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Is Cyclocross the Future of Road Cycling?

Cyclocross, a school for road champions?

In France, cyclocross is seen as some kind of vaguely nostalgic, winter-based activity, harking back to a time when the pros didn’t fly off to spend the winter under the Sierra Nevada sun. But this view doesn’t take into account a young generation of prodigies that is changing the status quo. In Belgium and the Netherlands, Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel are cleaning up on the mud-rutted cyclocross courses in front of thousands of delirious fans. Not yet 25, they’re the talk of the town in this Belgo-Dutch specialism, but they’re now rivalling the road specialists too. Both claimed victories from their very first participations in the Spring Classic races. Are they exceptions to the rule, and is cyclocross really a discipline apart? No! Just a few years before them, widely known names like Julian Alaphilippe, Peter Sagan, Zdeněk Štybar and Pauline Ferrand-Prévot also passed through the ‘school of cyclocross’ – the first two as junior world champions, the Czech rider as a three-time world champ and the Frenchwoman as simultaneous road, mountain-bike and cross champion. Is cyclocross really the future of road? We talked to French ’cross expert Steve Chainel, to try to find out.

Steve Chainel, Nommay World Cup

It is 9:30 PM when the last train from Paris drops us at Remiremont station, in the Lorraine region of northeastern France. The town only has 8,000 people, but it benefits from a high-speed link thanks to Christian Poncelet, a local politician who thought one was necessary for getting to the French Senate. Steve Chainel is also on the ground here – if not in politics yet – and is waiting for us near his estate car. “Come on guys, hurry up, in the Vosges [this is a mountainous region], we eat dinner at 6:30 PM,” he says.

On the drive to the restaurant that has kept its kitchens open for us, Steve gets straight to the point on the subject of the moment: “So you’ve brought your knobbly tyres with you?” Chainel was junior French cyclocross champion before he became a road pro, leaving ‘cross behind, as with so many young riders who shone on its muddy circuits, so that he could make a living. When he retired he returned to it, becoming CEO, manager and star rider of France’s best ‘cross team, Team Chazal-Canyon-3G Immo. He’s just returned from a World Cup fixture in Nommay, central France.

"I remember my first Roubaix, everyone was saying, ‘You’ll see, Arenberg is hell.’ But how long is Arenberg? Five minutes? Riding ‘cross you do that – and worse – every weekend."

Sitting down at last in front of a steak sauce aux morilles, Steve spends so long singing from the cyclocross hymn sheet that he barely allows himself time for a bite. “Cyclocross is a bit like [Lance] Armstrong’s VO2 Max tests, [Chris] Froome’s altitude camps or [Team] Quickstep’s low-carb diets: everyone trash talks when there’s one person doing it, but when they realise that it works they all want to do exactly the same thing. Before, coaches would worry that if riders did the ‘cross season they would arrive at [early-season road races like] the Tour of Flanders or Roubaix completely burnt out, so they’d send them to Calpe [in southern Spain] on a training camp or to race in Oman. They’d get the miles in, sure, but how would that help them on the cobbles? Now they’ve realised that the guys winning the Classics are those who lined up at ‘cross races rather than doing efforts on Mount Teide [in Tenerife], they’re all coming back to it. But you don’t need an advanced sports science degree to know this. When you look at Štybar on the cobbles, he’s an artist. If you’ve been riding ‘cross since you were five, you’re not scared. I remember my first Roubaix, everyone was saying, ‘You’ll see, [the cobbled sector of] Arenberg is hell.’ But how long is Arenberg? Five minutes? Riding ‘cross you do that – and worse – every weekend.”

The ceiling light above our table brings out his gauntness, the hollow cheeks and the lined face that mark those who, like him, have spent fifteen years making a living by pedaling from cobbles to cols. Worried, perhaps, that we’re not convinced of the deep truth of his lecture, he continues: "Take a road stage: you put yourself through the wringer for five hours in the run-up to five minutes of attacking. In ‘cross, you’re being asked to make that effort for an hour. Obviously, after doing that, once you’re on the Mur de Huy, you’ll see the difference. If you smash yourself in ‘cross, that’s the best thing. What with the climbs, the obstacles, the ruts and even the way the ground changes with the weather, there’s always something happening. If you make a road rider do ‘cross, it’s like giving a cross-country skier a rifle. To start with, he asks himself why, then he tries it and thinks, ‘Yeah, it’s actually really fun!’ and gets into it to the point where he doesn’t want to ski without a rifle. There are loads of pros who only ask for that fun element. Today, managers realise that racers have to feel good to perform well.”

