"Cyclocross starts as a road race and ends as a boxing match"
the old adage would have it that america and britain are two countries separated by a common language. while this may continue to be true, in the sporting realm, it seems this may have extended to encompass cyclocross. it is now a case of two continents separated by a common form of cycle sport. not as snappy and humorous a comparison as the original i grant you, but true nonetheless. though not an admission i'm particularly proud of, given my side of the atlantic, but my first real contact with cyclocross as a modern day sport was through association with friends in portland who seemed to be having a ball each autumn and winter at something called cross crusades.
through the excellent photography of pdxcross.com and their subsequent 'build to order' book 'dirty pictures', resident portlandians seemed to be having way too much fun for this to be classed as sport. at least, not in the european terms we have come to understand. the iconic black and white photographs seemed bereft of pain and suffering, though i don't doubt there are a few competitors who would take exception to such blatant dismissal of their efforts. to make matters worse (or better), the cross crusades appeared able to attract colossal entries of over 1,000 riders in a single event.
contrast that with our own european-based experience of the sport, and there's the rub. professionals such as sven nys, bart wellens and lars boom invariably have their own fan club and personal trailers at each event in the super prestige tournaments as well as uci sanctioned series, ride for 'cross offshoots of professional road teams (landbouwkredeit, rabobank etc.,) and attract crowds that are substantially in excess of anything seen across the pond.
molly hurford, author and contributor to cyclocross magazine has subtitled mud, snow and cyclocross with how 'cross took over u.s. cycling' presenting us with a mountain of substantiated reasoning that might explain that very statement. hurford is in perhaps the ideal situation to be judge and jury on any contention she wishes to make. having immersed herself in 'cross during the early days of its development in north america, she has become an established figure in the 'cross scene, though more through the written word than any personal competitive edge.
"on a borrowed bike in pouring rain, I did my first race at Granogue in Delaware. And despite the fact that I got last, or maybe second to last, in the Women's 3/4 field, I was hooked."
as hurford herself explains in her introduction to the book "when work is also your passion, you're the luckiest person in the world." molly has successfully managed to make her passion look like very little work at all, a statement i mean in the nicest possible way. while her position in the 'cross community provides almost unfettered access to many an elite north american rider, the substantial number of brief interviews and quotes are smoothly incorporated into her narrative on the state of the nation. it's a dissertation that draws you in chapter by chapter.
she successfully analyses the principal differences between the european scene and that of north america, both through her own interpretation of the evidence and that of the sport's top american riders. i can't help feeling this would have been aided more had she co-erced at least the occasional quote or interview with bona-fide european 'cross professionals, but that may have been one international flight too far. as it is, her sounding board consists of riders known even on this side of the pond; jeremy powers, molly cameron, ryan trebon and amy dombroski to name but a few. i do think that occasionally the book's format does not necessarily favour the reader's patience. in a chapter entitled 'the pros weigh in on how to describe cross', i'm not sure it was such a marvellous idea to simply list each rider's comments. i would have preferred those to have been interspersed with a few comments from the author, though in point of fact, aside from an inevitable degree of repetition, these are mostly pertinent statements worth airing.
the point worth considering, however, is whether the upsurge of cyclocross in north america is truly worthy of dissection in the first place, to which the answer has to be a resounding yes. even if looked at from a sociological point of view, it is a phenomenon worth investigating; to return to my opening paragraph, though the sport is essentially the same no matter the continent, why has it garnered such participatory success in the states? as hurford points out in the book, the notion of a belgian or dutch civilian taking part in a cross race purely for the hell of it is about as likely as a windless day on islay. yet, using the example of molly hurford herself, it is quite common in the usa to grab any bicycle and take part in cyclocross without fear of disparagement.
"It is a feasible sport to incorporate into a life while managing a full time job and family. To train right for cyclocross requires far less time since the race is 45 minutes to an hour long. It really only requires about ten to 15 hours a week to train and prepare fitness to be ready to race."
it would be uncommon for a female writer not to champion the cause of the women's side of the sport, and it is truly for this aspect that mud, snow and cyclocross deserves its space on the cycling bookshelf. following on from chapters concerning elite male and junior racers is an entire discourse on elite women in u.s. cyclocross. unlike continental europe, women's cyclocross racing is not regarded as second string in north america. though it may be harder to acquire sponsorship for women than for men, often the prize-money is of equal value. definitely not the case in europe. katie compton, kaitlin antonneau, nicole duke and laura van gilder midst others are profiled both by their current skills in 'cross and how they entered the sport in the beginning. it lends the book a satisfying balance.
however, the running order of the book achieves this to a far lesser degree. though it would be inordinately critical to disparage the content of any of the individual chapters, the entire edifice comes across as somewhat disjointed. though the photographs, courtesy of pedal power photography are quite exemplary and of a standard rarely seen in a publication of this type, often the only common theme seems to be that of the sport of cyclocross. you may well ask what else it is i'd expect from a volume expressly concerned with this division of the sport, but there is a tendency for unnecessary repetition, while i had the impression of reading a series of individual articles rather than a book.
hurford discusses the intrinsic nature of cyclocross, provides a brief history of the sport in the usa from its beginnings in the early sixties, through the first nationals in 1974, considers the state of cyclocross in the present day before listing the various races and series currently in play. at the book's end, hurford considers the future of cross, given the propensity for bicycle and component manufacturers to add hydraulics and other more commonalities from the world of mountain biking. is it a sport in danger of losing its identity?
what is cyclocross? places the sport in context with comments from those who have been sucked into the mud. a beginner's guide to cyclocross offers a brief overview of the skills required to get through that selfsame mud, preferably without tasting any of it. again there are plenty of tips and hints from the pros throughout this chapter, to my mind rather negating the need to add an entire subsection entitled tips from the pros. perhaps a book slightly overkeen to be all things to all people. i fear it may have served its purposes better had it excluded the how to examples and stuck to its claimed raison d'etre how 'cross took over u.s. cycling. that said, the sections dealing with how to are actually pretty darned good.
ŅIt's going to hurt more than you thought it would, and you're also going to really, really enjoy it. And you'll learn all the things you didn't realize that you didn't know."
however, if we accept that cycling remains a minority sport in north america, cyclocross is a tiny minority within that venn diagram and it's hard to fault molly hurford's enthusiasm to pass on every last iota of information she and her peers wish to send in our direction. overall, it's a publishing triumph; my criticisms in no way detract from a book that is essential reading for american bike riders of whichever discipline, and one that might serve as a lesson to the british cycling community. given that 'cross is so immensely popular in european countries such as belgium and holland, is it not to our eternal shame that rapha's supercross series finds it necessary to import some of the american je ne sais quoi to give a much needed boost to the sport in the uk?
do not misunderstand, i think rapha's efforts to be very much in the right direction, it just seems a shame that we haven't inherited the enthusiasm from europe. maybe ms hurford could be persuaded to pen a volume two: how 'cross struggled to stake its claim in britain. there's a story i'd love to hear the solution to.
either way, you do need to read this book.
"Do everything that you're not good at, all the time. There's no sense training at the things that you're good at, you need to focus on the things that you're not good at and make those weak points your strong points. Because that's ultimately what will make you a better rider." -Jeremy Powers
copies of this book can be ordered direct from molly hurford's website. the only difference is postage outside the continental united states.
wednesday 12th september 2012..........................................................................................................................................................................................................