Clearing the Decks

The fear, anticipation, and difficulty of doing things – no matter how benign those things may be – tends to increase the longer you put them off. As a lifelong procrastinator, I’ve learned this lesson well, though it’s worth noting that I have not adjusted my habits much as a result of that knowledge.

Over the holiday break (judging by the timestamp on the last post, I’ve generously defined that as “from Halloween through New Year’s”), there have been quite a few things I’ve thought to write, would have liked to write, but didn’t, for any number of mundane and uninteresting reasons. Usually though, it was a matter of not having, or not thinking I had, the time to write them properly. If you’re not an experienced procrastinator, let me tell you that weasel words like “properly” are incredibly handy for putting things off. They allow you to table action nearly indefinitely – after all, there’s always a better angle in the offing, a better phrase just around the corner, maybe a bit more research you could do, and then really, shouldn’t you track down a photograph to go with all that careful writing? All in the name of doing it “properly.” And so it goes, or doesn’t go, as the case may be.

Anyway, I refuse to call it a resolution, but one goal for 2011 here at the Service Course is to push on through all that and just post some stuff. That’s not to say I intend to just throw up any passing, poorly written crap that flies through my head – that’s what Twitter is for. But I am going to try for shorter but more frequent posts here. You know, if I get around to it.

With that in mind, I thought a good starting point would be to knock out some things I’ve been thinking about and be done with them so I can move on. Maybe they’re not presented in the expansive, eloquent, and meticulously hand-illustrated format I’d prefer, but I suppose it’ll have to do.

Bienvenidos a Calpe

A while back on Twitter, I wondered about the peloton’s current fascination with Calpe, Spain. This year, it’s played host to training camps for, offhand, RadioShack, Katusha, and Quick Step, and probably some others I’m forgetting. Katusha, I believe, is headed back for a second visit. The sudden, intense interest in one fairly small, fairly random Spanish coastal town sparked my interest, mostly because of Michele Ferrari’s documented fondness for working the shores of Tenerife, which has a fairly similar description. So I cracked that Calpe must have either a pretty good tourism board, or a great damn doctor.

In all seriousness, though, the answer to “why Calpe?” is probably pretty simple. It’s a beach town, with a beach climate, close to the highway, with flat roads along the coast for easy days and a big mountain a few kilometers inland that’s covered with switchbacks for the hard days (go to the Google Earth view, it's better but slow), and there are plenty of differing routes for a little variety. I’m guessing there’s also at least one decent hotel there (and probably many less than decent ones). Add all those up, throw in the fact that like anything in cycling, training camp locales can be very much a me-too thing, and all of a sudden, it's a hot spot. The other reason I'm thinking Calpe craze is fairly innocent is that, while folks did seem to enjoy Tenerife for the services of the good doctor, they mostly made their furtive trips there as individuals. Hauling complete squads somewhere – be it to Tenerife or Calpe – to get on the program would be idiocy laid bare.

Stybar to the Road

For the duration of the current cyclocross season, one looming question has been whether or not Quick Step would sign 24-year-old Czech ‘cross world champion Zdenek Stybar and put him on skinny tires. As of now, the issue is still outstanding, and Patrick Lefevere seems to have left the ball firmly in the hands of Stybar and his current employer, the specialist Fidea cyclocross team. I expect further silence until after the World Championships on January 30, at least.

The move to Quick Step would theoretically give Stybar a path to try his hand at the classics, something he’s expressed a keen interest in doing. The question is, is it worth it? Back when he rode for Rabobank, Sven Nys had the same inklings and emitted the same sense of classics potential. But Nys never quite made his name in the races everyone assumed he would – races like Roubaix and Flanders. While I can’t recall his specific performances, the reasons Nys’s irrefutable greatness on a ‘cross bike didn’t transfer to the classics should be easy enough to spot. Classics are 6 hours long, not one, and though the cobbles are difficult, the classics are still road races, won through strength (individual and team), endurance, knowledge, and tactics, not on bike handling. If he chooses to attempt the transition, Stybar will face the same challenges and the same inherently elevated expectations Nys did. Stybar, though, will face a few additional challenges that Nys didn’t have back when he gave the cobbles his shot.

Nys’s Rabobank deal (prior to the ProTour rejiggering that put him on the Rabo continental team) allowed him to easily float back and forth between the team’s top flight road formation and its top flight cyclocross program. Quick Step has no such dual presence. Presumably, Stybar would have a clause with Quick Step that would allow him to continue to race 'cross in some capacity, but signing for the team would leave him without the dedicated ‘cross support he receives from Fidea and without a management whose primary interest is off-road. In contrast, wherever Nys found his calling, road or fields, Rabobank could be happy – starting him at Roubaix was a low-risk, potentially high-reward venture, both for the team and Nys.

