I wrote the piece below for the February 2014 issue of Velo magazine, where it ran as my regular Racing this Month column. If I'm totally honest, I have to admit that it's a little hypocritical. There are certain aspects of Belgian 'cross specifically, and European cycling generally, that I love and try to bring a little of to my own American life. But my point wasn't so much that we need to forsake all aspects of foreign racing culture, but rather that we need to appreciate and enhance our own, as well as be realistic about what we're emulating from other countries. Anyway, on with it.
America’s Flemish Fantasy (Velo magazine, February 2014)
A black-on-yellow Flemish flag ripples in the cold wind. Duvel flows from the taps for adults while kids in team caps chomp down on thick, steaming Liegeois waffles. Cries of “Laatste Ronde!” accompany the bell’s clanging announcement of the final lap. On any fall weekend, this is cyclocross in Belgium. And in Maryland, Colorado, Oregon, and Kentucky, too.
With its rise in popularity over the past decade, American cyclocross has come down with a severe case of Dave Stoller’s Disease. The illness’s namesake, the teenage protagonist of Breaking Away, famously idolizes Italian racers and adopts what he sees as the trappings of the culture that spawns them. He casually romanticizes the “poor, but happy” Italian life. He belts out opera to his meat-and-potatoes father, who he insists on calling Papa instead of Dad. He renames Jake, the family cat, Fellini.
The Italy Stoller imagines does not survive contact with the actual Italians who come to his town to race, sneer at him, and send him crashing out of both the race and his fantasy world. Instead of heroes, he finds humans. And yet today, 34 years after we first smiled knowingly at Stoller’s misplaced idolatry, it is safe to say that if American cyclocross had a cat, we’d be calling it Nys.
“People copying signs from Belgian mobile home companies and stuff like that, it’s funny to see,” says Raleigh-Clement’s Ben Berden of the Belgophilia on display at U.S. ‘cross races.
The Limburger notched wins and podiums on hallowed ground like Koksijde, Hooglede-Gits, and Asper-Gavere before a drug suspension, a willingness to talk about dope in big-time cyclocross, and age saw him exiled to the U.S. circuit. “I think in general ‘cross is Belgium, so that’s why people are obsessed about it.”
“I think it's natural to bring some of the current ‘motherland’ of cross to America, as long as it isn't too much,” says Jonathan Page, the U.S. national champion and the only American man committed to riding in the Belgian trenches full-time. “I like Duvel and other Belgian beers so I can't say that I would be disappointed to see that at the (U.S.) races, but the flags and catch phrases make me laugh.”
Reigning British and European women’s champion Helen Wyman, who regularly visits the U.S. circuit in the early season, also gets to see the American interpretation of the Belgian ‘cross she knows so well. “Sometimes you do see things and you just giggle and you think, ‘yeah, it’s not actually like that.’”
Like many who have spent time immersed in Belgian ‘cross, Berden, Page and Wyman’s chuckles come from knowing that the glasses through which many in America view it can be a bit rose-tinted. Yes, ‘cross is bigger, richer, and – from a sporting perspective – better in Belgium. But, they say, that doesn’t necessarily translate into more sincere passion for the sport or more respect for its participants.
“Yeah, if you see a race in Belgium, there’s 40,000 people there,” Berden says. “But 30,000 of them aren’t there for the race, they’re there for the party. In the U.S., most of the people are there for the race.”
And for the riders, that party isn’t always much fun.
“At Christmas, there are no football matches on, so the football fans go to the ‘cross races. And when you go to races over Christmas, you have incidents like the kid pouring beer on Sven Nys,” says Wyman. “They get really, really drunk and they get really lairy. They throw things at people, and if you’re in the men’s elite race and you’re going badly and you’re not in the top 30, then they say quite hurtful things about you and jeer at you.”
Underneath the mystique, the all those waving flags, and the validation of live TV coverage lies a hard world where women’s racing is often treated as a sideshow, where crowds are so partisan they cheer only for their favorite rider and stand mute for the rest, where riders are disposable, and where business, not passion, drives most of the decisions.
