Myth versus Reality

by grolby


I've become a fan of cyclocross, but it took me a while. That feels a bit funny to me, because I was intrigued by the thought of participating as soon as I heard of this whacky discipline. Racing what are essentially road bikes around in the dirt, dismounting to hop barriers and climb over obstacles? The sheer lunacy had instant appeal. But unlike road racing, I didn't feel compelled to seek out videos on YouTube and steep myself in the history of the sport. Before I had toed a starting line myself, I was watching or reading about generations of epic battles over Alpine climbs and pitted cobblestone tracks. Cyclocross didn't have the same sense of grandeur and mystery as the road, and it didn't cast the same spell on me. Somehow, a sense of epicness is an indelible part of the image of road racing, and it can grasp a certain sort of personality in powerful claws. The long history of European road racing gives the sport a sense of enormous scale and shrouds the actual events of the past in myth. It is difficult to compete with myth.

There isn't actually anything intrinsic about road cycling to justify the hazy grandeur that surrounds the coverage of races. It is true that the distances professional racers must cover seem incredible, and they are, but for at least half of them the riders aren't even racing. This has changed a bit as distances have contracted and television coverage has expanded, but the road racing rituals of the early break, lieutenants riding tempo and eventual explosive action as the race enters the decisive sectors placed in the final hour to hour and a half of the action have been established because it isn't possible to race all-out over 200 kilometers. The mythic storytelling has survived from the days when races were covered only by newspapers, who could concoct whatever fanciful version of events would sell the most copies. I'm not completely sure why the veneer of epic heroism is still with us today, but I suspect it is because, even with end-to-end video coverage of races, we still only have the tiniest window into the events of a professional road races. Much remains hidden. There are hundreds of stories for a single stage of the Tour de France. We might see three or five of them on television. We might hear another handful through journalists' reports after the stage, but that's all.

The earthbound grittiness of cyclocross and the hard, tactical intensity of track racing seem very different by contrast. To the naive viewer (the younger me, in other words), they feel somehow spare. Not dull, but far less expansive. Less mysterious. It's easy to mistake the mystery and the strangeness of road racing for greater substance and the smaller scope of disciplines contested in velodromes or on cyclocross tracks for less. But really, the substance of cyclocross and track racing is intensified and compressed into a comprehensible distance and timeframe, and more importantly, 90% of it is right there in front of us, fully accessible once a fan has started to learn the secrets of the discipline. As a result, as I've become more familiar with cyclocross in particular, the races I watch feel tangibly real in a way that road racing does not.

As I've matured as a cycling fan, the mythical spell of road racing has relaxed its hold on me, for a number of reasons. I don't think the way we've constructed road racing storytelling has done the sport or its fans a lot of good. If nothing else, the unreality of how we think about the races and racers may something to do with the willingness that we had for far too long to accept the literally unreal performances of racers who were doped to the gills. Not that track or cyclocross are safe from doping at all, but at least we don't already have a narrative for them of superhuman performances in epic arenas.

And, if nothing else, as a bike racer myself, it is difficult to relate what I do to what I watch on television during the Spring Classics or the Tour de France. I am not capable of racing my bicycle for five hours over hundreds of kilometers and thousands of meters of climbing. I am not even interested in doing so. Anyone who has done a bike race over two or three hours long knows how mind-numbing it is. But I race for similar times over similar sorts of terrain as the cyclocross pros. They are much faster and much more skilled than I am, but the 'cross races I do fundamentally resemble what they're doing, while the criteriums that make up most of my road racing have almost nothing in common with a stage of the Tour de France. I can watch how Sven Nys handles a particular kind of technical section and actually learn something to apply to my own racing. I find that I'm getting as much or more out of watching bike races and thinking a lot more clearly about my own riding and racing having got my head out of the epic clouds. I will never stop loving European road racing. But life is better down here on the ground. And there are even more bike racing videos to watch.