The nature of Stybar’s road attempt, on the other hand, requires a substantial, longterm, and potentially costly change in program, with a good chance that neither side will be quite happy with the result. If the road doesn’t pan out, Quick Step may well be happy to have a top ‘cross rider on its roster, but they really haven’t shown any interest in the discipline in the past. For his part, Stybar would be left without the support he’s enjoyed for ‘cross seasons past and would have to start negotiating contracts to get back into the ‘cross world full time, and would likely have to negotiate one that started mid-cross season due to the road-cross misalignment. He’ll find one, of course -- he's very good at what he does -- but that doesn’t make it a fun process.

Finally, when Nys took his shot at the road with Rabobank, he truly had a shot. At least in the cobbled classics, Rabobank was not a particularly heavy hitter (no offense to Michael Boogerd, Marc Wauters, and Eric Dekker). At the cobbled departs, at least, Nys was probably as likely a shot as anyone, and that comes with a certain freedom. Should he sign with Lefevere, Stybar is entering a formation that already features Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel, and Geert Steegmans. Don’t get me wrong, Quick Step is not as crowded as it once was, and it’s a far more unpredictable animal than it was in its heyday, but Stybar will still have to do some clawing for his chance. When you’re already a world champion in another discipline, that can be a tough hurdle.

Ah that's all well and good, you say, but Lars Boom has made the switch far more recently than Nys, and it’s going swimmingly for him. But who does Boom ride for again?

What Might Have Been

Big thanks to the folks at, who gave me links to streaming coverage of big ‘cross races all season, and to the folks at all the Belgian stations who provided the feeds. It was awesome to be able to really follow the GvA, SuperPrestige, and World Cup series, reliably, all season long. The only depressing thing about it? Access to those feeds reminded me of how good we could have it during the classics season if people would stop buying the U.S. rights to air the races and then screwing it up. If you’re going to do it, do it right, or let my people watch Sporza.

Peloton Magazine

Back when I did a little review of the first issue of the new Paved magazine, I promised I’d do a review of the other then-looming release, Peloton magazine, when it hit the Barnes and Noble. I did indeed get a copy of Issue 1, but I haven’t done the review yet. So what gives? I did read it, and while it has the best cover for a cycling magazine in recent memory, overall I was underwhelmed. That said, the vast, vast, vast (that's three vasts) majority of feedback I’ve seen about Issue 1 indicates that people think it’s fantastic, so I have to wonder whether I’m (a) just missing something or (b) just being a dick. I’m willing to admit that either one is completely within the realm of possibility, so I’ve decided to wait until I can read Issue 2 before I weigh in.

Damn, Watson.

Did we all catch the latest Graham Watson Twitter kerfuffle? Everyone’s favorite Anglophone pro cycling photographer found himself on the outs again this week, this time for stating that he just couldn’t see 80 women taking on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. Many observers took that to be a disparaging remark about women’s racing, which in turn was taken as an indicator that Watson is a sexist jerk. Watson subsequently did a pretty poor job refuting that impression.

I have to think that at least some of the vocal reaction to his comments wasn’t entirely due to the current dustup, but rather with what's becoming his greater body of work. Simply put, Watson has a pretty broad public presence between Twitter, his own site/blog, and his writing engagements for various magazines, and lately he’s using the first two to tickle his tonsils with his toes at every opportunity. Let’s review:

Late last year, there was the incident in which photos on Watson’s site were discovered to have labeled Greg LeMond “fool” where every other rider was listed by name. Outcry ensued, and the response from Watson was a fairly unconvincing “Huh, I’ll look into it.” That, inexplicably, was followed up by an even more damaging pseudo-apology from Watson, in which he stated that, sure, Lemond was a great champion, but one who should learn to keep his mouth shut. Presumably that was a comment regarding Lemond’s very public anti-doping stance, and people didn't take terribly kindly to it.

Also late last year, Watson mused that he’d like to dump all his images of Alberto Contador in response to the Spaniard’s pending doping case, and then PhotoShop a yellow jersey onto Andy Schleck in the pictures of the 2010 Tour de France. Some took issue with the dumping idea, complaining that Watson was passing judgment on Contador before he’s been given his proverbial day in court. I really don’t have a problem with that – we all have inklings as to Contador’s guilt or innocence, ones that very likely won’t be changed by the verdict one way or another, so I can’t fault Watson for his. If Watson worked for CAS, expressing that view would be a problem, but he doesn’t. But I found the idea – however lighthearted – of painting yellow onto Schleck more disconcerting. A bent towards revisionist history is not a desirable trait in the chroniclers of our times.

So, add those two flaps to the women/cobbles issue, as well as his sycophantic slobbering over Lance Armstrong’s every move, and it seems Watson is suffering a bit of an image problem these days, at least among people who care in the U.S. That, granted, may not be a large enough population to worry about, but Watson’s image here certainly seems to be travelling from pioneer and bon vivant to oblivious, arse-kissing, sexist, omerta-endorser mighty quick. That’s not to say the trend is irreversible, and Watson has a lot of built-up goodwill as the guy who provided many of our first impressions of the sport through his work in English-language pubs like Winning, Bicycle Guide, VeloNews, and CycleSport. Maybe that’s good for something. Also in his favor is the deep-seated but conveniently unspoken knowledge that we all probably have some thought, belief, or inkling that if expressed in its raw and unadorned form, would render us fairly unpopular with swaths of the population. The catch is that most of us have the common sense to not express whatever that potentially distasteful thing is, at least not to an undefined audience. But Watson doesn’t seem to have that sense, or the ability to stay off the hot-button issues on Twitter, and in the social media days, you only get so many strikes.

