Cyclo-cross, the national sport of Belgium; the sport that draws tens of thousands of spectators at events, turns riders into celebrities and race courses into mythical theatres. The same sport that in the UK is only known to exist by the most dedicated of cyclists and the unwitting dog-walker who stumble across an event during a Sunday mor ning stroll. What is it? Who does it? Who cares?
Helen Wyman, one of the most talented female bike riders to be produced by the UK, divides her time between Bedfordshire in the UK and Oudenaarde in Belgium for the sake of being able to make a living doing what she loves.
Listening to her at a public talk in the Winter, it became clear to see why she chose to leave her home country to pursue a discipline that simply is not publicly-followed in the UK. Whilst she is also a competitive road racer, she prefers ‘cross. Whilst track racing here has televised events, nothing can compare to a course lined 5-deep with fanatical cheering fans. Races become festivals, and Helen is one of the rock stars that they are there to see. Cyclo-cross is a winter sport associated with mud and cold. To describe it in a nutshell, Helen says cyclo-cross is “Full gas, action packed, technically
challenging and adrenaline filled racing off-road”. It is a speed-event, in which you dodge trees, negotiate pits of sand and race elbow to elbow against other riders. It is not a sport that a person will just “do” it is a sport that has to be raced. This means that to be a ‘cross rider you are very likely to be a committed cyclist. The bikes, styled as a durable road bikes with knobbly tyres and extra mud clearance, will only be ridden for racing and occasional training. It requires at least 2 bikes to be brought to a race, plus several a portable jet-wash and cleaning equipment, plenty of changes of clothes and support people in the pits.
We are left wondering why riders are so committed to this sport and what draws the spectators. Helen explains “Cross is special from start to finish. It’s the Marmite of cycle sport. Everyone at events loves it, on both sides of the fence. As you stand on the start line, waiting for the Formula 1 style lights to give you the start, you can see the passion on the faces of every spectator. When the lights are red, you block everything out, ready for
what in most sports would be a finishing effort. That’s how we start and finish races, and we tend do the same in the middle. It’s unique. The courses are hugely varied, from fast dusty wide tracks, to deep sand dunes. Every course brings its own challenges, its own skill set and its own masters. With 3 bikes, 15 pairs of wheels and 2 support crew, it takes a big plan to keep the show on the road for each rider, and all of that for a 40 minute race”
And the spectators? well, we believe this to be a cultural revolution, with spectators you get more spectators, simples. And the crowds draw the riders and the riders draw the crowds until you find a small, European, land-locked country making flags and singing songs in such a way as you would only see at a football match here. Over 20,000 spectators line the 2.5km at certain courses creating a hyped atmosphere that’s addictive to the fans and the riders alike. Each supporter has his or her ‘rider’ and wear their supporters club hats and jackets with pride. Cyclo-Cross in the UK is growing once again, after a decline started after the UK hosting the 1992 World Championships in Leeds. Last winter the London Cyclo-cross League saw participation numbers of female racers rise significantly. There is a small band of super hard-core cyclo-cross riders across the country, the numbers are growing, the courses are improving, but the is one fundamental piece missing: the fans. It is a tough living for a female professional cyclo-cross rider in Belgium, so without the following it is an impossible task to get supported by sponsors in the UK. So each winter, Helen, along with all the best riders in the world, migrate to the mud fields of a small, fanatical country to try their luck at winning races and being rewarded with living the life of a professional cyclo-cross rider. There are not many that can say that.