Cyclocross: Cycling's George W. Bush

Dec 19 2011

Man drinking beer on bikeAh, Cyclocross—scruffy, fun-loving younger brother of road cycling. None of the endless training and expense, all of the fun, dirt, and beer handups, right? Surely this is the most populist of all sports, is it not?

No, actually—not even close. Not since a third-generation Yalie picked up a Texas accent and ran for President as a Washington Outsider has a brand been so obviously out of sync with its own reality. Cyclocross, while thrilling and fantastically enjoyable, is also the most expensive cycling discipline for those with an actual desire to be competitive, and the least friendly to the common racer stepping up to give it a shot.

On the road, race-able bikes start at around $1000 and, without swapping a single part, can be trained on and raced competitively for at least one season. That’s certainly how I got started, and I remember the winning selections of collegiate B and C races stocked with Dura-Ace and Sora in roughly equal proportions. All due respect to the high-gloss fields I currently run with, but thanks to some impressive raw talents and a general lack of any tactical know-how, those collegiate events remain some of the fastest, hardest-fought races I’ve ever had the pleasure of contesting.

Manufacturers can wage nerd war til the cows come home, but road races aren’t won and lost at the bike shop. Zipp and Cervelo will remind you of Cancellara’s amazing charge at the ’07 Tour, but his on-the-hoods, out-of-the-saddle position on that particular rampage more than negated any aerodynamic advantage of his wheelset. Road cycling isn’t contested by torso-less robots on trainers in wind tunnels; it’s a game of canny, back-biting, and subterfuge, and 99 times out of 100, you’ll do better to poach another rider’s aerodynamic advantage than to invest in your own.

By comparison, gear in cyclocross actually matters—specifically, tires. While entry-level CX bikes often offer a lower price, what you get for the money is also drastically reduced. I’ll overlook the downgrade from Ultegra to Tiagra (as I mentioned above, if the gears shift, you’re good to go); I’m complaining about the “cyclocross” tube and tire setup that has no place on any respectable race course.

After a few seasons of attempting to race ‘cross on clinchers, I’ve arrived at the conclusion—one that ought to be plastered in bold-face at the beginning of any article on cyclocross—that attempting to actually race cyclocross with clinchers and innerubes is an often pointless endeavor. Maybe if you’ve got the mad handling skillz and mimized downforce of, say, Rudy, you can venture out past the fringe of the greens on your local golf course. Otherwise, the tire pressures you need to run come with a DNF rate (via pinch flat) of about 1 in 4.

Tubulars fix this problem, of course, but they’re astronomically expensive. The tires start at 70 dollars, and even Williams Cycling’s much heralded “affordable” $369 cross wheelset represents an outlay as large as I’ve ever made on a pair of road wheels. To me, “affordable” applies to <$150 wheelsets, like the Maddux F20 I put 6000 miles into over the past two years.

Another reason competitive cyclocross all but requires tubulars is that, without free laps or follow trucks, you’ve got to be able to get to the pit on your own—much tougher on a flat clincher than a flat tubular. And once you get to the pit, you’ll need something to put on your bike; tack on another $470 for a second wheelset. And patching that tubular tire back up after the race…let’s just hope your puncture solution is a simple as an injection of Caffelatex.

But as anyone who’s been to a muddy Verge Series race knows, the only really competitive support is to have a second cyclocross bike at the ready in the pits. ($800 + $470) x 2 = $2,540, or better than twice the up-front investment of a raceable road bike. And keep in mind, these ‘cross figures are still for Tiagra level parts, while a similar road rig ships with Ultegra gear that’s good for at least few seasons to come. Much as I appreciate the functionality of Shimano’s low end parts, an ill-timed spill in the sand pit might be all she wrote for that budget shifter.

And of course, no detonation of this populist facade would be complete without pointing out how thoroughly cyclocross kowtows to the elite. A sponsored rider has to worry about almost none of the things I’ve listed above—no entry fees, a guaranteed spot on the line, free pit bikes, boatloads of swag, and a retirement account’s worth of wheelsets, making an unexpected snowstorm as manageable as a wheel swap.

Zdenek Stybar racing I hasten to add that there’s nothing “wrong” with this—good riders are fantastic marketing exposure, and with the salaries (or lack thereof) offered to the pros, the people who are actually good at ‘cross need as much help as they can get (see #livingthedream).