And Away We Go

Lots of folks are heralding the coming Tour Down Under, the big season opener for international cycling. That’s understandable. But – and this is nothing against the event, an important one for a nation that will be a prime player in the next decade of cycling – I’m just not feeling it. And I’m guessing the Tour of Oman and the Tour of Qatar won’t do it for me either. I’m not old, but maybe I’m getting there, because for me, it takes news of the GP Marseilles, Het Nieuwsblad/it’ll-always-be-Het Volk-to-me, and Milan-San Remo to really feel like we’re moving again. Like I said above, every one of us probably has some non-politically correct inkling, and that’s mine. It’s backwards looking, provincial, and mired in my personal experience versus irrefutable facts at hand – like the calendar, for instance. But there you go.

Fondue and Alpenhorns

It was the cowbells that got me thinking. The incessant clanging I've experienced over the last several 'cross races first had me considering how you shouldn't give your three-year-old a cowbell if you want to keep your friends or your sanity. But once I recovered from that fundamental error, I started thinking about how cowbells are a sort of a universally accepted cultural anomaly in American ‘cross.

Ask most American cyclocross aficionados what their standard reference culture for the sport is, and you’ll likely get a single answer: Belgian. And these days, that makes sense. For over a decade now, a herd of Belgians led by riders like Mario De Clercq, Sven Nys, Bart Wellens, and Erwin Vervecken have dragged the ‘cross peloton around the farm tracks of Europe by their collective knickers. From the Gazet van Antwerpen series, to the SuperPrestige, to the World Cup, to the World Championships, riders from one half of one small nation have dominated the discipline. There have been formidable challengers at the top end, of course, names like Pontoni, Groenendaal, Boom, and Stybar, but no other nation has come close to Belgium’s recent combination of strength and depth. Belgians have always been strong at ‘cross, but the last 15 years? Out of control.

And so, as cyclocross has boomed in the United States over the same period, Belgium has become the discipline’s defacto culture of record in these parts. Hit a cyclocross race on the right weekend, and you’ll see Flemish flags flying in Virginia, Leffe poured in Kansas, Sporza quoted in Oregon, and god-awful knit caps worn by fat, cigar-smoking old men in Massachusetts. That last one doesn’t really have anything to do with cyclocross, it’s just a problem I feel should be addressed. Anyway, many of the ‘cross faithful habitually try to recreate the Belgian experience, no matter how far removed from Ruddervoorde or Zogge they may be, from things as minor as dropping some faux-Flemish into pre-race chatter to more involved projects like constructing janky, cockeyed flyovers. Really, I think it’s only our more stringent open container and public urination laws that hold us back from complete authenticity.

But as the faithful, ubiquitous cowbell reminds us, or should remind us, the Belgian dominance of cyclocross wasn’t always so complete. It’s just that the era of greater parity was, perhaps, a bit before most of our times. Cowbell-as-cheering-device is, after all, a Swiss cultural phenomenon, one imported to cyclocross from Swiss ski racing culture back when its red-and-white clad riders were a dominant force on the international cyclocross scene.

After finishing second in the 1975 cyclocross world championship to Belgian classics legend Roger DeVlaeminck, Albert Zweifel won four consecutive world elite titles for Switzerland from 1976 to 1979, putting an emphatic dent in eight consecutive years of Belgian domination. The lower steps on those podiums added an exclamation point to Zweifel’s accomplishment. For his first three titles, Zweifel bested fellow Swiss Peter Frischknecht, who hailed from Uster, a town just about 10 kilometers from the longtime SuperPrestige and World Cup stop at Wetzikon. In 1976, Switzerland swept the podium, with André Wilhelm following Zweifel and Frischknecht. For his fourth title in 1979, Zweifel beat out first-year Swiss pro Gilles Blaser.

Though Zweifel’s Worlds wins and accompanying medal rides by Frischknecht, Blaser, and Wilhelm were undoubtedly the high-water mark of Swiss cyclocross, they were by no means the end of the country’s presence at the top level. Zweifel would net two Worlds silver medals behind Belgian star Roland Liboton in 1982 and 1983 before taking the title for a fifth time in 1986. And as with his first four titles, the man standing next to him on the ’86 podium was Swiss. This time, it was Pascal Richard, who would step up to take the rainbow jersey himself in 1988. When Richard pulled on his rainbow bands, he had to look all the way to the third step on the podium to find a countryman, Beat Breu. Dieter Runkel would net Switzerland’s final world title in 1995, with countryman Beat Wabel taking the bronze. Peter Frischknecht’s son, mountain bike superstar Thomas Frischknecht, returned to his cyclocross roots in 1997 to take the country’s last elite world championship medal, a silver.

