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I'm not cross
Posted on 12/22/2010 2:57:18 PM

Cyclo-cross, best served with beer and frites


Bikes are meant to be ridden. That’s the idea behind the chain, and the pedals and the gears. That thing called a saddle is designed to be sat on. Every component on a bike is there for a reason: to propel it forward as economically as possible. And shoulders are designed to knock people over when you’re playing rugby or American football. And to attach your arms to the rest of your body. Shoulders are quite important, really.

One thing that isn’t meant to happen is a combination of bikes and shoulders. The top tube isn’t there so you can wrap your arm around it. Getting off your bike isn’t cycling. That’s called running. And running’s a different sport entirely. And that’s not something white people are usually good at. The Americans and Jamaicans rule the sprints. The Africans reign in the distance races. Leave it to them. They’re designed to run. Darwin was right. Genetics are important.

It’s this bizarre desire to combine two perfectly good sports that results in a hybrid. And what a strangely compelling hybrid it is. Although only compelling to watch…competing in it is crazy. Unless, that is, you’re Belgian.

At this point I should admit I have raced Cyclo-cross. And slightly worryingly for my sanity, I’m sure I will race it again. What possessed me to do it I’m not sure. I must have been particularly keen that winter. Maybe I was at a bad time in my life. But it is something that seems like it should be fun. Riding a road bike through mud and trees. Flying round corners and sprinting up hills. What a great idea. Until that is, you actually do it.

To experience Cyclo-cross in your own home first stand in a freezer wearing nothing but a skinsuit. (You might have to take the shelves out to fit in). Then get someone to start throwing freezing cold water on you. Followed by mud, cow poo and anything else nasty they can find. Jump up and down until your heart nearly explodes and your lungs are on fire. Then start punching your legs as hard as possible. When your legs start to feel numb you’re nearly there. Also try and do some simple task with your hands. Like turning the pages of a book or holding a pen. If you can still manage this, then your freezer isn’t quite cold enough yet. Numb hands are what you’re after. You could even jump head-first into the side of the freezer to get used to the shock of hitting the ground when you crash. And get your friend to hit you in the face and legs with some branches. Anything with thorns would be ideal.

If you can manage this for an hour without passing out or dying, you’re tough enough for cross.

If this is your idea of fun you are obviously into S&M, or a cross rider. If you’ve not got a bike don’t worry. Just apply to go on Takeshi’s Castle or Total Wipeout instead. This will still give you the mixture of adrenalin and pain you’re looking for, while making you look as equally ridiculous as you would have looked trying to dismount your cross bike at high speed.

If it doesn’t float your boat, don’t worry. That just means you’re not crazy or you’re just a road rider. Go and put the kettle on and have a chocolate biscuit. It’s the winter. Normal people want to keep warm and dry watching the X-factor on TV in front of the fire. Well the drones like to watch the X-factor anyway, boosting Simon Cowell’s bank balance and Cheryl Cole’s ego. I’m too busy writing blogs and eating chocolate bars.

So now we’ve established that cross riders aren’t like the rest of us, what else can we say about them? Well, having watched a fair few World Cups and Super Prestiges on the net, there’s not a lot you can’t say. It’s impressive. The Stybars and Nys’ of this world make cross look so easy. It’s not. It’s the hardest hour you can ever have the misfortune to have on a bike. Yet they make it look so simple. And so inviting. Don’t be fooled; they’re not normal.

The most obvious place of wonder in a pro cross race are the barriers and steps. Getting on and off a bike isn’t easy. Looking cool doing it is almost impossible. And yet these guys do it without breaking stride. In one fluid movement they’re off the bike, over the obstacle and on the bike again, all in the blink of an eye. At the top level, bunny hopping the hurdles on the bike only gains them a bike length or so over the guys who got off and ran. If you’re looking for a sport that requires skill and courage look no further.

In Belgium the cross riders are revered like gods. They are national celebrities, with fan clubs and TV shows, and wages to match. Cross in Belgium isn’t a sport: it’s a way of life. And with fields and mud in abundance, it’s certainly the right place to do it.

The races are certainly exciting to watch. For an hour it’s non-stop action. Attacks, crashes, and occasionally a rider attacking a member of the crowd. In Belgium some of the fans make football hooligans look like monks. Little wonder that in the heat of the battle, the riders occasionally snap. Check out Youtube for Bart Wellens’ karate kick and Richard Groenendal’s punch. It seems a cross rider’s training not only needs to include riding and running, but also a few punch ups on a night out just to make sure the left hook and right upper cut are working nicely.

Cyclo-cross certainly has the full package. If you’re feeling the winter blues and already getting bike race withdrawal symptoms, then find a live feed on the net or get down to your local park to watch the race up close and personal. But unless you’re very tough or very motivated then whatever you do don’t try to race. Leave it to the pros, the Belgians and the nutcases.

Thanks for reading,

Benji

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