Cyclo-cross is muddy. It's muddy in nature and muddy in its history, and as someone who enjoys writing about the formation and beginnings of things, I'm not a fan of muddiness. Unless it's mud-slinging between two turn-of-the-century race organisers – but in this case, alas, it's not.
The origins of cyclo-cross are vague. Some reports state that it began as a kind of steeplechase, where road racing cyclists would challenge each other to race to the next town over, visible only by its church steeple, thus retaining their form in winter by riding on road surfaces they were unused to, and running with their bikes on their shoulders over terrain where they couldn't cycle.
Another source states that a soldier called Daniel Gousseau, who went on to become president of the French Cycling Federation, is credited with having inspired the first cyclo-cross race in a newsletter from the Union Vélocipédique de France in 1901 where he writes that, as an organisation that celebrates innovation, the Union should embrace this new opportunity to race in winter.
Gousseau tries to sell it as a form of military training, a fact that Géo Lefèvre (you may remember him from helping create such races as the Tour de France) backed up, as cycling historian Les Woodland says. Lefèvre wrote, of this new Cross Cyclo Pédestre, "Think about a cyclist in wartime. He can't use the main roads; he has to ride or walk across unmade roads and worm his way through the undergrowth and clamber across ditches. Think of that and you'll get the principle of the cross cyclo pédestre."
Whilst it may be true that the creation of cyclo-cross owes more to the military than to road racing, it can't be denied that it was the road racers at the turn of the 20th century who we can thank for the popularity of the sport. 1910 Tour de France winner and utterer of the infamous line “Vous êtes des assassins!” Octave Lapize attributed his Grand Tour win to a winter spent racing cyclo-cross, and the sport began to spread across Northern Europe. Belgian Philip Thys, the first person to win the Tour de France three times, came from a cyclo-cross background and went on to win the first Belgian cyclo-cross championships in 1910 – the year Lapize was winning the Tour. Switzerland (home of the glorious supporter cowbell) organised their first national championships in 1912 with Luxembourg, Austria, Spain and Italy all following suit.
Although North America was slow on the uptake, the sport remains on the rise across the Atlantic – and only in Belgium does it enjoy greater popularity. New England quickly became the “spiritual” home of US cyclo-cross, although the first US Cyclo-cross National Championships took place in 1963 near Chicago. The difficulty of organising national races in a country the size of the USA (and Canada) sees a plethora of smaller races take place throughout the season, including the huge and unsurprisingly a bit crazy CrossVegas, with regional championships leading up to the nationals which are held in a different state every year.
The first international race was held in Paris, as Le Critérium International de Cross-Country Cyclo-Pédestre in 1924, and by 1950 had become the World Championships. Nowadays, the World Championships take place over two days and include the Men's and Women's Elite Races, Men's and Women's Under-23 races, and the Men's Juniors as regulated by the UCI. No word on whether they regulate frites and cowbells though...
Looking at the results of the Worlds and Nationals over the years is a testament to the crossover between CX and road racing that is still in place today, all those years after Lapize and Philip Thys. Marianne Vos has been road race and cyclo-cross world champion concurrently on two occasions, and as a junior Canyon//SRAM's Alexis Ryan was national mountain bike, cyclo-cross, criterium, road race and team pursuit champion. It just goes to show all that extra work over winter – the early starts, the freezing cold, the broken collarbones from colliding with that tree – can be worth it.
Basically, cyclo-cross is insane. It's like taking cycling and putting it on an ice rink. There is mud everywhere – often in parts of the body the participants didn't know they had – and if you're not muddy, you're not doing it right. Like a cross between an obstacle course and a city centre criterium, cyclo-cross is only gaining in popularity, which can only mean one thing – we're far more bonkers than our ancestors.
You can find more of Dan Monaghan's pictures from the Namur round of the CX World Cup here.