Monday, October 31, 2016

It's Aliiiiive! The Re-Birth of Ulster Cyclo-Cross



When I tell this story now, I suspect that no one will believe it - not even the parties involved. But the honest-to-goodness truth is, when I brought over a cyclo-cross bike from Boston less than three years ago, the local cyclists scrutinised it like an object from outer space.

"What is cyclo-cross?" some would ask. I would explain, and this would be followed by “Never heard of it!” or “Sort of like mountain biking then, but in a field? Weird."



Others - those who had been on the racing scene for decades - knew well enough what it was; they had even raced it twenty years ago. But the concept of an off-the-shelf cyclo-cross bike was unheard of then. Everyone knew you raced cyclo-cross on an old, heavy, decrepit steel bike that you force-fitted with the widest tyres you could manage. Not on a bike manufactured specifically for the purpose!

“Well," I would say, apologetically, "these bikes have been getting kind of popular over the last few years."

“Sure, maybe in the US. You’ll not see that carry-on here!”



Today at St. Columb’s park in Derry, that carry-on was in full swing. It was race number 7 in the fledgling Ulster Cyclo-Cross Series. If I didn't know any better, I would think the cyclo-cross scene - with all of its accoutrements - had been thriving here for years.

It was all here, as if ready-made: the racers, the bikes, the kits, the magical woodland course.



Not to mention the fashionable knitwear,



the behind the scenes romance,



and the sheer intensity.



The day was a rather bleak one, hazy and washed out, but without the drama of rain or mud. Still, the excitement was there.

The racing went on all day, with multiple divisions including men's, women's, juniors, and a separate mountain bike category.



I had to leave before the Elite men's race, but the ones leading up to it were plenty exciting to watch, especially the women - who chased each other up inclines with an aggression so tangible I could nearly taste its phermonal spray from the sidelines.



The overall styling of the race was very "American," I thought (as opposed to continental European).  However, the energy was different. There was an emotional intensity, a seriousness to the people here once a race was in progress, of a type I have never seen in any race I've attended in the US. Perhaps this is because American riders tend to disguise their emotions at such events (as a psy-op tactic of sorts, I have always thought?), projecting an aura of either toughness or merriment. The riders here looked more vulnerably earnest. At times I found myself entranced, standing stark-still, camera limp in my hand, just watching their faces.



Why do I go to cyclo-cross races? I am not into the sport in any meaningful way. I do not feel a sense of duty to "support the local scene" either; they do well enough without me. But I go because, when I learn there is a race nearby, I want to go. Because I find it... I was going to say "entertaining," but this is perhaps the wrong word. I find it enchanting.



All those colours, all that energy, and all those nuances - including the cultural ones - spread out in front of us spectators, as if on a platter. A gut-wrenching reality-theatre, gifted to the public free of charge. How can I not come out and see it.



Too much?...

I don't know. I think cultivating spectatorship is important. And if a sport is to thrive, then getting people to feel the way I do - even if perhaps they do not describe it quite so dramatically - is important. Aside from the organisers, spouses, parents, and retired racers, there need to be people who come out just because.

The Ulster Cyclo-Cross Series is new, but I think  - judging by the number of riders and spectators present - it is clearly starting to attract an audience.



Cyclo-cross is not new to Ireland. But the flavour of the sport I see gaining popularity today is not the same as what was raced here 20 years ago. It is a re-birth of sorts. A hybrid, coloured as much by the American scene of the past 10 years as by its original Belgian heritage.



And I suspect that in the years to come - for I can see it happening already - it will evolve into something different still; something uniquely local. I look forward to coming to watch.


26 comments:

  1. I'm not much of a fan of watching other people participate in sports. (I find watching them on TV particularly loathsome.) But there are the occasional events that I find interesting/fun in a way that I think can only be explained by my fondness for witnessing a spectacle tinged with absurdity. Roller Derby, for example, is a fun event. Hockey can be interesting. Very young children playing pretty much any team sport.
    Cyclocross seems like it could fit in, for me, at least with the "non-elite" racers. Beer hand-ups, costumes, other silliness, etc. are commonly spoken of. I've, unfortunately, never had a chance to spectate an event. I will, should an opportunity arise.

    Your pictures seem to present a fairly serious racing atmosphere. Is the non-serious side of cyclocross not a "thing" over there?


    Wolf.

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    1. My impression is that the very concept of a non-serious side to racing does not compute here. You're either having the craic, OR you're racing - which means being super-focused and giving it your all. The two are incompatible, in the sense that if you have the capacity for irony and fun, then you're not giving it your all, so why even bother? That's how I interpret it at least.