At the end of the day, though, what road racing does that cyclocross doesn’t is routinely turn out Frederick Vuechelens, Bobbie Traksels, Frederic Guesdons and host of other one-off winners who saw an opening, read a race, or were otherwise crazy enough to pull off the unlikeliest of upsets over the most elite of fields.

In road racing, there’s a sense that any rider with the skills to hold position, the watts the get free, and the stones to give it shot is guaranteed an opportunity to make a race-winning move. Most times, it doesn’t work—heck, sometimes it doesn’t even get attempted—but the option is there for any rider who would lay claim to it. Drop Zdneck Stybar into the first lottery spot at a World Cup and I don’t think he’d enjoy that same opportunity.

The point of all this isn’t that cyclocross needs to be somehow “fixed”. Obviously, I wouldn’t mind if the industry turned out more ~$1000 CX bikes that weren’t built to sit in the garage, but ‘cross racing is just fine in its current incarnation. Adam Myerson’s fantastic piece on CX racing rings as true for the guy in first as it does for the guy in 101st—I would know, having found myself riding in both positions at various moments over the past three years.

What bothers me is this position cyclocross seems to enjoy in the popular imagination of cycling fans as a, blue-collar, working (wo)man’s sport, as if mud, beer, tents, and Belgian country music were proof positive that it’s a somehow purer competition, geared to the common rider. Make no mistake about it, cyclocross rewards privilege—both in terms of income and talent—above almost anything else.

18 Responses to “Cyclocross: Cycling's George W. Bush”

  1. Huntie Cakes December 19, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    Cosmo, we have to figure out a way to keep you angry till Sept 2012 and then get you a pair of Kite carbon hoops so that you can go destroying the field.

  2. steevo December 19, 2011 at 2:21 pm #

    Dude, totally disagree.

    If you want to be Elite or Cat1 anything you need nice stuff.
    However I argue to be a decent B racer, you can do it on a crap bike or two crap bikes.
    I won the MAC B series on a $550 used trek with clinchers.
    I believe Neils Albert won a Superprestige this year on clinchers.

    I scored UCI points on a crappy aluminum redline. I think its msrp is like 1100.

  3. Nathaniel December 19, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

    “Make no mistake about it, cyclocross rewards privilege—both in terms of income and talent—above almost anything else.”

    Cyclocross is, foremost, a sport of intelligent fitness. Great lungs and legs coupled with tactical and technical savvy can get you quite far–no matter if you’re riding tubulars or clinchers, a $1,100 Redline or a $9,000 Parlee.

    That is to say, cyclocross rewards talent and smarts. Neither of which is a privilege. You certainly have no choice with regards to your genetic makeup. And racing
    intelligence? That’s earned.

    Yes, income is a factor in cyclocross. The commutation, entry fees, and equipment costs do add up. But these can be budgeted. You can choose how many races you want to attend. You can be wise with component choices. Income, for some, may be considered a privilege–but to the vast majority of us racers out there, income is derived from hard work and commitment, not some gift from daddy.

    Want “inexpensive” high-end equipment? Hunt for it. Zipp 303s are out there for $350.00 (http://forums.serotta.com/showthread.php?t=101239). Tubulars can be found for $90.00 a pair (http://bit.ly/thfmmX). Fuck up a frame and need a new one? Get it here for $115.00 (http://bit.ly/uRDuT1)

    You get the point.

  4. Paul Souders December 19, 2011 at 4:21 pm #

    OTOH losing a cross race is about umpty-brazillion times funner than winning a crit.

    So there’s that.

  5. cosmo December 19, 2011 at 4:25 pm #

    @Nathan,

    No disagreement that “great lungs and legs coupled with tactical and technical savvy can get you quite far”. But if you’re starting 80th out of 120 dudes and a minute into the race you run into this, you’re not going to get into the Top 25 to score points to get a start further up on the grid.

    I like to think I ridden competitively in the Cat 3 fields in New England this season. But the only reason I’ve had that chance is because I had the means/opportunity to drive 4.5 hours to Vermont, where (fortunately) the first race in the series was a wide, grass, 300ft-of-climbing/lap course where anyone with fitness and savvy could ride a functional ‘cross bike into the Top 10 on clinchers and 38psi.

    But if that race course had been Gloucester or DownEast, I think there’s no way anyone with my bike could have ridden into the front of the race. CrossResults has been embraced (rightfully so, IMHO) by many promoters as a way to help facilitate the move up through the pack, but 26th is still the absolute worst place to finish in a Verge series event.

    As I said, on the road, anyone can bide their time and make an attack that might win the race. At big ‘cross event, I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say less than 25% of the field gets that chance.

