Mud, sweat and gears: the Flemish love for cyclo-cross


The winter-only sport of cyclo-cross is a spectator-friendly contest in which mud-soaked riders twist and turn their way through Flemish trails before shouldering the bike and running up a hill. And Flanders is home to some of the world’s champions

For the love of mud

“Sometimes I feel like a kid again, when I used to really enjoy just getting completely dirty,” says Bart Aernouts. Aernouts, 32, is a professional cyclist, and former cyclo-cross Junior World Champion.

Mud is part of the cyclo-cross experience as much as wheels are part of the bike. Cyclo-cross is a bicycle race in a mud bath: liquid, sticky, deep, glorious mud splattered all over the bike, the body and the face. “Of course it’s dirty, but the mud makes it so much fun,” Aernouts says.

Cyclo-cross is the bastard son of classic cycling. During the October-to-February season, riders splatter through the trails of Flanders, pausing only to dismount and carry their bikes on their shoulders when the hills become too steep or the mud too heavy.

Aernouts, from Essen, Antwerp province, is one of the world’s top cyclo-cross riders, a niche but fast-growing sport and one dominated by the Flemish. Other top riders include Kevin Pauwels, Klaas Vantornout, recently retired Niels Albert and the current colossus of cyclo-cross, Sven Nys.

Like many in the sport, Aernouts – currently 14th in the UCI world rankings – started doing cyclo-cross in the winter, when the regular road racing season was over. “But I found that I really liked it, and I was good at it,” he says. “I like that it is more technical. On the road, it’s just five hours pedalling. In cyclo-cross, you have to steer, jump, turn. One week it’s a fast track, next it’s deep, thick mud.”

Aernouts admits that it is tough to ride full-on for the hour that races typically take. “The body suffers,” he says, adding that this is as demanding as any elite sport. “Cyclo-cross is a small world compared to, say, road racing. But the level is physically high. And it has really grown over the past 10 to 15 years, with more sponsors, more races, more teams.” 

A long, hard slog

Often seen as a way for road riders to keep fit in the off season, cyclo-cross is a winter-only sport in which racers repeatedly lap a compact, tight, off-road circuit built around sharp turns, steep slopes, streams, fallen trees and man-made obstacles like bales of straw and even flights of stairs.

Races have massed starts, so there is a scrum to get to the first corner or obstacle before rivals. Then it’s a hard slog, often with the course getting more churned up and treacherous as the race goes on. 

On the road, it’s just five hours pedalling. In cyclo-cross, you have to steer, jump, turn

- Bart Aernouts

Although it is an emerging sport, cyclo-cross’s roots are nearly as old as the bicycle itself, when enthusiasts for new machines would test their ruggedness in the roughest of environments. The key early figure was turn-of-the century French soldier – and later secretary-general of the French Cycling Union – Daniel Gousseau, who would cycle through the forests alongside his horse-mounted general.

Gousseau enjoyed these outings so much that he invited a few of his friends along, and, before long, impromptu races occurred. In 1902, he organised the first French championship.

Flemish riders began imposing themselves in the 1960s: Eeklo-born Eric De Vlaeminck first won the World Championships at the tender age of 21 in 1966 and then each year from 1968 to 1973. Now Flanders looms over the sport. Twelve of the 21 UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup winners have been from the region – and that doesn’t include those who have moved here, like Czech rider Zdeněk Štybar.

Riders in Flanders have also accounted for two-thirds of all the podium places in the two-day UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships.

Sven Nys (pictured above) – known as the Cannibal from Baal or the General – is arguably the greatest cyclo-cross rider ever. He still starts virtually every cyclo-cross race as the favourite, even at the age of 38. In the UCI Cyclo-cross Cup, Nys towers above his rivals, with six titles to his name, even if his last one was in 2009. 

Perfect spectator sport

Despite cyclo-cross being called a fringe sport, some of cycling’s greatest heroes, including numerous Tour de France winners, have used it for winter conditioning. There is little cross-cutting between cyclo-cross and traditional road racing, or mountain bikes, where the rider must be self-sufficient and carry out in-race repair work himself.

By contrast, a cyclo-cross racer is allowed to use up to three bicycles in a race, which can be vital when a clean bike can weigh 10 kilograms less than a muddy one. This has resulted in a highly organised pit-stop system with teams of mechanics working throughout the race to ensure the rider can have a clean, oiled bike once each lap.