Runkel, Frischknecht, and Wabel would carry the torch for Swiss ‘cross through the early years of the UCI World Cup, which began in the 1993-1994 season. After a slow start in the series’ first two seasons, during which Breu’s third place at the Eschenbach, Switzerland round was the nation’s only podium appearance, the Swiss got their legs under them again in 1995-1996, with Runkel and Wabel scoring third-place finishes at the Wangen, Germany and Variano di Basiliano, Italy rounds respectively. Runkel took the win in the fourth round in Prague en route to his Worlds win the following February. With the jersey on his shoulders, Runkel won the second round of the 1997-1998 series, again in the Czech Republic. The following season, Frischknecht would register the Swiss dynasty’s final World Cup win, scoring an upset win at the fifth round in Zeddam, Netherlands, ahead of Belgians Mario De Clercq and Marc Janssens. Wabel was fourth.

Since Frischknecht’s win on January 3, 1999, no Swiss man has climbed on any step of a World Cup elite podium, and by the end of that season, the Belgians and Dutch had nearly taken over. At the Wortegem-Petegem round of the 2001 season, all of the top 10 elite finishers were Belgian. The sport is not all World Championships and World Cups, of course, but the results of series like the SuperPrestige show much the same trend.

Despite the diminishing returns in a sport that also used to boast more French, Italian, and German contenders, Switzerland retained its depth and interest in the sport, continuing to fill out its start allotments with hopefuls and usually hosting a World Cup round. In the years following Frischknecht’s win, Switzerland was still capable of placing four riders in the top 20 of any given event, and likely at least one in the first ten. But the very tip of the spear was gone. For a decade now, the nation’s standard bearer has been the very capable Christian Heule, a remarkably consistent finisher in the top-10 range, and capable of a top-5 on his best days. He was joined for several years by Simon Zahner, an early ‘cross talent currently with the BMC road team. Zahner seemed to be on the way up before presumably choosing to concentrate on the road. In the elite ranks, twenty-five-year-old mountain biker Marcel Wildhaber (Scott-Swisspower MTB) looks to be the brightest hope for the future, putting in his time in the 20s and 30s over the last few seasons before having what could prove a breakthrough ride at this month’s Pilzen, Czech round, where he finished 12th.

So how did one of the cyclocross’s biggest legacy nations drop from prominence, leaving only the incessant dinging of cowbells behind? I won’t pretend to know. Maybe, for anyone but the Belgians, it simply makes more sense to make your money on a mountain bike or on the road, not in a niche halfway between. Maybe the lack of top Swiss road teams to pay the summer bills undercut the support system. Maybe the sanitization of international cyclocross courses since the late 1980s has reduced the value of the Swiss technical precision in the slop. Maybe something changed in the 1990s in ‘cross, too, but we’re not going to go into that now. Maybe I’ll look into it further someday.

But maybe the trend also isn’t forever. Maybe the World Cup circuit’s recent return to Aigle after the three year absence of a Swiss round will spark some interest again, boost the participant numbers and level of domestic competition enough for a few super-talents to emerge. Maybe Andy Rihs, head of the Phonak and BMC empires and Swiss cycling's patron saint, can somehow help Switzerland regain its rightful place in its onetime specialty. Or maybe they just need a little more cowbell.


  • You can see why some of the Belgian customs tend to stick over those of other cyclocross cultures. Frites and horseburgers are easy to eat on your feet in a crowd, especially compared to fondue and schnitzel. And even though they’re both cheap, Bavik is better than PBR.

  • Maybe the Swiss ‘cross decline is due to morale issues. Namely, they have to stop naming everyone “Beat.” Among Switzerland’s international ‘cross representatives: Beat Breu, Beat Wabel, Beat Blum, Beat Morf…

  • What do I mean by “sanitization of international cyclocross courses”? We give you the 1988 World Cyclocross Championship from Hägendorf, Switzerland, won by Pascal Richard, with Beat Breu in third.

  • With its longterm peformance, the current dominance of Zdenek Stybar (Fidea), and great riding by riders like Peter Dlask and the elder and younger Simuneks, the Czech Republic can rightly be called one of the top nations in cyclocross. Question is, like cowbells from the Swiss and public urination from the Belgians, what cultural artifact will the Czechs contribute to the sport?

  • So who do we blame for cowbell proliferation in the United States? Tim Johnson. OK, maybe it’s not all Tim's fault, but he’s definitely involved. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000’s, Saturn sponsored the country’s best domestic road team, as well as a juggernaught ‘cross lineup featuring Johnson, Frank and Mark McCormack, and Bart Bowen. Somewhere in there, Saturn decided that cowbells were better marketing gewgaws than cardboardish off-brand water bottles, and the team distributed thousands of bells at road and ‘cross events to deafening result. By 2002 or so, the Mercury team (which started out wanting to be Saturn before deciding it really wanted to be TVM) also started handing out cowbells, so I suppose we can blame them, too.

