Heckling can be a fun part of cyclocross, but can be a curse too. "Carrying the Cross" by Sean Horita

Heckling can be a fun part of cyclocross, but can be a curse too. “Carrying the Cross Bike” by Sean Horita from Issue 5

You expect it. Even as a new racer, you know about it. It seems a primarily American thing, but it’s certainly not completely unique to our scene. But the frequency, volume, and popularity of it is unique to the US. And for the most part it’s something every racer faces down at some point at any given race in any category. Sometimes, not even juniors are spared.

Heckling.

We’ve talked about this before—see Ryan Kelly’s great treatise on heckling way back in Issue 5. But now, as the sport gets bigger, new racers and spectators are coming in without full understanding of what heckling—and heckling well—means.

Texting to the HeckleOnline.com Heckle Goul. © Karen Wells Hamilton

OVCX has embraced heckle tech. Here, texting to the HeckleOnline.com feeds the Heckle Goul. © Karen Wells Hamilton

There are, to be sure, artists among us. Folks who can get the crowd going, get a response or a grin from a rider. The ones whose material you steal and take to the next race in your own hometown. These are the pros. And their one-liners, like so many Internet memes, get passed around until they too are the equivalent of the double rainbow guy or the honey badger—the thing everyone’s heard a thousand times to the point it isn’t even funny anymore—“you’re getting ‘chicked’” comes immediately to mind. Bor-ing.

But there’s another heckler in our midst. If the artist is funny, this heckler is the polar opposite. The hack technique resorts simply to “you suck,” or profanity, or perhaps worst of all, personal insults.

Bear in mind that not every heckler who resorts to such tactics uses them 100% of the time. They may be childhood friends with the racer in question. They may be family members. They may be teammates. But even still, the hack method is like my poor remounting technique. It’s ugly, inefficient, and deserves to be made fun of in its own right. Plus, like everyone sees my stutter step, everyone hears these out of place comments but not everyone knows the back-story, if there is one.

Recently a category 4 racer took to his local race association’s forum and said he was hanging up his cantis. That he was done with cyclocross, because he:

“…was called fat, people that I don’t know threw water on me, and I was basically ridiculed on every lap. My wife told me after the race that it was not only me, but the children/juniors, people older than myself, and people with physical challenges were ridiculed as well. What makes matters worse is that most of the insults came from the guy with the PA, but the crowds failure to act is what condoned this ‘bullying’…an epidemic in today’s schools.”

Simply put, this isn’t right. Even if you think the rider in question may not have understood that heckling was part of it, personal attacks on people’s physical attributes simply isn’t or shouldn’t be part of the game. Same is true if you think the rider in question was a bit oversensitive. Doesn’t much matter.

I’m not sure what specifically was said. But if it was enough for a rider to take to a public forum, call out the crowd, and quit the sport, there was in all likelihood something said that was over the line. And it appears it was said over a microphone.

As a result of this incident, there was some discussion among a few local riders about where the heckling line was, if there was a line, if it was different for different riders or different racers or different hecklers. A general consensus of sorts was reached with folks generally thinking that:

  • It was different if the rider in question was experienced; cat 1 vs cat 5, cat 3 vs junior, etc. More experienced, older racers know what’s coming.
  • Heckling from the mic has to be reserved for true artists. Or simply avoided altogether.
  • Profanity should be avoided.

Of course, the crowd gets going and folks start trying to top one another. In spots where cyclocross is growing trying to “create the scene” is as much a part of any race weekend as the racing itself. And the effort to outdo the prior week’s event may be leading to some up tick in poor-form heckling. “Overcompensation,” as one rider put it.

None of this is to say the sport needs to be sterilized. My family goes to a majority of the races where we live. My wife and I are adults and know what to expect. And neither of us look to the crowd at a race to raise our kid—that’s our job. We put the kid in the venue, so it’s our responsibility to explain, should it come up or at an appropriate time, why it’s OK for some folks and not OK for her to say certain words. And why it’s never OK to make fun of folks based on looks and to explain the unique culture and community that we choose to be a part of and it talk about that “line” when she’s old enough to get it. But we can’t do that for every new rider, every junior, every family in tow. So the crowd has to take some responsibility for doing it “right.”

Of course, venues change. Settings are different. What might be right at the local weeknight practice race might not be when at the Saturday main event. Generally though, as one rider suggested, “heckle you friends, encourage everyone else” and that seems to make some good, common sense when paired with avoiding personal attacks and profanity.

As cyclocross apostles we have a duty to create the culture properly.  I spend a fair amount of time explaining the sport to friends. Even to other cyclists and racers in other disciplines. I tell them “it’s so much more fun than every other style of bike racing. Much more welcoming and great for new racers and spectators.” I don’t want to be made out to be a liar by the insulted rider any more than he wants to be insulted. I don’t want to see cyclocross carry the badge that–wrongfully in my opinion–roadies carry. And I certainly don’t want to see cyclocross compared to the NFL.

We need to up our heckling game.

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daniel curtin

Daniel J Curtin Jr works for Bicycle Sport Shop in Austin, Texas and sits on the board of the Ghisallo Foundation, a local cycling non-profit. When not skulking about the shop or writing board meeting minutes, he captains his ’cross team. A recovering lawyer, his primary gig is stay-at-home dad to his 4-year-old daughter/director sportif.
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