The restaurant is waiting for us to finish so it can close, but Steve pushes away his coffee and petits fours to count out on his fingers the most convincing recent examples: “The year Štybar won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, he’d done six ‘cross races that winter. Van der Poel lined up at the Amstel Gold Race as cyclocross World Champion and, boom, He won it. Look at Romain Bardet, who was riding ‘cross again this winter, do you think that’s by chance? In cyclocross you learn to turn, to push a big gear, to ride confidently in someone’s wheel or to drop back to have a look around. And most importantly you learn to rub elbows. There’s always people who’ll tell you that Sagan is well placed thanks to his team-mates. That’s rubbish! He knows how to force his way through to position himself. He knows that his handlebar is 42cm wide and that if there is 43cm between two guys it’ll fit through. So he goes for it!”

A French Champion’s Training Session

The next day, a winter sun sparkles on the frost that covers the Vosges mountains from the meadows to the tips of the conifers. The thermometer shows -5°C, and there seems no point refusing the second coffee that Steve offers us before leaving his farm to try this unknown discipline. Once kitted up, our teacher puts air in his tubs for the hour’s road ride that will serve as a warm-up. There’ll be plenty of time to adjust the pressure once we’re at our training ground.

Despite everything that cyclocross brings to the road, it’s on tarmac that a lot of the base work is done. As he spins along, Steve tells us how he’s found an alternative – riding a gravel bike on the numerous logging roads of the Vosges’s forests. The benefits are the same, but the playful aspect breaks the mental monotony of the roadie’s routine. The gravel trend might bring new people to the ‘cross circuit, and Steve saw that we – who were all riding gravel bikes – were getting it. “I’ll bet my right arm that after our training session you’ll want to do ‘cross in 2021!” Once over the Col du Raon, we head towards Saint-Nabord, where the training ground is. Though we’re newbies, Steve isn’t just there to show us around: he has the Worlds in Switzerland to prepare for. “This will be my twenty-first World Champs. I was 17 at my first,” Chainel says. The idea is simple: we follow him, and if we don’t get over the obstacle we go around it and catch him up at the next.

We kick off with some off-camber and fail, each and every one, to ride the length of the slope. We’ve started well! But Steve would rather trust in the racer dormant in each of us than hear our beginners’ excuses: “You’ve got too much air in your tyres. Look at my tubs: if you press down with two fingers you should feel the rim, that’s what the old boys say. On some courses, you’re at 1 bar (15 psi), that’s why we ride tubs. But you need to make sure they’re well stuck, because you can feel the sideways movement.” Even with the air let out, we still fail miserably. It’s impossible to follow the curve of the most insignificant rut without riding out of it or falling off, and difficult to climb a ramp and then jump off in time to run up the next one while carrying the bike – and that’s not even mentioning the terror we feel at the idea of descending it all again.

While Steve strings together lap after lap with disconcerting ease, we concentrate on the ramp that we’re struggling with. Steve gives us advice as he passes: “Hit it with more speed, and change down on the slope.” It’s not enough. “If you look at your wheel there, you’re sure to come off.” That doesn’t help either. With each new attempt, the heart rate rises and the power ebbs away. Only the descents eventually become familiar. Which is something, at least. Back at the first off-camber, our teacher chides us gently: “Come on, guys, I haven’t seen you trying very hard. Come on, work!”

We hit it again, with all the aplomb of Bambi trying to stand shakily on all fours. Each time around Steve, our Thumper, encourages us: “Look further ahead, at least three metres! Voilà! Good! Five metres now… you’re off the slope when you reach the tree. Per-r-r-fect!” Happy to finish the first session on this sole positive, we philosophise over what we’ve just learned: look further ahead if you don’t want to faceplant. Now apply that to everyday life.