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  2. Yes, i think all you stories get stretched a wee bit now and then but that's okay, I'll go along with it because at least now you're talking about cyclocross fun! Btw, twenty years ago we did not all use old, heavy and decrepit steel bikes jammed with the largest tires we could find, just saying…

    Anyway, the point of it all is exactly as you describe and as I've mentioned previously on this blog (when you were watching and photographing races in New England) and that is it's scale and availability both for riders and spectators. I'm not sure what you mean by American riders disguising their emotions though. Maybe your experience is limited to some rather intense pro races but on the local level it's addicting fun for all and yes, the participants go about it with a serious concentration while on the course (there are, after all, some technical parts of every course) but they do it with a sense of fun. And for the spectator it's also fun because the riders are so spread out and you get the chance to see each one, their eyes, their bikes, their style, their heart! It's wonderful! I always find the most interesting races to watch are the novice and lower categories for this reason. One get the sense that it's possible to join in on the fun and when the riders finish it's just that, laughter and fun. Glad you're swinging this way.

    The story I want to hear again is the one of you buying a cyclocross bike in the first place! That was hard to believe ;)

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    1. http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/jacques-anquetil-dans-un-passage-difficile-du-cyclo-cross-à-news-photo/558639219?#jacques-anquetil-dans-un-passage-difficile-du-cyclocross-france-le-picture-id558639219

      Le Maitre Jacques seems happy to be on a decrepit heavy steel bike here. A standard road bike. All that's necessary. And note that this venue is far more challenging than most in the current era.

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  3. Nice photos! Love to see Sweetpea and Sugar Wheel Works sharing their colors on more than one continent. Two great women who have made my experience on a bike richer and my enthusiasm through the roof with regard to supporting small and local.

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    1. It was a huge surprise to see the Sweetpea Ladies Auxiliary kit. Of course I pestered the poor girl wearing it! She is French, if I remember correctly. So the kit is a world traveller indeed.

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    2. This just posted by Sugar Wheel Works….Cyclocross = This :) https://www.instagram.com/p/BMPD-uMhKNv/

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    3. Thanks for the pic and the mention :) Ive been wearing the sweatpea colours for a few years now. The team agreed to let me wear and I'm now the official Irish (though I'm originally from France) branch of the team :) by the way, my bike failed on lap one and I had to DNF...

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    4. It's Caroline who you saw - she's been the international chapter of the Ladies Auxiliary for several years now! I keep hoping she'll come join us for a race in Portland one of these days - or that some of us will make it over there :)

      (And yes, she's French but resides in Ireland)

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    5. Hello JJfantastic! And it was good to meet you Caroline! Too bad about the DNF. But I am heartened to know there is an official Irish branch of the Sweetpea team. I will link up this important information in the post.

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  4. Next time bring your cyclocross bike and give it a try. Do a lap then do it again and report back to us. You may be surprised. It's just you and the course, sorta like all those hills you've been tackling recently.

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    1. I did most of the course on my Brompton when the riders were warming up. It wasn't a difficult one, in the sense that there weren't any barriers or parts where you'd have to dismount, since it wasn't muddy. I imagine racing it in a bunch lap after lap would be a slightly different experience.

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    2. Yes, folks bring all sorts of bikes and it's nice to see. I don't know how it was in this race but more often than not the riders spread out quite a bit after the first lap so the likelihood of being in a bunch is minor. Every course is different, though. Did they require that you wear a helmut during your run on the course?

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    3. No one said anything about head cover requirements. I was actually surprised they let me on the course, but when I asked they said sure and others were doing it too. Not during the race obviously, but like the pre-riding stage. It was great.

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  5. Good times. I too have spent time and toil in the mud having raced the 55 and older group. Was there an old-folks category? And then...Suds. The trophy of life at the end of the race. Hopefully there was plenty of Suds.

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    1. Depending how you define old folks, there's a bunch! - M30, M40, M50, and M60+

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  6. A much more interesting read than a traditional race report. Thank you.

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  7. A refreshing change. Thanks.

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  8. Ahem, I think you left out the most important part! What about the bikes? I see lots of disc brakes, so it looks like all new stuff from the last few years. Anything interesting in the mix?

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    1. I didn't see anything handbuilt or from niche manufacturers. Not any one big name dominated either. Lots of Focus, Ridley, Canyon, Planet X, stuff like that. Mostly from the past 2-3 years I'd say, mostly carbon, mostly disc brakes. Not really my cups of tea, so I wasn't so much photographing the bikes.

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    2. I suspect that for each participant their bike is their baby whether hand built or off the the rack. They invited it to the dance and that's what it's all about.

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  9. That's a big turnout. The cycling culture there is impressive.

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    1. Here is really large turnout for a CX.

      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=QkwaFuxvGUo

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  10. Just looking at your first photo and the title struck me…'Branching Out'… After giving this type of riding a try and hanging out with the fun group afterward I was hooked.

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  11. The geography of your place confuses me. Is Ulster synonymous Northern Ireland?

    Carrel

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    1. Geographically Ulster is a province, covering the north of the island of Ireland. Politically, this includes Northern Ireland and several counties in the Republic of Ireland, including Donegal.

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