Why is this interesting? - The Cyclocross Edition

On cycling, competition, and physical limitations

James Jung (JJ) is a journalist, fiction writer, and amateur bike racer. He's written about cycling the Swiss Alps as a way to honor his late father, chronicled what it was like to get stranded for four days at an Austrian ski hotel during a record-breaking snowstorm, and his short stories appear in Narrative Magazine and The Southern Review. He recently moved back to NYC after two years of living in Switzerland. 

James here. Call me crazy, but when I watch the world's best cyclists, I expect to see them riding their bikes up hills rather than carrying them. Unless, of course, we're talking about cyclocross. 

To the uninitiated, 'cross is a discipline of off-road cycling that mixes riding and running, and it's raced on rigs that mostly resemble a common road bike. Sure, the bottom bracket is a bit higher and the tires have treads, but that doesn't make navigating mud and sand and sometimes even snow much easier. 'Cross takes place primarily in the Benelux countries, and its season stretches from early fall to midwinter, meaning foul weather is often a factor. If conditions don't trip up racers, then the courses do. Think of 'cross as cycling's version of the steeplechase. Multi-lap races take place on circuits no more than two miles in length, and because these routes feature obstacles like steep hills, wooden barriers, and energy-sapping sand traps, competitors can spend as much as 1/3 of the hour-long event running on foot while shouldering their bikes. The atmosphere is equally wonky: heady, boisterous, Belgian. Imagine inebriated, flag-waving fans lining the route three deep, the sour taste of monk-brewed beer, the oily-warm touch of frites plucked from a paper bouquet, the contact buzz of secondhand smoke, the rich fragrance of Flemish farmland churned into a thick, gear-clogging mud. 

I could go on. Suffice to say, as a cycling-obsessed teen growing up in the mid-’90sone whose other interests included tracking down French house music imports and Detroit techno rarities, as well avoiding any activity involving a ball—I'd found my sport. During those nascent days of dial-up, I skipped the web in favor of mainlining 'cross coverage via the fanboy cycling magazines it occasionally appeared in. I'd hunch over the issue, rereading the stories and obsessing over the grainy images, each rife with mud and moody skies and the drained, junkie-thin faces of racers. My friends were all well versed in the superstars of mainstream American sports—your Michael Jordans and Mark McGwires—but could they riddle me the tongue-twisting names of 'cross bosses like Paul Herygers, Daniele Pontoni, Radomír Šimůnek, Erwin Vervecken, Richard fucking Groenendaal? I didn't think so. 

Why is this interesting? 

'Cross traces its roots to the early part of last century. According to lore, these informal races started in one town and finished in the next, and since the rules didn't ban shortcuts, racers were free to traipse through forest and field in pursuit of the fastest time. Over the ensuing decades, 'cross courses and rules became more formalized, and it wasn't uncommon to see the reigning Tour de France champ race a few in a bid to remain fit throughout the long, cold months of winter. But as cycling expanded and evolved, its focus narrowed. By the 1980s, road racers were focused on specializing. Were you a spindly-legged climber or a thick-thighed time trialist? A grand tour contender or a burgeoning classics hard man? This specialization left little room for anything beyond the long, slow, endurance-boosting winter hours in the saddle that are considered the cornerstone to any successful road racing season. Plus ‘cross left many of the luxuries of Lance Armstrong-era cycling behind. Who needed to spend the offseason in Belgium, getting lashed by the rain and mired in the mud, when you could log endless miles in places like Majorca or Maui, Tenerife or Tasmania, all against a backdrop befitting a James Bond movie? High intensity 'cross racing, as a consequence, became a subdivision of cycling, one that had its own stars and culture, but whose popularity hardly extended much further than the northern confines of continental Europe.

That's all changing thanks to two young cycling superstars, whose prowess on both the road and in 'cross are causing even the staunchest of traditionalists to rethink cycling's approach to winter training, as well as how hard the human body can go year-round. Mathieu van der Poel of the Netherlands and Wout Van Aert of Belgium have been racing each other since they were juniors, mostly in the trenches of 'cross. In recent years, however, they've turned their attention to the road, and both waged wildly successful summer campaigns this year, cleaning up from bell to bell during the COVID-shortened World Tour season. Van Aert, in particular, turned heads as a rider who could dominate the classics, crush the time trials, pace his team leader up the endless Alpine grinds of the Tour de France, and still have enough left in the tank to take two silver medals at the season-ending World Championships

Seeing the world's best 'cross racers transition to the road isn't entirely unprecedented. Some have made the jump and enjoyed mild success; others have returned to 'cross licking their wounds. What differentiates MvdP and WVA, however, is that they remain content to juggle both disciplines of cycling, essentially racing year-round instead of resting during the off-season, followed by a slow road build throughout the winter. After a short break this fall, both men returned to professional 'cross, often trading wins from week to week. This Sunday, they'll be joint favorites at the Cyclocross World Championships in Ostend, Belgium, a title they've each won on three previous occasions. Evenly matched, it'll take one rider making an error for the other to escape en route to the win. This is the essence of 'cross. 

