take a look at the average international cyclo-cross race, and break it down into its constituent parts. as with many things in life, the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts, coalescing in a form those of us with words can easily describe as atmosphere. each region is going to have features not experienced in others, but that's often what makes a nation; how it treats its cyclocross. commonly experienced characteristics are miles and miles of course tape, the wording often folded over to protect the sponsor; advertising hoardings often proclaiming obscure products or services; mud, and either thousands of fans hanging over the race line with percussion ranging from a drumset (honestly), to the more humble and portable cowbell; or one man and his rainjacket. in belgium, holland and portland, the noise is likely a tangible force; britain ladles the same in more sparing quantities.
if you have entered as a competitor, an event takes on a different hue than that of the spectator. if you're a member of someone's pit crew, the race is likely but a fleeting glance, interspersed with pressure washers, or a trip to a strategically placed, nearby stream. but the constituent that pretty much makes a race, whether off or on road, is a liberal smattering of spectators, preferably lined at least three-deep along the start/finish straight.
the above is all observation, and subjective observation at that, for it is inarguable that i will probably not see what you see, or indeed, that chap with the panasonic cap standing by the tree at the second bend. rumour has it he used to be pretty good in his day.
so, if that's what we accept as the bubble in which a cyclocross race exists, what could i have possibly missed? having fed a sorry face at the green dragon in portland with belgian frites and mayo, i can only assume that north america's idolatry of the european 'cross scene is replete with such scoff. suitably fried potato sticks and mayonnaise are as much a part of the central european game as mud, sand and cowbells. and we should never forget beer and the disgustingly unhealthy smoking habit that always seems totally at odds with the athletic endeavour being played out between endless lengths of tape.
remove one of these intrinsic aspects of cyclocross and the whole house of cards becomes structurally unsound; but honestly, who is ever going to be that insolent?
observations are more focused with hindsight; when all is over and done with, there is as much time as required to reflect on whether the day was enjoyable, whether it was cold and wet, whether one may have partaken of just a few too many frites, and now engaged in supping one too many pints. not exactly the most scientific method of recollection. but could any of us - and be honest here - record all the above in the twinkling of a shutter eye?
not a flipping chance.
but take heart from my descriptive prose, for the cyclocross season is over and done with for season 2010/2011 and i have had the benefit of chris milliman's drink, smoke, flanders as my aide memoire. issued as a numbered edition of ninety, this 26 page book demonstrates why the minority are photographers and the rest of us simply own cameras. chris milliman's colour and monochrome photographs of cyclocross in flanders manage, almost unassumingly, to depict aspects of an event that would have passed most of us by. and thus, with a skill of which i wish i owned even half, he has brought the whole picture to life.
this would be a superficial victory on his behalf if it were simply a case of appreciating milliman's technical art, much like there are those who marvel at the ability of painters to record images all but photographically. paying homage to technical skill will always misunderstand the imagery formed as a result. however, chris milliman has rendered his photographic skill ultimately transparent. at the risk of being thought pretentious, viewing this slim volume obviates the obvious; that this is a book of photographs.
the opening image is of two pairs of wellingtoned feet belonging to suitably attired spectators; the left hand of one matches the right of his neighbour. both are clutching umbrellas parallel to their stance. the image is bisected by red course tape. the image cuts off just below chest height. in the model of correct photography, this would be regarded as one that should have been thrown in the trash.
this proves otherwise.
many of the book's accompanying images feature the inscrutable faces of cyclocross spectating, along with acute observations of the paraphernalia and ephemera that constitute a flandrian 'cross event. i'm almost tempted to use the cliched phrase 'it's cyclocross jim, but not as we know it'.
there; i said it.
if you're one of the many who finds that road-racing simply gets in the way of the cyclocross season, or, like me, have an obsessive fascination with contemporary cycling photography, you could do yourself little harm and a great deal of good by purchasing yourself a copy of drink smoke flanders. the only outlet of which i know is ampersand vintage in portland, oregon; the cost is $25 per copy (plus postage). worth every cent.
posted friday 25th march 2011..........................................................................................................................................................................................................