  6. colin December 19, 2011 at 4:31 pm #

    At least in New England, if you’re starting 80th out of 120, that’s because you either registered day-of, or you suck. (assuming staging is by crossresults points)

    Put the 80th-best guy on the front row and he still gets 60th. Put Peter Goguen in 80th, and he still gets a top 10.

    Whining about start position is a lot like whining about tubulars and pit bikes — yeah, it matters, but not as much as your fitness and bike handling.

  7. Nathaniel December 19, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

    “But if you’re starting 80th out of 120 dudes and a minute into the front of the race you run into this, you’re not going to get into the Top 25 to score points to get a start further up on the grid. ”

    Totally agree. That was my situation most of this season–unable to nab a Verge point early on and thus cursed to start mid-pack for the ensuing series races. But I put myself in that situation not because of some woeful lack of equipment (I was running clinchers), but from lack of fitness and race experience. I would have been in that situation had I been gifted two SuperXs with SRAM Red and 303s or if I were riding a beat-to-crap steel Ibis with friction shifters. The privilege of equipment can only contribute so much to a successful cross season…

    My initial comment was in reaction to one of your entry’s main points–that cyclocross is “the most expensive cycling discipline for those with an actual desire to be competitive, and the least friendly to the common racer stepping up to give it a shot.” That, I believe, is not necessarily true.

  8. steevo December 19, 2011 at 5:58 pm #

    “the most expensive cycling discipline for those with an actual desire to be competitive, and the least friendly to the common racer stepping up to give it a shot.”

    Have you ever been to a time trial?

  9. Douglas December 19, 2011 at 6:42 pm #

    Cosmo, I’ve been keeping up with your posts on clinchers v. tubulars. I think you’re 95% right about the advantages tubulars give you. But, with some care, you can run clinchers below 30psi pretty reliably without pinching a ton. It adds some weight, but I tend to think the tradeoff is worth it.

    1) Run bigger tubes. If you have the choice between a 28-32mm tube and a 35-43mm tube, go for the bigger one. It’s heavier, but it will not stretch out as far, and hence will be thicker and less likely to pinch.

    Also, if you have a larger tube, it contracts less when it is punctured, making it easier for sealant to fill the gap quickly and actually work.

    2) Use talc or baby powder inside the tire. LIBERALLY. Almost excessively.

    3) Run sealant in your tubes.

    I’ve been running this setup at about 27psi (I’m 148lbs) and have hit curbs quite a few times in races and have yet to pinch even with bottoming out on the rim. It’s not fool-proof, but it’s less risky than just running tubes as you normally would.

  10. cosmo December 19, 2011 at 6:55 pm #

    @steevo (re: Time Trials): Wholeheartedly agree. While I like the physical (and occasionally technical) challenge of the discipline, buying speed is a must to be competitive. Mercifully, several stage races have begun insisting on mass-start legal TT equipment.

    @douglas: Thanks for the tips! I’ve had better luck with 32-35s recently (late Nov-present) vs 28-32s. Gonna have to try the talc, too.

  11. Touriste-Routier December 20, 2011 at 10:11 am #

    CX unfriendly to new racers? I guess this comes down to how you define it. The CX scene has to be the most welcoming, supportive, least pretentious of all competitive cycling disciplines.

    Yes, like all equipment intensive sports, there are financial barriers, but there is nothing to say you can’t start out with one bike and no spares. If you have a mechanical you are done; you play the odds. Even if you have spares, your chances of winning are rather slim if you suffer a mechanical (and face it, even with spare wheels and a follow vehicle in a road race, without a proper caravan, you are not likely to make it back up to the leaders unless they are lollygagging).

    I would argue that the supportive environment more than makes up for the downside you highlight. Even national class events are relatively low key, homey affairs. But consider this, in what other area of cycling can 25th place be considered a respectable finish by so many people?

  12. adamcrazypants December 20, 2011 at 10:13 am #

    do you not have any friends? I’ve picked up wheels over the years through various friends and acquaintances from racing. . .and I run Campy 9/10 speed. . .elite riders are always selling their shit, etc. I picked up two wheelsets in 2003 with a few extra tubulars from a dude off-loading them on the mid atlantic list serve. . .tubulars (Tufo) and all. . .400 bucks. the tubulars are gone, sure, and I sold a wheelset, but the other set is still around and kicking. get some friends yo, or go visit gunn4r’s garage.