  • The headline I finally slapped on this thing doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? And frankly, it’s a little bit too Rick Steves for me. But in starting to write a little something about cyclocross, one thing stood out: all the good headline references and puns have been taken. Gin and trombones. Mud and cowbells. Chocolate and waffles. Frites and mayo. Cyclocross. Crosshairs. Crosscheck. Cross Czech. Crosswind. Cross dressing. Cross-industry marketing opportunities. There just aren't any good 'cross references left to make. Oh, wait, there's one. Feel free to use that.

Waffle House Party

The UCI announced on January 29 that Louisville, Kentucky will play host to the 2013 World Cyclocross Championships, the first time the event will be held outside of Europe. Many insiders would have predicted the United States’ first major international ‘cross event would be held at one of the sport’s traditional stateside hotbeds – like New England, or Katie Compton’s parents’ house. But making the transatlantic leap could already pose such a mental hurdle for Europe-based athletes that it seems the UCI placed a premium on making everyone more comfortable with the unorthodox trip. So, in vetting the Louisville venue, I can only assume that the UCI considered such important ‘cross-related questions as:

UCI: Does your city have ample facilities for serving waffles to drunks?
Louisville: Yes, yes it does.

UCI: Everyone really likes the horsemeat when we hold the Worlds in Belgium. Do you have good horsemeat?
Louisville: Um, in a manner of speaking. You probably don’t want to eat it if you’re going to dope control, though.

UCI: You know, Tabor (2010) has Budvar, St. Wendel (2011) has Karlsberg, and we can only assume that Koksijde (2012) will have the usual Belgian pils and jenever smorgasbord. Do you have some sort of signature local drink that we can use to get well and truly schnakered?
Louisville: Why, yessuh! I say, I say, we DO!

And after one sip of sweet, sweet bourbon, I can only assume the decision was made. Now that I think about it, Louisville is practically just northern Europe transplanted. Kidding aside, congratulations, thank you, and good luck to the folks who made it happen – Bruce Fina and Joan Hanscome, who also bring you (or people like you) the USGP; and the city of Louisville, which is throwing a lot of support behind the event and ‘cross in general.

Anyway, we have three years to chew on this whole deal, but here are a few quick holeshot thoughts:

  • In the USAC release, head honcho Steve Johnson states, “After more than a decade of working closely with American promoters and the UCI to grow our international calendar of cyclo-cross events, Louisville’s winning bid is a testament to the success of those efforts and to the extraordinary quality of ‘cross racing in the U.S.”

    Right on, Steve. Does this big payoff from all USAC’s “efforts” mean the fed will do something more for the 2013 cyclocross “national team” than give them a jersey and a slightly uncomfortable pat on the ass? Because you know, even most bike shop teams manage to get you a discount on tubes or something. I mean, I know it’s been hard, or apparently impossible, to scrape together the cash to buy riders coach-class tickets to exotic vacation destinations like Flanders and the Czech Republic right at the height of their bleakest-depths-of-winter high seasons, and those new baggage fees are a bear. But if you can’t manage to do better when the Worlds are in Louisville, on three years’ warning, then that’s pretty depressing.

    Look, it’s one thing to stiff the pro/elite folks, who actually make (some) money racing bikes and whose sponsors will help out since they’re in a position to capitalize on their athletes’ Worlds participation. But for the juniors and even the U23s? Come on, if you want to call it a “national team,” strip people of their committed year-long sponsors' clothes, and wrap them in the flag for a day, at least pick up the tab. If you really want results, those folks need to be training, racing, resting, or doing schoolwork in the months leading up to the race, not hosting bake sales and car washes to fund a ticket and a hotel room, only to have you issue another self-congratulatory press release if they manage to turn in a good performance.

  • Folks have been working on bringing a ‘cross World Cup stop here for awhile, and recent thinking has trended towards building Cross Vegas into that event, which makes a lot of sense. It’s so early in the season the travel wouldn’t present as much of a problem, and the potential sponsor pressure for riders to show at both the race and Interbike could persuade more recalcitrant riders to make the trip. But bringing the World Championships here is far better, and not just for the obvious reason that “it’s the friggin’ World Championships, man.” With the World Championship, by virtue of the late-season timing as well as the prestige, you’re basically guaranteed a turnout of the top stars, and they’ll be shooting for top form. In contrast, if you’re simply the first stop (by weeks) in the World Cup, you’re likely to get a much smaller turnout if a good portion of the top talent chooses to collectively wait it out and start their seasons one race later and 3,000 miles closer to home. And even if you get a few of the heavy hitters at the top, the overall depth of the field tends to get watered down a bit – look at the results of North American MTB World Cups for examples.

