unlike the majority of road racing, both stage races and the classics, cyclocross is somewhat of a visceral sport. watch the neat and tidy peloton in a rainstorm and they are still relatively cossetted by the following team cars and entire wardrobes of waterproofs. granted, they are often encapsulated by such over the course of several hours, and for the slower ones, getting on for a working day. but by and large, they are reasonably compensated for their troubles.
cyclocross, on the other hand, tends to top out at one hour plus a lap, if that long, and therefore results in a mad dash for the line that just happens to take around sixty minutes. for many of the participants, money relates mostly to how much of it they spend on this manic cardiovascular workout which, due to its autumn/winter timescale, often results in mud, and glorious mud.
many of you may well have put yourself through this purgatory every other weekend; davy the snake from mull positively revels in the above scenario, as do more than one or two of my portland friends and the enigmatic mr sachs, now resident in massachusetts. but just as many, if not more, will be of a similar disposition to myself: never once having competed in a cyclocross race of any description. so what's it like? personally, i have no end of people to whom i can turn for emphatic and enthusiastic descriptions of how that hour and a lap may likely unfold (and one who offered advice to the contrary), but short of suiting up in rapha's cross gear, finding a colnago with knobblies and cantilevers, and spending my lengthening minutes striving desperately to remain in an upright position, as a confirmed conscientious objector, i tend to think the latter scenario is unlikely to come to pass. though i'd happily be the guy behind the tape fiercely shaking my blue cowbell in all manner of odd time-signatures.
but that doesn't mean i can't be a fan of cross, and it doesn't mean that i wouldn't still like to find out what racing cross is really like. part of me is willing to accept that perhaps it should remain sacrosanct as the price of admission: if i haven't the courage and bravado to find out for myself, it is perhaps justice that i remain on the periphery. well, stuff that for a game of soldiers; film-makers brian vernor (some of whose stills photography you may have come across on the rapha continental) and willie bullion spent most of their winters in the early part of this century getting dusty, muddy, wet and ecstatic, filming many a north american cross race for the edification of those not in the know.
cyclocross currently has all but replaced the popularity of mountain bike racing, which it considerably pre-dates, in the psyche of north american cyclists, and encouragingly, across much of the uk. cross has been around since early 20th century when it was employed as a way of keeping fit through the winter by a good number of road professionals. the sport is huge on mainland europe which, seems to have had as much of an influence on the north american scene as any other reason. pure sweet hell is a film ahead of its time; originally released in 2005, the four intervening years have seen a huge upsurge in the sport's popularity across the pond. how did they know?
fabulously enough, this popularity had even infiltrated earls court last week: 2pure, now importers of american west coast legend, ibis cycles, had eschewed the ibis road bike on the stand in favour of the cross version, specifically because of this perceived interest. but this brings us civilians no closer to finding out what it's like to race cross, and that's exactly where pure sweet hell takes up the slack.
not a tripod was in evidence throughout the hours of filming that led to this film. brian vernor felt that would not hold true to the cross experience. indeed, many of the shots are from the centre of the gaggle of cyclists; running up hills, bikes shouldered, straining for every scrap of grip underfoot as it might be possible to gain. as you can imagine, this hardly leads to rock steady imagery. which, of course, is exactly the point. shot entirely on 8mm film, even though digital was quite comfortably developed in the early 2000s, pure sweet hell grabs a portion of the considerable ground occupied by rouleur magazine. instead of shiny, clean, clinical imagery, there is that beautiful patina of saturated and unsaturated colour (reminiscent of polaroids), and lengthy stretches of monochromatic focus.
in this fashion, the film can be appreciated on at least two separate levels; first and foremost, the racing itself. you can relive at every viewing, the torpor and fatigue experienced by the battle scarred, often within touching distance of that dugast tubular. voiceovers are from many of those involved, though often unidentified as if to underline the egalitarianism of american cross. on a nevertheless complementary level, there's the aesthetic of analogue in a digital world. digital bears no film grain, little or no variation in light density and none of those threads and scratches that are such a feature of old movies. the comparison with the photography of tim kolln and ben ingham is well worth pointing out.
pure sweet hell is an hour of excitement and joy in a manner that phil and paul will never knowingly equal. i now have it on my ipod for those moments when a fix is required. the dvd is, as far as i know, unavailable in the uk, but can be ordered from cyclocrossworld in beverly, massachusetts.
film-maker brian vernor is currently in the final throes of his next cyclocross project the cyclocross meeting, a few stills from which can be seen here. as brian says:
"the cyclocross meeting is about both american and japanese cyclocross. the rapid development of cross in both these countries is taking similar paths; in both places the fans are also the participants. pros and amateurs race on the same course, on the same day. pros are the focus of the cyclocross meeting, because these guys represent a depth of experience and passion for cyclocross while also having the pressure of trying to live from their racing. both the americans, barry wicks and adam mcgrath, are included because they are some of our best riders, but also have interests outside of cycling and were interested in the culture of the japanese, and of japanese cyclocross.
Ê the film is very much about place. my experience with cycling is also about place as much as it is about competition. with this in mind the film is not meant to simply report on a season of racing with a couple of professional cyclists, but also to portray the beauty and ritual of racing cyclocross. that may mean looking at the course as much as the rider, or showing all the wrenching and cleaning that goes into a successful race."
if we're really lucky, the cyclocross meeting will see initial release later this year, and looking even further ahead, there's just a teensy possibility that brian's epic where are you go might be out and about in 2010.
posted tuesday 13 october 2009..........................................................................................................................................................................................................