addled idiot grin was why I raced.

In the early 90’s, cyclocross was a cult sport in the USA, practiced by just a tiny number of people. I was a happy part of the New England cult. Races were small, often only 50-75 total athletes in a few categories. Nationals would attract a few hundred.

I bet in 1990, nationwide, cyclocross was very similar to speedskating in total numbers of participants, maybe even smaller.

From the late 90’s through to when I did my last cyclocross race in the fall of 2001, something DEFINITELY CHANGED.

Attendance at races skyrocketed, a national series cropped up. Multiple categories became the norm. There was suddenly prize money involved, and world class road & mountain bikers started appearing. Nationals used to happen all on one day. Now it takes 3.

I found my true calling in ice speedskating in 2002, and lost touch with ‘cross, as the racing seasons both start in October. The only speedskater I know who did both was multiple-US ice marathon Champion Rob Kramer. He raced a lot of ‘cross until the ice would come in at Lake Placid, then it was all skates.

If you don’t want to read this cool article I linked above, no problem, but here are the lessons I think can be drawn from it.

  1. A strong, visible national series, where the top people all gather, is essential.
  2. Cyclocross was never supported by USA cycling, it really was created by race promoters & passionate folks like my buddy Adam. They saw a problem and solved it regionally, with passion & elbow grease.
  3. It’s ok to have regional differences/flavor in how racing is run, as long as differences are celebrated.
  4. When speedskaters whine about lack of support at the elite levels, we are riding the IOC gravy train compared to the top-crossers (or inliners, for that matter).
  5. Ice Speedskaters also can train to compete at the world-class level without a mandatory move to Belgium or Switzerland!
  6. Speedskating equipment is CHEAP comparatively. Most top crossers need 2-3 bikes at each race. Top bikes are many thousands of dollars each, and cyclocross destroys equipment like nothing else. The bike I am riding in the above photo, I snapped the down tube at a race my parents attended. My father never fails to give me good nature crap about how proud I was of this.
  7. Cyclocross has certainly benefited from the explosion of Mountain biking, in the same way ice speedskating should joyously cross-pollinate with inline.
  8. Speedskating has visible national heroes; everyone agrees there has been a massive failure to turn their celebrity into a grassroots program. Is there another model? I think cyclocross shows one.
  9. What are the lessons? cyclocross grassroots promoters show them in these excellent examples, I found 20+ local series websites in one googling, none of these series existed when I did my first cross race in 1988.

    The Pacific Northwest’s cross crusade.
    The Verge New England verge series.
    Tennessee’s Mud, sweat & gears
    The Southern California cross folks.
    Seattle cyclocross
    Surf-City Cyclocross
    North Carolina Cyclocross
    Utah Cyclocross

    and the national series, the US Grand Prix of Cyclocross.

  10. Imagine if the America’s cup races were organized with outside sponsors, like any one of these… Taken as a whole, these websites have something to teach speedskaters as it shows passionate individuals creating regional race circuits, attracting money & industry sponsors, creating grassroots community, etc.
  11. A bit of passion, a bit of cult, is a good thing, but popularity does change the sport.
  12. TV coverage is nice, but there has never been cyclocross on American national TV. Most people in the population at large know about speedskating & can name a few speedskaters. Mentioning ‘cross to a non-cyclist draws a blank stare.

Its easy to say “oh, these are such different sports for XYZ reasons”. Yes, they are, but 17 years ago, I believe there were far more similarities than differences.

Taking the long view, 17 years from now, where will speedskating be? We can thrash around in the dark of our own morbid frustrations, or we can look to other examples of “small-sport” success, and model our own efforts upon the best examples of them.

4 Responses to “Cyclocross & Speedskating”

  1. What a great photo! Funny how you look younger now!

  2. Oh, it just figures you’d be a cyclocrosser. The biggest thing in common between CX and SS is that both relish and celebrate suffering.

    (To date, my greatest accomplishment has been lining up to race on a single-speed cross bike.)

    I’ve never felt that CX ever *wanted* to have a big popular following. Those of us who do it hope that nobody else will because being one of those “psycho” people appeals to us.

    The same is true for me of speed skating - I like the obscurity a little, the surprise when it is mentioned in passing conversation. It is ecclectic and poorly accessible and makes me cooler than everyone who doesn’t. :D

  3. this is a very nice exciting piece of work. I like the winter for its elements and sports. Of course skating but the other best best is cycle cross.
    Our belgian friends are the best as you may know. There are lots of big and small competitions from autumn through early spring. Thousands of mostly Belgian spectators, and live tv-coverages at least once, twice a week.
    The world championships were held the last weekend of january. For more than almost 2/3 of the race we had this for us totally unknown american rider Jonathan Page cycling like crazy in the first position. Sadly enough he was beaten only in the last 500 metres - by Vervecken, one of the famous Belgians always winning. This Jonathan appears to be a real slave of the mud and elements. He doesn’t win enough to earn a good contract to live off. In his beginning poor days as cyclist he had to travel from one race to the other in his own car. The car was also his none-stars hotel. And of course papers like to add to these juicy stories the one about him having assisted his girlfriend/wife with the delivery of their litlle girl (around 2 years now - and prominently filmed) and leaving this happy holy place for another start at some obscure cycle cross race in deep Belgium or in some desertlike northern France village. “Start money”: 200 euro (240 dollares).
    Go Andrew Go. We need more Americans in cycling as we need them in skating.

  4. There are people in speedskating who have great ideas for developing the sport and making it more accessible. The first thing that needs to happen is that speedskating needs to get rid of all the old-timers who prefer obscurity not because it makes them cooler (nothing against what Vanessa is saying; I totally understand the appeal of obscurity) but those who prefer obscurity because it hides their corruption and incompetence.

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