    This is not to say U.S. interests shouldn’t continue to pursue a World Cup here – it’s an admirable goal, and I hope they achieve it. While the Louisville Worlds will provide a huge one-time impact, a recurring yearly World Cup stop would be a significant long-term asset. As the VeloNews article linked above cites, championship venues are typically tested with a World Cup first, but there are still some funding humps to work out for a stateside World Cup stop since 15,000 people won’t pay $20 a head to watch a cross race here. However, if there still isn’t a U.S. World Cup prior to Louisville in 2013, a good promoter/federation performance there could potentially help shake some sort of solution loose and set the U.S. up for some recurring role in top-shelf 'cross racing.

  • In email chatter since the announcement, I’ve already heard some half-joking worry about the arrival of plane loads of drunken, abusive Belgian fans. I’m more worried about their inevitable drunken, abusive American imitators -- if you’ve raced ‘cross, you know they’re out there. I’m always wary of imitators, of course. No matter how unsavory you may find their antics, at least the originals are well practiced and know what they’re doing. As for their inadvertent and overenthusiastic spawn, let’s just say I’d rather have Didi “the Devil” Senft on my roadside, legendary B.O. and all, than some local who thought Didi’s brand of schtick looked pretty damn appealing, and I’d much sooner take fashion advice from a real member of Gwar than some guy at an Oakland Raider game. So please, I beg of you, though 2013 is a long way off – if you go, be yourself, whatever that is, and don’t try to cop to someone else’s act in the name of some ersatz cyclocross “authenticity.” If Americans waving Lion of Flanders flags in Louisville strikes someone as authentic, they're in need of a dictionary. Drink what you want, act like you normally would, speak your own language, and enjoy the racing. For more information, please consult Joe Parkin.

  • I was glad to see through the various releases that the U.K.’s Simon Burney was on the UCI technical committee involved in selecting Louisville. I don’t know him, but like many riders in the United States (where, pre-internet, English language ‘cross info was scarce for a long time), older editions of his Cyclocross: Training and Technique book served as a valuable reference and introduction to the sport. So that’s two we owe him, I guess.

The Weight of Being Sven Nys

With Lars Boom’s (Rabobank) victory in the most recent round of the cyclocross World Cup at Pijnacker coming hot on the heels of Niels Albert’s (Palmans) win in the Tabor round, many are wondering if Sven Nys’ (Landboukrediet) iron grip on the ‘cross World Cup is coming to an end. The Belgian has dominated the sport’s premier series since 2003, and when he won the season opener in Kalmthout over Albert, it looked like this season could be more of the same. But with the strong, consistent challenge Albert and Boom have brought over the first three rounds, tongues are starting to wag.

That’s a little unfair, really. After all, time waits for no man, and Nys is now 32 years old. And you can’t really expect one man to consistently dominate nearly every race of the WC for years on end, can you? Maybe not, but the fact that people see Nys’ failure to win two consecutive WC races as “faltering,” particularly when he finished fourth in Tabor and third in Pijnacker, speaks to the expectations he’s earned. What did Nys do to forge these chains? Let’s have a quick look at the five previous WC seasons:

  • In the 2003-2004 season, Nys stormed the first three rounds of the WC, winning in Turin, Italy, St. Wendel, Germany, and Wetzikon, Switzerland. He faltered a bit in the second half of that six-race series, with the remaining victories going to Ben Berden (at Koksijde), Bart Wellens (at Nommay), and Richard Groenendaal (at Pijnacker). Groenendaal rode consistently all season and took double points in the final round to win the overall.

  • The following season, Nys took out seven victories (Pijnacker, Wetzikon, Milan, Hofstade, Nommay, Hoogerhiede, and Lanarvily) in an 11 race series. The remaining four victories were distributed to four different riders.

  • Nys surrendered just two WC victories during the 10 race 2005-2006 season, netting wins in Kalmthout, Tabor, Pijnacker, Wetzikon, Milan, Hofstade, Hooglide-Gets, and Lieven. Wellens won the round in Igorre, and Erwin Vervecken took the series finale at Hoogerhiede.

  • The 2006-2007 season showed no sign of a letup, with Nys winning seven of the 11 rounds, this time in Aigle, Kalmthout, Pijnacker, Koksijde, Igorre, Nommay, and Hoogerheide. Vervecken and Wellens again accounted for two victories (in Hofstade and Milan, respectively), with Frenchman Francis Mourey winning in Milan and Radomir Simunek taking out his home-country round in Tabor, Czech Republic.

  • In 2007-2008, Nys won half the races in the eight race series.

All told, from the 2003-2004 season through the end of the 2007-2008 season, Nys accounted for 29 victories out of 46 WC races. That’s 63 percent. And that doesn't account for all the WCs where, despite not winning, he was still on the podium. Sure, it’s not a very original nickname, but they don’t call him “the Cannibal” for nothing.

But while batting .500 in last season’s WC is nothing to sneeze at, it was also an early sign of possible chinks in Nys’ WC armor. During that season, Dutchman Boom became the first rider other than Nys to score more than a single victory in the series since 2003. In fact, he netted three, taking his first WC win at Pijnacker in his native Netherlands, then scooping the final two races in Lievin and Hoogerheide. And he picked up the world championship title in there as well. This year, in addition to his WC repeat at Pijnacker, he also won the Jaarmarktcross Niel round of the Gazet van Antwerpen Trofee series on November 11.

