If Saturday was quiet then Sunday was loud. It wasn’t the fans that were especially loud like those we had encountered up the steep banks of Norwood Edge during the Women’s World Championship road race in September. Nor was it the noise of helicopters or car horns and police moto’s that we had heard at the Tour of Britain. No, instead it was the booming thud of Belgian techno and beer fuelled party hero’s stamping their feet in the main beer tent.
The tent was so chaotic that before entering in search of further refreshments a contingency plan was put in place. Assuming we wouldn’t stick together in the madness a meeting point was established by the ‘bon’ office. Not bon as in the french word for good but instead tickets you bought that could be exchanged for beers or frites, or if your name is Ben an orangina! Even if they bore no relation to the French word, the resulting hassle free collection of beers they afforded was certainly more than good and definitely helped us at the bar where not only did we avoid the need to faff around with loose change but were also poised for a swift exit.
From 9am onwards most of the fans were in the beer tent so the rest of the course remained quiet. Perhaps few souls had ventured further than a 2 minute walk from another drink or maybe because the riders are often traveling slowly and a shout in their face at such close proximity would seem an odd violation of their focus. To my amazement instead of vague shouting and heckling you could hear the occasional spectator whisper something to their hero as if they were best friends. For example, one particularly hushed “c’mon Sanne” directed to the world champion Sanne Cant at the top of the first climb sounded so amicable it simply can’t have come from a member of the public.
This intimacy between spectator and racer is quite unique to cyclocross as unlike the sidelines of a pro road race where the riders are rarely at walking pace, unless their mid froomey up Ventoux. The best place to watch CX is when they are running up a hill and are just in front of you. This happens so many times during a lap that by the end of the race you have heard the same deep breathing from riders whilst shouldering their bike, seen their slight hiccups when remounting towards the end of the race or even seen them take a tumble in the same part of the course each lap. Perhaps in a strange way you do start to get to know them. Especially if you went to a few world cup races over the course of multiple seasons.
Suddenly I found myself quietly encouraging the same few riders each and every lap as the pain on their faces grew and the fire in their legs and lungs burnt brighter and hotter. It might have been the beer and frites talking but the more races and laps I watched the more I fell in love with what I saw.
I expect that were you to ask one of the current crop of riders who race on the road, mtb and cyclocross like Matthieu Van Der Poel or Pauline Ferrand-Prevot which races get the best support from fans I am convinced they would say either cyclocross or mtb because of such points I have been making.
So if cyclocross is a favourite for both fan and rider then can we assume it is the ‘best’ cycling discipline out there?
Well obviously not. Apart from ‘best’ being arbitrary and ambiguous cyclocross doesn’t feature the same speeds as a sprint at the end of a road race or that of a team pursuit on the track or indeed the same death defying stunts and skills as in a downhill mtb race. It cannot and will never be the complete package for the spectator. But if you are talking about proximity to the riders, seeing them conquer technical terrain on woefully inadequate bikes and proper flat chat racing then it really does tick all the boxes.
It speaks to a whole number of fans. Those attending to see all the latest and greatest bits of technology and the mods/hacks featured on pro bikes, to the fan who appreciates wheel to wheel racing, much like in motosports and even to the fan who doesn’t give a jot about who wins or even that there is a bike race happening but wants to slam some strong beers and have a party.
On our wander back to the car there was a lot of excitement. The races had been thrilling, the fans passionate and everyone had a lot of photos they couldn’t wait to look at. Sand had made it into every pocket, pouch and sock from a day of trudging around the dunes, and we loved it. Faced with a long journey ahead of us we felt tired, but if you had said there was another race about to start we’d have turned around and marched back into those dunes ready for more cx action before you’d have time to say ‘cross is boss’!