Well, it’s Cross Nationals week. All day we’re getting text updates on the new age-bracket national champs, and here in the States the elite race is coming Sunday in Madison, Wisconsin.
It is more or less accepted, I think, that cyclocross has arrived with the masses this season. A ramping popularity seems finally to have reached critical mass.
Historically a way for road racers to keep fit in the off-season, cyclocross has long since become a discipline and focus unto itself, and, at least in this country, it has a unique culture that thumbs its nose at the more, shall we say, rigid culture of road racing.
Cross is inclusive. It’s fun. It has cow bells and heckling. It has beer and dollar primes and donut hand ups. There is a sense, among most racers, that they’re in it together, slogging through the mud, sliding out in off-camber turns, tromping through the sand or dancing through the barriers. Cross invites you to race for survival, if not the podium.
Stars like Katie Compton, Jeremy Powers, Ryan Trebon, Tim Johnson, Jonathan Page, and Kaitlin Antoneau have shown cross’s more charming side, and the more down-to-earth atmosphere at events brings fans closer to the stars. Not that you always want to get closer to someone covered in mud and gasping for breath.
This week’s Group Ride asks the question: Are you watching cyclocross? Are you following it some other way? Does this thing have legs? Or is this just another bandwagon for cycling nuts to jump on?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Maybe Greg LeMond had it right all along. He lived in Europe. He learned French. He immersed himself, but he retained his American-ness. He adapted, but never compromised.
This past weekend, I was at the Grand Prix of Gloucester, and Padraig was at Levi’s King Ridge Grand Fondo, two singular American cycling events, their origins in European riding/racing, but their executions fully-yankeefied. Neither of us was logged into an illicit web-feed of a pro race with commentary in Flemish, French or Italian. Neither of us was reading about a far off mountain or daydreaming about being someplace else. We were both on home soil, physically AND mentally.
There was the smell of wet grass and diesel exhaust in Stage Fort Park in Gloucester on Saturday (this was before the sanitary facilities were overwhelmed and another distinct odor took the air). A schooner sailed into the bay, and a light mist fell. The feel was decidedly New England, though I didn’t see anyone whaling.
First run in 1999, the GP of Gloucester is known locally as “New England Nationals,” but it has grown into a quality, international event with riders from the UK and Switzerland standing on this year’s podium. They’re coming to us now.
The King Ridge Grand Fondo is just three-years-old, but as Padraig’s report will tell you, it is already a massive, well-organized ride. In fact, our calendar is now dotted with races and rides like these, events that enjoy massive support from sponsors and riders alike. Some are even taking on a cultish mystique despite their youth. D2R2 anyone?
For too long, our cycling culture has been imported. How many of us have read hagiographic accounts of Belgian kermisses and swooned a quiet swoon of wanna-be-ness? I know I have. There are probably more riders in the Belgian colors in the United States than there are in all of Belgium, population 11 million. Is there such a thing as velo-envy? If so, we’ve had a bad case.
How many of us have lusted for a steel Merckx? How many of us have pulled on an orange Molteni top despite looking awful in that autumnal hue (everyone does) and not ever having laid eyes on one of Molteni’s stoves.
Is Coppi your man? Formulate the parallel questions in Italian. The answers are all the same. We have been more than Europhilic. We are perhaps lucky our brethren across the ocean haven’t filed a cultural restraining order.
But, there is no longer a need to hitch our bikes to that particular sag wagon.
We have a new American cycling made up of legions of top pros not named Lance Armstrong. That we’ve outgrown the controversial Texan says as much as anything about our growth.
American bicycles, for better and for worse, dominate the modern peloton. Our cycling events reach back into the past when they can, as with the Major Taylor Hill Climb in Worcester, but they also maintain a very contemporary outlook as with our unique take on Grand Fondos and Randonees.
We have magazines like peloton and Embrocation Cycling Journal and Bike, as well as the usual suspects like Bicycling, Velo(News) and Road Bike Action, who are telling our stories back to us in colors more crisp and vivid than we first imagined them in. They write about domestic makers of embro, American beers, events, and custom bike builders. They ride our epic (yes, epic) rides and document them for posterity. Mt. Baldy. The Texas hill country. The Maine seacoast.