Obviously, Boom’s potential was realized last season, his first in the elites after already netting a U23 World Championship, and you can hardly be called a “revelation” when you’re wearing the elite World Champion stripes and have three WC wins on your palmares. So that leaves the 22-year-old Albert as the revelation of this ‘cross season. Similar to Boom, he clinched the U23 World Championship in his final year in that category, and marked his debut in the elite class with a win at the Erpe-Mere round of the Superprestige series the same season. Albert has been successful in the SuperPrestige this year as well, winning the Veghel-Eerde round ahead of Boom and Nys on November 2.

By winning the WC at Tabor and finishing second to Nys and Boom and at the Kalmthout and Pijnacker rounds respectively, Albert is sitting in the driver’s seat of the WC competition, with 1065 points to Nys’ 965. It’s far from an insurmountable lead, and there are six races left in the series. But at least in the early season, Albert is showing a consistency rivalled only by Nys over the last several years. Boom currently sits third with 668 points after a slow start, but is clearly on form now.

But before we trade the cowbells for church bells and announce the death of Sven Nys, there are a few other historical markers we should take into account. First, while Nys has been beaten at the last two rounds of the WC, he hasn’t dropped more than two WC races in a row since the 2003-2004 season. That bit of history tells us that when the gun goes off on November 29 in Koksijde, in front of Nys’ adoring home crowd, the Cannibal is going to looking for dinner again.

It’s also worth noting that, as he’s long proclaimed when defending his Є8,000 start fee, Sven Nys races every race to win (and yes, I believe he does use the third person when he says so). That season-long focus on victory has often cost him some form late in the season, and is the most often-cited reason for his relative lack of success at the World Championships, where he’s netted only one elite title, in 2005. While it may have cost some rainbow bands, Nys’ hunger for wins has led to plenty of wins in the sport’s other two showcase series, the GvA Trofee and the SuperPrestige, which he’s won on seven occasions. This year, he’s already won the SuperPrestige opener at Ruddervoorde and the GvA Trofee opener on the Koppenberg. Those wins and his win at the WC kickoff in Kalmthout have kept Nys well in the hunt in all three major series. That means that, while he’s facing new challengers and enduring a few recent injuries over the last several weeks, there’s still plenty of racing left for Nys to regain some traction and extend his dominance. And nobody rides a full season like Nys. Or maybe he’s finally keeping a bit in reserve in hopes of netting that elusive second World Championship.

Only time will tell, of course, and that’s what keeps things interesting. But whichever way things go, it’s clear that the generations are starting to turn in cyclocross. The old guard (which along with Nys still counts standouts Vervecken, Wellens, and Groenendaal among its active numbers) is starting to give way, and with both Albert and Boom having only 22 years on the clock, either may be on the way to launching a dominant streak of their own. But let’s hope not – this year’s three-way competition in the major series so far is far more compelling than another year of the Sven Nys show.

Overlap Season

Remember those times, back before city governments saw building sports stadiums as a springboard to economic revitalization and an excuse to try out cookie-cutter residential-over-retail new urbanism principals, backed by generous tax breaks and zoning workarounds for team owners and developers? Back when baseball teams and football teams actually had to, gasp, share a single stadium for a few short weeks, leaving early-season running backs to tear up late-season baseball diamonds, and outfielders hustling across the 40 yard line? That little visual reminder that summer was turning to fall seems less common today, though I certainly don’t watch enough of the TV news sports reports to really know. So maybe I’m making it up. But I do follow cycling, and we have our own seasonal markers – namely those few weeks when the late-season classics overlap the early-season cyclocross races in Europe.

That time is upon us, evidenced by this past weekend’s multi-disciplinary smorgasbord of Paris-Tours and the first round of the SuperPrestige ‘cross series at Ruddervoorde, Belgium. Thanks to a combination of Versus coverage and the generous decision of Belgian TV to webcast the SuperPrestige ‘cross series worldwide, those of us in the United States were able to take in the changing of the seasons a bit more than usual.


The French season-closer marked a breakthrough of sorts, with Belgian Philippe Gilbert taking his first bonafide classics win. The Walloon has been a big classics threat for a few years now, netting a couple of Het Volk titles, more than a few great but unsuccessful rides, and a bunch of little stages here and there. But the word inside cycling was that he couldn’t perform much over the 200 kilometer mark – the invisible line that helps separate full-blown classics from semi-classics.

By picking up the win in the 252 kilometer Paris-Tours with one of his typical late-race attacks, Gilbert appears to have finally broken the 200k curse. Granted, 252 kilometers of pan-flat French countryside are a bit different from the Ronde Van Vlaanderen’s 264 kilometers of Flemish hills and cobbles, or the 261 kilometers of Ardennes hills that comprise Gilbert’s “home classic,” Liege-Bastogne-Liege. But Gilbert seems to be coming into his own at 26 years old, and next year he’s bidding adieu to Francaise des Jeux and going to Silence-Lotto, where he’ll have a stronger supporting cast of classics men at his side. If he can continue his current trajectory and avoid butting heads with perennial Ronde contender Leif Hoste, he’ll be a solid pick for a Flanders win in 2009.