Cyclo-cross races are generally held on circuits two to four kilometres in length, mixed with paved and unpaved sections, wet areas and dry, and about 85% rideable. The rest is for running. And although cyclo-cross is synonymous with mud, there are times when the temperatures are well below freezing, meaning crunchy and bumpy rides over iron-hard snow and ice.

Unlike in traditional outdoor bike circuits, riders lap the course many times in the hour-long races, so spectators have lots of chances to see the race as it develops. This overcomes complaints of micro-second whizz-pasts that occur in other bike races and perhaps explains why it has become so popular so quickly: 70,000 people attended the last world championships to take place in Flanders, in 2012 in Koksijde. 

Amateur appeal

Enthusiasts say cyclo-cross riders are among sport’s best all-rounders, easily crossing over from fell running and triathlon. They cycle at the speed of elite road racers on firm ground, reaching over 50kph. But once they hit the mud and ditches, anything goes, including BMX-style bunny hopping.

Newcomers are often surprised to discover how similar cyclo-cross bicycles are to road bikes, but with wider tyre clearances, knobbly tyres for better grip on slippery surfaces, cantilever or disc brakes and lower gearing. The tyre pressure at 25 PSI is about a quarter of that for a road event.

I’ve been doing this 21 years, and I still enjoy it

- Bart Aernouts

Cyclo-cross has a particular appeal to amateurs as it is suited to anyone, no matter previous experience or ability – everyone sets off from the same starting line then settles into their own pace. And they are accessible for families: men’s, women’s and children’s races are often held at the same events, so whole families can go along for the day.

It’s a serious physical workout, building arm and upper-body strength and bike-handling skills – and takes up surprisingly little time, since an intense one-hour workout can be more advantageous than hours on the flat. It’s also just plain fun, offering the challenge of quick handling and lively feel of the cross bike on the quickest descents and trickiest single tracks.

The chances of serious injury are also slim, expecially compared to road racing where top riders can get to speeds of up to 80kph and fall on a hard surface or even down a rocky slope. In cyclo-cross, the fastest riders get up to about 35kph on soft ground, and when they fall, it’s on mud. Aernouts says the worst he’s had is a broken rib.

Aernouts is full of passion for the sport, recalling his junior world title triumph in 2000 as “something that will be with me for the rest of my life, something to tell my children and grandchildren”. For all the cold, the toil and the pre-race nerves, he still sees himself as incredibly lucky to be a professional in the sport.

“Sometimes I see it as just a job, like any other: There are good days and bad days. But I’ve been doing this 21 years, and I still enjoy it,” he says. “Cyclo-cross is my profession, but it’s also my hobby. I love it, and I get paid for it!” 

Where to catch a race

The cyclo-cross season runs from October to February, with top events in Belgium’s Superprestige championship, the BPost Bank Trophy, the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup and many others. This month sees Superprestige events at Ruddervoorde, West Flanders, on 9 November and Gavere, East Flanders, on 16 November, followed by the UCI World Cup at Koksijde on 22 November.

Cyclo-cross’s most intense period runs from mid-December until the first week of January, when the race calendar for elite and master racers is packed. The season traditionally ends with the UCI World Championships, which are being held this year in Tabor, in the Czech Republic, from 31 January to 1 February. For more information and a calendar, see the website of the Flemish Cycling Federation.

Photo © LC/Corbis

Flemish cycling

Flemish cyclists have played a dominant role in the history of European bicycle racing. With the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), the region also has a classic cycle race.
Flandriens - The legendary pioneers of the Flemish cycling tradition are called “Flandriens”. They include Roger De Vlaeminck, Eddy Planckaert, Johan Museeuw and Walter Godefroot.
Eddy Merckx - Having won 525 races in his career, Brusselaar Eddy Merckx, nicknamed “the Cannibal”, is considered one of the greatest cyclists of all time.
Trophy - The annual Flandrien Trophy honours the best Belgian cyclist of the past season. Professional cyclists choose and vote for the nominees.

number of times Merckx won the Tour de France

1 913

first Tour of Flanders

1 969

Merckx becomes first Belgian to win the Tour de France in 30 years