behind the stare by geoff proctor. deeds publishing 312pp illus. $19.95

behind the stare

'Slivers of sun angle through rowed pine trees on a quiet road. The trees crown a canopied ridge with verdant meadows sloping off in both directions. Wisps of condensation dance off the warming pavement. Down the shady ridge side, mourning doves woo-woo and, faintly, a lone rooster crows. Somewhere on the sunny side, a farmer's tractor revs and a carpenter's hammer pounds home. Another day begins.'

i'm sure they're still available in toyshops and novelty shops, but does anyone remember those games that consisted of a pile of iron filings and a pen with a megnet at the end? under a clear plastic cover was a caricature of a man's head minus any hair, either on his head or that of a beard. the trick was to create a hirsute portrait by dragging those iron filings around, all the while keeping the picture still to avoid a clump of filings falling to the bottom and leaving a bald patch. hours of endless fun could be had in the back of a car heading to an unknown holiday destination. it put paid to choruses of 'are we there yet?'

when several years older, though placed in a class for higher chemistry deemed less than clever enough to achieve such a certificate in a single year (probably quite correctly), i can recall a chemistry teacher making mention of osmosis, the movement of molecules through a sem-permeable membrane in an attempt to even up the concentration of a solution that existed outside as well as inside. i've since come across the latter with a slightly differing variation of meaning, often used to imply that knowledge of a particular subject has arrived at a distant destination seemingly without two points ever connecting in the middle.

either of the two apparently disparate methods mentioned above could be applied to the mushrooming existence of quality cyclocross in north america when related to the obsessive objectivication of cyclocross in belgium. having experienced at first hand the enthusiasm that exists for 'cross in locations such as portland, as well as that of richard sachs on the eastern seaboard, i confess to a quizzical curiousity as to how a european branch of the sport had reached so far, having seemingly by-passed the united kingdom.

behind the stare

this is not to suggest that cyclocross has ignored and been ignored by britain, but it does raise a slight smile that the three race rapha supercross series starting this weekend after a successful first outing in 2011, is an attempt to bring the joys of american 'cross to the uk. and this while belgium is but a matter of miles across the channel. though there are possibly others who could share the blame, one of the principal protagonists in bringing enthusiasm for cyclocross to the usa is geoff proctor. the man has been involved in competitive cycling for over twenty-five years, currently serving as national junior/under 23 cyclocross coach as well as a director of eurocrosscamp. additionally, in 2009 he was appointed to a four year term on the uci's cyclocross commission. a man who loves his 'cross.

it has often been said that those who can, do, while those who can't, teach. similarly those who do, cannot necessarily write about it. if i might step back a paragraph or two, the teacher responsible for having to suffer me for two years of chemistry was exceptionally well-versed in the subject, but was less competent at teaching others. so despite geoff proctor's undoubted qualification to teach cyclocross, can he translate that to the written word?

behind the stare

'Maybe it's because we have to come from so far away, overcome so many odds, put up with so much shit, just to toe a World Championship start line.'

i think it worth recording that, on the basis of his opening chapters, i had serious doubts. though i reviewed this volume in its e-book incarnation for reasons of pragmatism, i prefer paper and ink. i don't find the pixelated reading experience to hold the same fascination as the real thing, so i was willing to give the benefit of the doubt and put it down to the medium. however, as the chapters were consumed, behind the stare morphed into a compulsive if quirky read. and in this case, quirky is very good indeed.

strangely, in terms of modernity, the narrative is a tad dated, featuring belgian cyclocross racing from 2008. i am well aware of the procrastination involved in the publishing process, but quite a lot has taken place in the world of 'cross in the past four years, surely such a time-gap works against proctor's dissertation? you would be forgiven for taking such a stance, but in fact that is most defintiely not the case. though his writing always contains just a hint of one-upmanship ("Having known Erwin for over ten years now, thereีs a conversational comfort I appreciate deeply."), i think it more likely that proctor still finds it hard to come to terms with how easily he is welcomed into the belgian cyclocross inner circle.

proctor has also a slightly eccentric writing style that you'll either love, or perhaps hate. for my own part, i figure it serves his purposes well, creating an almost tangible sense of involvement in the sport, even though manifestly constrained by the printed page. to wit:

behind the stare

"Then, five minutes of something altogether else-
Engine room cycling.
Muscle it. Slog it. Get on top of it.
Sand. Side-hill. Bog.
40 rpm.
Average speed-19 kph.
Course width - eight meters across in places.
Pick a line, any line.
No matter. Sludge puddles a meter deep play no favorites.
"Hey, coach, I need a break. Sub me out."
"Sorry, son. No bench."
There are no domestiques. Or excuses. Or places to hide.

tough the bulk of the storyline takes place in belgian, following the likes of stybar, vervecken, boom and nys et al from 'cross race to 'cross race over successive weekends, proctor never forgets his roots, bringing the subject back to the good old us of a in a commendably subtle manner. belgian cyclocross bears only a superficial similarity to that of north america; participation is the greater across the pond, but the colossal number of spectators and substantial earnings to be made in europe separate it from its american derivative.

behind the stare gives an inside look at the rigours, personality and work ethic that pervades belgian cyclocross, but from the expert and almost neutral eye of a man with still one foot in america, and a remarkably well-balanced head on his shoulders. not unsurprisingly, he holds conversations with the one american to have made a dent in belgique, ryan trebon. at the time of his writing, trebon was having a difficult time with his team (sunweb) but is now currently riding for the team back in the states. as i pointed out earlier, a lot has happened since 2008.

behind the stare

the chapters are relatively short, and though there is a consistent thread running throughout behind the stare, each chapter has the uncanny quality of existing in almost standalone mode. however, if there is one apparent failing, it makes itself known right from the start. the introduction is written by cyclocross colossus, sven nys, presumably translated into english, but also reprised in nys' native language. to do so seems a tad pretentious and unnecessary, but is a foretelling of more to come.

proctor all but worships nys who cannot in his eyes, seemingly, do any wrong. anything sven does takes on superhuman qualities and the portions of narrative that feature the belgian champion take on the mantle of hero worship. i'm not necessarily condemning proctor for this, though i might have preferred it to remain at a more subtle level, for there can be few 'cross fans who do not harbour a certain degree of admiration for both the nys work ethic and subsequent success. geoff proctor finds it hard to conceal his disbelief of being one of nys' confidants (as likely would we all), something which is perhaps overplayed just once or twice too often.

behind the stare

behind the stare is an excellent insight into the machinations inherent in belgian cyclocross at the top level, while offering a delightfully intelligent comparison with the sport's development in north america. jeff proctor may not be a practised author in the accepted sense, but his book is all the better for it. the book has a very clever subtext and an almost concealed brilliance. this may just turn out to be one of the seminal books of its genre, a book that deserves the widest audience from belgium to the usa. and there are a number of salient lessons to be learned by those of us in britain who wonder why cyclocross often seems more of a past-time than a sport.

'George Orwell put it this way: "Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting."

behind the stare

saturday 20th october 2012


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