But Gilbert’s ascendance isn’t the big stateside talking point about Paris-Tours now, is it? Here, it’s been all about Dave Zabriskie’s (Garmin-Chipotle) fashion sense. Always a time trial powerhouse, DZ decided to spice up his Paris-Tours wardrobe and equipment with some contre la montre touches, including a long-sleeve skinsuit, super-deep section wheels, rubberized booties, and a not-so-subtle rearrangement of stem spacers. Short of reviving Cinelli’s mid-1990s “Legalize Spinaci” campaign and wearing an alien helmet, it was just about as much time-trial crap as you could break out in a road race.

But why? Clearly, DZ was intending to go on a solo mission, which he sort of did when he bridged up to the early break and did more than his fair share in driving it out to a 12-minute gap. It was an impressive display, and together with teammate and breakaway companion Lucas Euser, he did a hell of a job protecting the team’s sprinter Tyler Farrar, who rewarded the efforts by winning the bunch sprint for fifth place.

All that said, was it worth it? After all, the other guys in the break did pretty much the same thing wearing and using pretty standard issue stuff. And that stuff is standard for a reason. I’d be interested in hearing about any tradeoffs DZ experienced from his choices, like diminished ability to carry food and the severly limited ability to make a graceful pee-stop in a skinsuit. The Garmin-Chipotle site has a few different posts mentioning the choices, but doesn’t go much beyond “he was planning to go fast.” Of course, in racing, that’s pretty much the point of most things, so there’s not too much of a point in examining things too closely.

One final thing I wonder about though: In its continual quest for style, modern professional cycling teams often have a specific skinsuit design goes beyond a welded-together version of their standard jersey/shorts combo. Such is the case with Garmin-Chipotle – the difference in the design was even more evident given the presence of both DZ and Euser (in standard jersey) in the break. Traditionally, having riders in different clothes is a rulebook no-no, and could potentially land you a fine payable in Swiss francs. But it’s a little different from the Cipollini clothing antics of old, in that Garmin has the skinsuit design in regular rotation, so it’s kind of a gray area. Any UCI rulebook geeks out there that can clarify?

And one, final, final question: With a fair number of Paris-Tours wins in the past decade coming in breakaways, can we stop calling Paris-Tours the sprinter’s classic yet?

Ruddervoorde, SuperPrestige #1

I didn’t really get to watch enough of this to be able to comment on the race proper, but I was struck by the difference in watching professional road cycling and professional cyclocross on television/internet. With road cycling, it’s often difficult to fully realize the speed, to see in some real sense just how different the professionals are from your Sunday road race. You know they’re faster, but just staring at the screen it’s hard to tell how much faster, since you’re only looking at the relative speeds of a bunch of very, very fast men. Not so with cyclocross.

Even though the webcast was pretty jumpy, and the full-screen feature wasn’t working for me, I was struck by how clearly different the professionals ride from weekend hackers like me, and even some of the top guys in the United States, and how clearly that difference comes across on-screen.

If you’ve raced a few cross races yourself, and then watch a televised SuperPrestige or World Cup, you can almost feel the points on the course where you would lose your momentum, ease off the pedals, or coast through a turn. Quite simply, where most of us would slow down from a lack of power or technical skill, the top pros don’t. It’s not surprising, but it is striking. Hairpins are pedaled through full tilt, and that all-too-familiar submarining effect never seems to materialize when they hit the deep sand. I’ve never seen the equivalent of Ruddervoorde’s pump-bump section on a U.S. ‘cross course, but while I’d visualize many riders more-or-less coasting through, the limiting factor for Sven Nys et al. seemed to be keeping the back wheel planted well enough over the top to keep applying full power the whole way through the section – up and down. And, of course, there’s the almost imperceptible transition from riding to running to riding.

With a couple of local ‘cross races done and gone now, watching that sort of skill live via internet was a little disarming. I realize now how my mother must have felt sitting in the passenger seat as I was learning to drive – as we’d approach each curve, she would instinctively and frantically stab at a brake pedal that wasn’t there, anticipating a seemingly inevitable trip into an adjacent lawn or privacy fence. I’m proud to report that never happened, but that ingrained “he’s never going to make it going that fast” feeling is the same. Without the threat of imminent bodily harm, of course.

Something Almost Completely Different

We all know that Belgium is the holy land of cyclocross. But just how far does that country’s support of the sport go? Pretty far, as it turns out. One of the byproducts of being in the Washington, DC metro area is the proliferation of embassies, and the Belgian Embassy has stepped up to sponsor the kid’s race at the upcoming DCCX race at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in DC. It’s not a big thing, by any means, but it’s pretty cool that they’re making the effort, and really cool that it’s coming in support for the junior-est of juniors.