For most Americans, cyclocross is a relatively modern branch of cycling that has only become popular in the past decade or so. But in a way, grassroots cyclists in the U.S. have reinvented this wacky winter pastime, and this weekend’s world championships in Louisville, Kentucky, is the equivalent of its high-school prom. But this first ’cross worlds to be held outside of Europe is also a sort-of coming-of-age for the sport itself.
I bet you didn’t know that cyclo-cross (as it’s spelled in French and Britain) is older than the Tour de France. The Tour was first held in 1903, six months after the French held their first official national cyclo-cross championship, which was won by a Ferdinand De Baeder. But this hybrid discipline—first called “cross cyclo-pédestre” (which can be loosely translated as “bike-hike cross-country”)—originated in the 1890s when French road cyclists kept fit in their off-season by training on dirt trails that crisscross their country’s plentiful forests (which were originally designed for horseback riding). The bike riders would pick up their machines to run along muddy sections or walk up steep banks or steps. And that’s how cyclo-cross was born.
Many Tour de France riders were also ’cross racers. Indeed, the legendary Eugène Christophe (the first man to wear the yellow jersey) won the French national title seven times; Charles Pélissier (winner of 16 Tour stages) was French ’cross champion three times; and Octave Lapize was French ’cross champion three years before he won the 1910 Tour. Perhaps the most famous French ’crosser of all was Jean Robic, who won the 1947 Tour and went on to become the first official world ’cross champion in 1950.
That inaugural world championship was held in the Bois de Vincennes woodlands, on the east side of Paris. Cyclocross acquired the UCI’s official blessing because of the huge popularity in preceding years of the Cyclo-Cross de Montmartre, a criterium-style race held in Paris on a course where the competitors raced through the streets, past the Moulin Rouge nightclub, before hoisting bikes on their shoulders to run up (and down) the monumental flight of stone steps and footpaths that lead to the Sacré-Coeur basilica. Those urban ’cross races, unofficially called world championships, were watched by crowds exceeding 100,000, with Robic twice winning the event before he took the first postwar Tour de France.
The French dominated the ’cross world championships throughout the 1950s before Italy’s Renato Longo and Germany’s Rolf Wolfshohl (another Tour rider) swapped the title between them for almost a decade. Then, in the late-1960s, the infamous brothers from Belgium, Eric and Roger De Vlaeminck, arrived on the international scene. They were flamboyant characters who often showed up to races wearing ankle-length fur coats and floppy-brimmed Stetsons.
Eric De Vlaeminck was the specialist who was world ’cross champion a record seven times, taking his first rainbow jersey at age 20. Meanwhile, brother Roger took cyclocross world titles in both 1968 and 1975—and, on the road, he won Paris-Roubaix four times, along with the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Tour of Lombardy (twice), Milan-San Remo (three times) and six consecutive editions of Tirreno-Adriatico.
Watching the De Vlaemincks ride ’cross remains a highlight of my career as a journalist. Eric was a compact athlete who was a virtuoso at cyclocross. He could punch out attacks on his bike at the top of short hills when his rivals were gasping, and his steady jogging gait up steps or steep run-ups was unmatchable. Over the 1971 New Year’s holiday period, I saw him win a series of five events in Switzerland, which gave him 21 or 23 victories that ’cross season—and he placed second in the other two races behind brother Roger!
As for the younger De Vlaeminck, he was taller than his brother and he glided over rutted ’cross courses as smoothly as he conquered the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix. And I’ve never seen a ’cross racer transition so effortlessly as Roger De Vlaeminck did from riding to running to jumping a barrier and hopping back on the bike, all in a seemingly single fluid motion. Some say that Laurence Malone—who was the first U.S. national cyclocross champion, winning the first of his record five titles in 1975—had as impressive a technique as De Vlaeminck; but he’s best known for debuting the bunny-hop at the worlds, in 1977, but Malone never finished better than 18th in a world (amateur) championship.
From the late-1960s to the early-’90s, the worlds were split, with separate championships for pros and amateurs. It was during that period that the worlds were held outside the Continent for the first time, in 1973, when they came to London. Eric De Vlaeminck won the pro race and German Klaus-Peter Thaler the amateurs’ event on a course that incorporated parts of the popular Crystal Palace circuit that was mostly used for local road races.
The two men’s title races were combined into the elite championship in 1994. In the 19 years since then, the gold medal has gone to Belgium 12 times, and it would be a major shock if it’s not won by Belgium on this Super Bowl Sunday. That’s because the only non-Belgian champion in the past 12 years, Dutchman Lars Boom and Czech Zdenek Stybar, have switched to road racing; and last year Belgians swept the first seven places at worlds. However, the rising Dutch star Lars Van der Haar, 21, winner of the past two under-23 world titles, is considered a true threat by the top Belgians, all former world champs, Niels Albert, Sven Nys and Bart Wellens.
An elite women’s race wasn’t added to the worlds roster until 2000, and this weekend in Kentucky, for the first time, the elite men and women will race for equal prize money. World and Olympic road champion Marianne Vos (who talks about her career in the current issue of peloton magazine) will be shooting for her sixth cyclocross title in eight years; but, on home soil, twice worlds silver medalist Katie Compton has a good chance of dethroning her Dutch rival.
With all four of the weekend’s races (junior, U23 and elite men and elite women) being live-streamed on the UCI’s new YouTube channel, using the images being broadcast by European networks, the ’cross worlds should be getting their biggest ever global audience. That’s a huge step up for a still-growing sport that had humble origins in the forests of France some 120 years ago.
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