Before I start to talk about the best cycling discipline, here’s a disclaimer: I am very biased towards cyclo-cross. To me, it sums up all the good things from all areas of cycling and creates a unique and mesmerizing whirlwind.

The history

It all started roughly at the same time as the Tour de France – during certain races, riders had to go through fields and other non-paved roads and they realized that it has advantageous effects both on their bike handling skills and on their fitness, thus it turned out to be an excellent winter auxiliary training opportunity. However, the first official World Championship hadn’t been held by the UCI until 1950.
There are probably only a handful people now, who haven’t seen this video, I think a sure sign of cyclo-cross becoming mainstream is when your mum sends you this video.

What is cyclo-cross?
It is an hour-long, action packed off-road bike race, where riders use slightly modified road bikes. These modifications include wider and knobby tyres, cantilever brakes and wider chainstays for better mud clearance. Yes, because mud plays a central role in ‘cross as the season starts in mid-September and lasts until mid-February: there’s always the odd race that is dry, but most of the time, conditions are adverse, most of the time: rain, mud, snow, ice, sand and any combinations of these.

Current World Champion, Zdenek Stybar rides to his decisive win earlier this year in Roubaix, France during the penultimate World Cup race.

The courses

Races are held on off-road courses. Though first you might think that they must be similar to cross country courses, they are much shorter (2-4 miles) and much flatter, though, this doesn’t mean that they were any easier to compete on. The short and flat courses have two effects: races are very fast and the spectators get to see the riders a lot – the number of laps are around 7-9, depending on the length of the course and the weather.
To make matters more interesting, race organizers throw in a couple of tricks that make races more spectacular for the fans and harder for the riders. You will find stairs, sandpits and planks on most courses, in most cases riders have to dismount to negotiate them.

Depending on the circumstances, pros can even bunnyhop through the planks, but the further the race progresses and the more tired they are, the less likely they risk something that looks good but has the potential to hinder them.

The bikes
It’s a rather traditional sport, in a sense that it hadn’t changed a lot during the years, until this summer. Bikes have a road frame with bit different geometry: the fork is longer because of the mud clearance and therefore the headtube is a bit shorter. The gears are also modified a bit, they use smaller big chainring (46 instead of 53) and the cassette normally have a wider range, but that can vary, depending on the course.
The tyres are more like really thin mountain bike tyres, instead of the skinny road tyres. The tyre size varies between 30-34mm (it used to be 36mm but UCI have changed that too) and most pros use tubulars, simply because the lower pressure provides far superior traction to clinchers. And because there’s a tyre for every weather condition, the biggest teams arrive at races with literally dozens of wheels per rider.
The single biggest change in rules was probably when the UCI ruled earlier this year that they allow the use of disc brakes. Whilst the decision was condemned by the purists, there were also a fair amount of comment that hailed the change. The late announcemnt caught most manufacturers off-guard – even though their factory or sponsored riders preferred disc brakes, they haven’t figured it out how to deliver disc brakes that weigh not significantly more than normal cantilever brakes.

2009 World Champion, Niels Albert's bike after the Plzen World Cup race in 2009.

The pits

The logical consequence of the constant bad weather throughout the season is that the bikes are subjected to extreme amount of gunk during races. Since rules allow riders to switch bikes, they have extensive pit crews with multiple bikes. During a muddier race, top riders might change bikes in every lap, sometimes twice a lap! The mechanics have the unpleasant but very important job to do their magic and remove as much mud from the bikes as possible before the rider comes around the corner and demands the clean bike.

Niels Albert jumpes on a clean bike in the depo during the 2009 World Cup race in Igorre, Spain.

The traditions
‘Cross for the Belgians is the same as cricket is for the British – a sport that is appreciated in a small number of countries, but in those countries, it’s one of the most important sports. The biggest player is unquestionably Belgium, with the Netherlands and the Czech Republic as close seconds. It is quite rare that a rider from other countries (France, Italy and maybe Switzerland) makes it to the top 10 of a big race.
‘Cross riders are national heroes in these countries, races attracts huge amounts of fans and thus sponsors too. When the greatest active rider, Sven Nys changed teams a couple of years ago, his new team sponsor, Landbouwkrediet saw a 30% increase in their customer base – largely attributed to this transfer. But it’s not about the money – it’s about the love of sport. Local and world-class level races are held almost every weekend in these countries and fans come and support their favourite riders in big numbers, no matter what the weather has to throw at them – the abundance of beer, sausages and waffles help them to endure even the worst conditions. It’s amazing to see all the different fan clubs, all Belgian riders seem to have a fan club, irregardless of performance: if they are nice and likeable, he has a fan club.

Me with dear friends of mine, the Kevin Pauwels Supporters Club, who get in the motorhome almost every weekend and drive long hours to see to their favourite rider, Kevin Pauwels' every single race.

The races
On one hand there are the World Cup races, there are 7-9 of them in a season and the rider with most points wins the World Cup. But due to the circus-like status of the sport in the Benelux, the Superprestige and GVA series are just as important as the World Cup and top riders like them far more as prize money is much better…
Not all races are equal: there are races that are special for one reason or another. One of the hardest courses is the Koppenbergcross, which includes the dreaded climb from the Ronde Van Flaanderen; Koksijde and the insane amount of sand; Zolder and its unforgottable post-Christmas craze.

It might be Christmas for the fans, but Kewin Pauwels had to work hard for his win during the 2009 World Cup race in Zolder, two days after Christmas.

The reality
The time has yet to come when England will be able to threaten the hegemony of the Belgians but the sport is getting more and more popular and riders like Helen Wyman, Gabby Day, Nikki Harris or Ian Field are competing week in week out against biggest name – and often they succeed. There are local leagues all over the country, basically, no matter where you live, it’s likely that there will be a cyclo-cross race held in a nearby city. Races attract sizeable fields and a lot of young riders are getting involved, too. Check out British Cycling’s ‘cross calendar to see where’s the nearest event. And if you want to get involved, if you want to start racing, do it! At the beginning, you don’t need an expensive ‘cross bike, your hardtail mountain bike will do the job at the beginning, though you’ll want one very soon. All you need is big lungs and strong legs – 40-60 minutes of flat out racing is going to hurt. And be prepared to get muddy – but that’s part of the fun.

Nikki Harris during the 2010 UK 'cross Nationals.