I can’t help but feel excited by what is happening in our new American cycling. That doesn’t mean I eschew the spring classics or the grand tours, or that I no longer covet my neighbor’s Italian steel (even though I already own an Italian steel bike). It just means that we also have our own thing. I don’t have to rue the fact that I’ve never seen a kermiss, because I’m too busy yelling at my buddies as they hurdle the barriers in Gloucester, or checking in with Padraig to see how he did at King’s Ridge.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m sitting too close to the television, and what I perceive as a blossoming cycling culture, is really just a pixelated reflection of what’s going on in the old world. But it feels like more. Everytime peloton comes in the mail, or some one of my non-cycling friends asks me if I can help them find their first road bike, I think, “It’s happening. It’s really happening.”
And I smile.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
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The saying “it’s like riding a bike” is one of those adages that we, as cyclists, are prone to feeling pride for. It’s as if we have placed something unforgettable on an altar. The greater truth behind those words is not of body, but of brain.
Neuroscientists are learning that the way the brain is wired isn’t as we once believed—static and unchanging, like the number of floors in a skyscraper. They have learned that the brain is more like a cube farm, with paths changing, walls moving and new lighting changing the landscape in response to the life we live.
I did my first race in nine years today, my first cyclocross race in ten years. Techniques I haven’t practiced or needed in ten years came back like a light bulb flicked on in a seldom-visited basement. While I do all my braking on road bikes with my index fingers, on mountain bikes and on ‘cross bikes, I do all my braking with my middle fingers. Though that practice has lain as dormant as breaststroke, it’s no less ingrained—my middle fingers went out without a thought.
The first time I stood up to accelerate I kept my arms relatively straight and my ass back. That’s not the weight distribution I use on the road. And I favored my rear brake in turns the way I normally favor my front brake. It’s not something I thought through, I simply did.
And though I hadn’t practiced dismounts and remounts, I swung my right leg over the saddle and slid it between the frame and my left leg like I’ve been doing it once a day for a dozen years. The one moment in which I became conscious of my movement was after I landed on my saddle the second or third time. There was a brief flash of recognition that I hadn’t done that little toe bounce that so many of us do when we fear committing to our weight to an airborne approach to that saddle. I was coming down on the right side of my pelvis, keeping the delicate bits out of the landing zone.
While I knew I still knew how to ride a bike going in and that I’d manage my way through the technical aspects of riding a ‘cross course, the question mark in my head was whether I’d be able to find that old feeling again. The feeling to which I refer is the one is which you’re fully committed to the endeavor. The race becomes a sort of question.
Once posed, the question reduces the barriers, berms, run-ups, serpentine turns, curbs and other obstacles to spice. The actual meal is your fitness. Can you go hard enough that you cease to think about the obstacles and instead focus on your physical limits?
There were moments when I took stock and wasn’t really pleased at just how slow I was. Mine was an anonymous finish—which was perfectly fitting. For most of the race I was going so hard I couldn’t have told you my name.
Editor’s Note: We ran across photographer Whit Bazemore’s work last week following the ‘cross nationals in Bend, Oregon. His work captures the drama and suffering that make cyclocross such a stunning spectacle. We hope you enjoy the work of a new voice.
No matter where you live, the summer heat has broken. Maybe there’s even a bit of a nip in the air. It can only mean one thing:
‘Cross season is here.
Of all the brands out there, one of my absolute favorites is Richard Sachs. Yes, he’s an advertiser. Yes, he’s a friend. End of full disclosure. Regardless, Richard is a go-fast guy who has fun with his “brand.”
Frankly, I think most frame builders and even a great many bike companies could use Sachs as an object lesson in how to brand. This new T-shirt embodies everything I dig about the guy: It is irreverent, stylish and passionate, not to mention strictly insider. It also captures the basic zeitgeist of ‘cross racers.
There’s not much to review in a T-shirt. Either it says something you want the world to know … or not.
If you want to follow Richard’s team’s exploits on knobby tires, click here.