"You want to force a mistake," Curtis White tells me over Zoom from his European base in the Netherlands. Dark haired and broad-shouldered, 25-year old White is an American 'cross racer for the Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com team and the United States’ best hope for a top ten finish in this weekend's elite men's race at the World Championships. "The course conditions are constantly changing. You want to go so hard that the other guy—in trying to keep up with you—makes a mistake. Then you can open the gap." 

"'Cross is all about dropping the other person in the hardest part of the course," says Tim Mitchell, an exercise physiologist and the director of the CCB U23 road team, a semi-professional outfit out of Boston. Since 'cross can be viewed as road racing distilled to its essence (all the raw power of a Tour de France stage played out over a single hour instead of five or six), it often requires the same intensity as, say, the 30-second intervals Mitchell prescribes his riders. "Cross is like a light switch," Mitchell says, speaking about the on-off effort of constantly attacking on a racecourse that twists and turns. "It's full gas, coast. Full gas, coast. You have to be able to repeat an eye-bleedingly hard effort until there is no one left."

The same can be said of road racing (at least in its critical moments), a sport that insiders have long compared to boxing. An attack on the bike is like a jab in the ring, each one a carefully deployed body blow designed to weaken one's opponent before delivering the knockout punch. Or in cycling parlance, the race-winning attack, wherein you "crack" the other rider, leaving them gasping on the roadside, unable to respond. 

If this technique is all old hat, however, why has it taken this long for professionals to rediscover the benefits of racing 'cross in the off-season rather than stick to the dated technique of long, slow distance? 

"Well, they probably have been doing these kinds of efforts in the offseason for five or six years now," Mitchell counters. "We just couldn't see it." He goes on to explain that while four-time Tour de France champ Chris Froome has probably been laying down short, hard efforts during the winters, there was never a camera crew conveniently around capturing the magic. But with WVA and MvdP, there is. "Essentially, we're watching them perform these intervals every weekend on televised 'cross races," Mitchell says. "We're seeing it all play out."  

So what makes this return to a more old school, cross-focused off-season possible? Ironically enough, according to Mitchell, it's data. The amount of metrics even the recreational cyclist has at his or her fingertips is unprecedented. From power numbers to training stress scores to even recovery data, riders and their coaches are now able to dial in intensity while mitigating the risk of overtraining. One reason that pros preached the big volume gospel for so long is that it's actually hard to burn out by going long and easy. Now, however, with so much data at our disposal, burning out is less of a concern. "Things are more quantifiable now and thus more predictable," says Mitchell. "It's easier to explore your physiological limits while at the same time harder to overcook yourself."  

White, on the other hand, sees a far more practical benefit to racing 'cross—one in which intuition usurps intelligence, and is thus not so easily quantifiable. 

"After he won his second Tour de France sprint stage this summer, they asked Wout [Van Aert] how he was able to beat the world's best sprinters. And he attributed it to 'cross, saying something along the lines of how the split-second tactical decisions in 'cross, constantly responding to changing situations and conditions, serve him well in the chaos of a mass surge to the line." 

Whatever the benefits, it's clear that the multi-discipline success of WVA and MvdP has rewired the way the road racing coaches think of winter training. Pros, too, have taken note. After years away from the sport, former 'cross racer turned Tour de France stage winner Zdeněk Štybar announced he'll be partaking in this weekend's World Championships, while 2015 Vuelta a España champ Fabio Aru has been hopping in 'cross races all season in a bid to get his once-promising road career back on track.

Mitchell is more interested in what this means for the everyman, those of us lacking the genetic gifts of "physiological freaks" like WVA and MvdP. 

"There's a trickle-down effect to all this," he says, explaining that while we might not be able to go all out year-round to the same degree as World Tour riders, we can go hard—even in winter—as long as we do so in proportion to our own physical limitations. "Recovery is way more scientific than it used to be," Mitchell says. "You can recover better from hard efforts and track that recovery. For the time-crunched cyclist who can't do long rides, he or she can make big gains by going harder for a longer part of the year." (JJ)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & James (JJ) 

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