  13. Max December 20, 2011 at 4:51 pm #

    Your gripes about cyclocross clinchers remind me of those infomercials where they show somebody having a ridiculously hard time using the conventional “obsolete” version of their product. Like that one where the house wife gets all tangled up in saran wrap or the person with the aching hands needs electric scissors. Tubulars are obviously better most of the time but plenty of people race competitively on clinchers.

  14. Cyclo Cross News December 21, 2011 at 10:27 am #

    I can remember when cyclo cross was still done on old touring bikes and the courses were so hit and miss you never knew what you were letting yourself in for except you knew it would be ‘exciting’ – and I mean ‘exciting’ in both senses of the word!

    It all seems very sanitized now, more like a criterium race on grass sometimes. Bring back the courses that frighten some of the lesser riders, that’s what I say!

  15. cosmo December 21, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

    @Adamcrazypants: It’s not that I don’t have friends, it’s that the friends I have are whiny. One time I used Colin’s FMB’s and he made me run them at like 70psi so I didn’t pinch because I’m apparently too fat. I did pick up some old tubular Ksyriums this fall in a similar fashion, and I’ll probably get a second pair like that before next year.

    @Max: That’s a pretty good example, actually. A regular Saran wrap box works fine, but I wouldn’t want to bring it to a meat wrapping race. If you consider racing ‘cross equivalent to wrapping leftovers, then standard the standard Saran wrap solution is fine.

    @Cyclo Cross News: Your comment about over-sanitization is well-taken. According toJeremy Durrin, there are relatively few state-side courses that rival the Euro-cross scene in terms of difficulty. That said, sanitized courses are also the the most even playing field for less-well-heeled racers.

  16. Larry T. December 22, 2011 at 6:10 am #

    The equipment issues are what bothers me about the current ‘cross mania. This is just what the industry wanted to create when they looked for a new revenue stream as MTB’s died away in popularity. I’ve got nothing against the SPORT, as running around in a muddy field with a bicycle (at least that’s how it was for me) can be loads of fun, especially as it’s all over in an hour. But so much of it currently seems designed as little more than a marketing scheme to get the folks who already have road bikes, mountain bikes, a fixed-gear, bike, etc. to buy another bicycle and the ‘cross specific accessories to go with it. As Homer J. Simpson once said, “it may be a fad, but it’s here to stay” Though he was not describing the current ‘cross mania, I think he’s right. Once this dies down the bike industry will be looking for the next “newest-latest-must-have” bike category and ‘cross will go back to being what it once was in the USA…a sport about RIDING the bike rather than a competitive shopping exercise, as your “you can’t be competitive without tubulars and two bikes” claim illustrates.

  17. Cyclocross Magazine December 22, 2011 at 11:22 pm #

    Nice post. Sure, the money and fitness “privileged” can have an advantage, but so can the knowledge and experienced privileged, and getting knowledge and experience can be close to free.

    The tires example is a good one, but we’ve seen so many 50 psi Dugasts in “C” races that it demonstrates that $ itself doesn’t help. As our tests have proven, low pressure is typically the goal, not riding tubulars themselves. Nathan is right, as our pinch flat test showed, huge tubes (heavy) or latex tubes can really open up low pressure options, as can a good tubeless setup (raced at 19psi the other day, 160 lbs).

    Bikes don’t have to be expensive, and used or new or singlespeed, you can put together a highly race-worthy bike on a budget, and we will continue to shout that so that CX doesn’t scare off the budget-constrained. See the cheap bike project here: http://www.cxmagazine.com/cheapbike

    I still maintain that CX is way more accessible than road, TT, tri or mtb. You can show up on a hybrid, hardtail, or old-skool road bike with cx tires and be competitive at the levels typical of noobs. When that happens, you have a better chance of getting hooked, and then a better chance being motivated to find a way to upgrade stuff on a budget through connections, swaps, sponsorships, etc. so that you’re not too handicapped at the next level.

    Thanks for sparking the discussion. Good stuff!

  18. Sebastian December 26, 2011 at 5:07 pm #

    Another reason why road cycling allows for surprise winners is the much greater importance of drafting. Higher speeds mean that the strongest rider can’t just charge away from the bunch two-thirds of the way through (2010 Paris-Roubaix notwithstanding); rather, the winner will be the guy who knew what group to get with, knew when to share the work and when to draft, and then picked the right moment to head off on his own. The exception, of course, is extremely steep summit finishes where the advantage of drafting is drastically reduced; these tend to unfold a lot like cyclo-cross or MTB races, with the group gradually stringing out according to rider strength.

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