What is worth importing from Belgium, the pros say, isn’t the window dressing – not supporters’ jackets, snippets of Sporza-coached Flemish, or a few cases of Jupiler. Rather, it’s the harder courses, better scheduling, and the more professionalized view of race promotion that make the Belgian scene hum.
“I think we have to get in the U.S. a little more technical races, more hard races. Here you see people complain about a sand pit. In Belgium you have sand pits going down!” says Berden. “It’s wild, tricky. Even professional riders crash there. So I think we have to get off the ‘safe venue for everybody’ a bit. I think we have to go a bit more tricky, more hard, more technical.”
Pros also cite a need for a more coordinated U.S. schedule – one that doesn’t split the already small elite fields between two distant, competing UCI events – as a key to growing the pro ‘cross in the United States. It’s a suggestion that, if implemented properly, would not only make more events more competitive, but potentially lengthen the season as well, by spacing out top events.
That longer season, Berden says, could be key to giving the U.S. another key component of the Belgian big leagues – a professional class of its own, with more top riders for whom ‘cross a primary pursuit rather than an off-season supplement to road or mountain bike racing.
The problem, of course, is that the funding model of U.S. cross is participant-driven, with entry fees from the lower categories helping bankroll the professional races. In Belgium, it’s VIP tickets and gate receipts that often pay the bills, with sponsor money and television fees further sweetening the pot. Cut out the amateur undercard in the United States, make the courses too difficult, or skew the schedule too heavily towards the pros, and the spectator and financial bases of the pro races are undercut. So until U.S. cross gets over the spectator-sport hump, the Flemish fantasy of many U.S. ‘cross fans will likely have to remain just that.
Chasing Belgium, whether it’s on course difficulty or pursuing a more professionalized, spectator-driven model, could ultimately cost U.S. cross the very things that have fueled its growth in the past decade, and which give it much of its character. And U.S. cross does have character, even if it’s sometimes obscured by a lion-of-Flanders flag. If money and difficulty are the watchwords in Belgium, in the United States, they are accessibility and community, both of which could suffer if eyes remain fixed on Europe as the model.
“Sometimes I think we are too focused on being like Belgium,” says Page. “If I see the numbers at races, in every category over in the States, I am amazed! The U.S. must be doing something right.”
“In America you guys have such great equality that I wouldn’t want to risk losing any of that by taking on stuff from Belgium,” says Wyman, who often visits the U.S. circuit in the early season. “American teams have women’s riders, the (elite women’s) events are always immediately before the men’s, and you have equal prize money at all but one race I did this year. You’re so far ahead on the equality front that sometimes if you look to Belgium you might miss that, and that would be a bad thing.”
“From what I have seen in recent years, cross in the U.S. is more like cross in Switzerland now. It's fun!” says Page. “There's camaraderie. People are supportive of cross as a whole and of all the riders. That's how you get kids and families involved, and that's how cross is going to grow even more in the States.”
Wyman sees that participation-based, family focused atmosphere as a big part of the appeal in U.S. cross.
“In America, I don’t really think you need to look to Europe to improve your racing. It’s such a lovely family-friendly environment,” Wyman says. “You can go as a family – the mom can race, the dad can race, the kids can race, you can really enjoy your weekend. It’s a safe environment as well, because you get to know everybody and everybody knows you, and the kids get to hang out together and the families know all the kids. I think you can’t really lose that, because that’s what makes ‘cross so inviting. Then they can stay and watch the pros race.”
Embracing American ‘cross for what it is, rather than trying to reimagine it as something it isn’t, might ultimately be the best cure for Dave Stoller’s Disease. After all, Stoller’s own recovery from his Italian disillusionment comes in part from embracing the weird, wonderful cycling culture unique to his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana – the Little 500. He does it by dropping his faux-Italian accent and plastering the pejorative “Cutters” across his chest. Maybe U.S. cross could start by just lowering a few Flemish flags, and raising a few American ones.