Where tarmac meets mud

Sitting down, freshly showered, to a pizza regina at the pizzeria where Steve’s girlfriend Emilie works, we look back at the day’s lessons then ponder the future of cyclocross, as the 'cross World Championships were coming up the next week. Today, the discipline is not favoured by the Fédération Française de Cyclisme, which would rather give its money to Olympic sports. Though it’s the people’s choice at the end of the season, ‘cross cannot even play a part in the Winter Olympics, since it doesn’t take place solely on snow or ice. As for private money, only the Tour de France and the Classics call loudly enough to attract sponsors. Nevertheless, ‘cross could solve many of road riding’s problems, if only for the following reasons:

- The road calendar consists of races lasting several hours, which are difficult to broadcast on TV, whereas an Elite men’s ‘cross race only lasts an hour.

- The crowd at a road race only has the chance to encourage the riders once, as they speed by, despite the hours of waiting, while ‘cross circuits consist of several laps passing the same spots. Not to mention the possibility that spectators can change position and see the pros confront different challenges – turns, log-jumps, stairs up which the bike must be carried, platforms, etc

- Road races stop traffic, and need marshalling over large areas, often covering several villages or towns (the costs of which are increasingly difficult to bear, even for the major races), whereas a single field can host a ‘cross World Cup race

- Road safety fears dissuade many parents from sending their kids to cycling school, whereas cyclocross develops the same skills, away from the traffic in total safety, and with playful elements too

- Start and finish events aside, road races struggle to make money. At a ‘cross race, however, organisers can sell tickets, snacks, and offer stands for concessions and even VIP tents, where sponsors can entertain guests all day. Belgian and Dutch riders don’t make big salaries, but they can command big appearance fees. Thus, organisers pay more than sponsors, with the money coming from the TV rights and other revenue sources detailed above. Think of it like the Tour de France paying for Froome, Bardet and Sagan, rather than Ineos, AG2R and Specialized

- Men’s road racing monopolises airtime, and airtime is the only way that sponsors see a return on their investment. This prevents many women’s races from being viable, and means that a lot of Women’s WorldTour pros don’t make a living from their passion. In the time given to one Tour de France live stage, it would possible to broadcast Under 23 and Elite ‘cross races – both men’s and women’s – and give everyone the chance to see people like themselves on screen, inspiring both sexes, perhaps, to pursue cycling

Mathieu van der Poel, 2020 Cyclo-cross World Champion

Thanks to his racing career and role as an ambassador for various brands, Steve has been able to see how things are abroad, notably in the States, where ‘cross is big. “Go to a ‘cross race over there and it’s a party. Everyone’s dressed up and there’s often a festival happening around it over several days, with all sorts of different races and cycling events. Before the race, paying punters can ride the circuit, and they get to see what it’s really like. Earlier on, before you struggled in those ruts, you guys thought there was nothing to it, but now you’ve tried it you see things differently. Imagine that happening before a World Cup race, you’d enjoy the racing more, right? In Las Vegas, that already happens.” We agree, and our teacher continues: “There’s also races like this in Europe, like the EKZ CrossTour [in Switzerland]. But there you have to pay to get in, which means that there’s nothing left for the hot-dog stands, which is where the organisers can really make money. The Yanks have got it right.”

On the pro side of things, the sport is evolving quickly. In 2021 there’ll be 16 legs of the World Cup, to internationalise what is still more or less the ‘Northern European Cup’ (one in which three out of nine fixtures take place in Belgium). In some provinces of Belgium, riders race twice every weekend, whereas in France there are only three National Cup dates each year. Keeping ‘cross fixtures going is crucial for the future of the sport at the highest levels because that’s where tomorrow’s talent is developed and spotted. Young cross talent distinguishes itself early, with outstanding technique; on the road, winners in the Juniors and younger categories are often those who’ve grown strongest fastest, which can give a false impression of their talents. In ‘cross, therefore, it’s easier to ‘bet on the right horse’ right from the start. Might this be the best way of feeding through the winner of the 2040 Tour de France? When Steve shows us videos of his son bunnyhopping logs, we think it’s possible. But the next generation having fun on the bike – that’s the most important thing.

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