by Ryan Kelly

From a cyclocross fanatic’s standpoint, I can see that watching the Tour might be a bit like channel surfing from cage fighting to watching people in a “who can touch a car the longest” contest. You go from watching athletes talented in many aspects pounding on one another to watching guys play a cat-and-mouse game where it’s (frequently) only exciting for the last ten minutes – even then, you know Cavendish is going to win.

Now, I’m mostly a road rider who enjoys getting lapped by actual, talented cross racers every weekend in New England. So I view the ‘cross world from a few steps (or minutes, or in most cases laps) back, but know about the road from being in the center of it, and sometimes off the front.

With that in mind, I noticed a few interesting parallels between racing skinny-tire bikes on dirt and racing bikes on mountain passes.

Screaming people

Take the Gloucester beer tent run-up and stretch it up an entire mountain – and have people screaming in several different languages.

For what is sometimes considered a gentleman’s sport, there sure are a lot of loud people screaming directly in the face of professionals. I know that I’ve gotten some dirty looks (and the occasional middle finger) from people due to what could be called enthusiastic cheering, but what goes on during the ascent of an alpe would give a Cross Crusade race a run for its money. Sure, the lead up to this point of the race is dozens of miles of quiet, calmer riding. But give a cycling fan an opportunity to get the most bang for their cheering buck, and they are right there – whether they’re standing in the snow in some park or standing on the side of the road along a windswept mountain. But if you can’t afford the trip across the pond, you could just stand at G-star’s run-up all day, and you’d see more racers come by over a longer stretch of time, and probably just as many drunk folks.

Totally insane metaphors and similes coming from announcers

During one of the recent mountain stages, Phil Ligget said that the switchback roads – and the peloton descending it looked like “A maggot draped down the mountain.” I stopped doing whatever it was I was doing at the moment (I don’t remember exactly, as my mind was totally blown by the words I thought I just heard come out of the TV) and stared at my TV, wondering if what I heard was actually broadcast out to millions of viewers.

My suspicions were confirmed when Paul Sherwin essentially called his booth-mate out for being insane. But that’s not any different from our favorite ‘cross announcers, is it? After racing a few seasons in New England, I’m convinced that announcer extraordinaire Richard Fries fills his little black book of insane imagery by:

1. Having kidnapped someone from an insane asylum, and only feeding his prisoner after they spew out five race-worth metaphors.

2. He has a massive deck of flash cards with random words on them. He draws a few of them and creates something out of that.

3. He, Phil Ligget, Dave Towle and other announcers go to a yearly top secret announcer retreat where they use mind-altering substances, elevating them to a higher plane where they can reach out into the cosmos and pull out something along the lines of “Tim Johnson is picking through that field like my aunt at the sale rack at Macy’s!!!”

Or they are just both very intelligent people with a fantastic command of the English language?

People who should be able to, but cannot, handle their bike properly

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We’ve all been behind the bonehead who manages to put it down on the first corner, rocketing you to the back of a surging, sprinting 100-person field at a ‘cross race. Or another bonehead who manages to crash on the simplest corner of the last lap, keeping you from bridging up to that main group (actually, that person crashing is usually me…sorry everyone).

This year, most of the BBox Telecom team went into the ditch during the TTT (See video above. Nothing like seeing $30,000 in bikes fly off the road!). At least Yukiya Arashiro manages to keep upright in the best Tour de France cyclocross since Lance’s ’03 crossing. But it wasn’t just BBox, as Rabobank team leader Denis Menchov crashed early on in the TTT as well, and went down twice in the rain in stage 17.

These people are professional bike racers. One would think that they’d be able to handle a bike, just as one would also expect someone in a ‘cross race to properly navigate a corner.

Lots and lots and lots of bike stuff

The amount of crap that a ProTour team brings to a race can easily supply the entire racing population of New Hampshire. Sure, they’re racing for a month and they have millions of dollars to spend…but it still reminds me of how broke and inadequate my cycling options are. I mean, I only have two pairs of road wheels!

On the ‘cross side of things, you get this as well – but at all levels. You’re just as likely to see a masters racer with four pairs of Zipp pit wheels, a pit bike and a trailer as you are to see Team Garmin with two RVs and six team cars.

Cheering for the dropped guy

My favorite thing about ‘cross is the ferocity with which people will cheer on someone who is clearly out of contention. I got dropped pretty much from the gun at Gloucester last year…and I still managed to make about ten bucks in dollar grabs on the run-up, as well as have a PBR opened in my face. Granted, this is not really the kind of support that most racers appreciate, but it is good to know that someone is enjoying my suffering.

Sure, just like the Tour de France has sandbaggers, so does cyclocross. But I know so many people whose season-long goal is to finish on the lead lap of whatever field they’re in. And they will ride until they breathe blood in order for this to happen – and people notice. The cheering for that guy digging his nails into the back of the race can be as loud as the guy who is 15 seconds away from lapping him.

In no other sport is the position of dead last so coveted. This year I became much more aware of the lantern rouge than I have ever before – and I became enamored with the struggle of Kenny van Hummel (yes, I know he abandoned, but Yauheni Hutarovich does not roll off the tongue as nicely). His Wikipedia page notes, “…the French newspaper L’Equipe named Van Hummel the worst climber ever in the Tour de France. The newspaper said that it never happened before that the same cyclist finished last in every mountain stage.”

On the day he finally abandoned the stage (due to a crash, not a time cut, because this guy was clearly not going down without a fight) he got dropped four kilometers into a 169.5-kilometer stage. And he was still racing! And people were still cheering for him!

This was the first Tour for the 26 year-old, and for any cyclist it is a dream to finish the Tour. So he wasn’t racing for his sponsors, or to preserve his position, or anything other than to do what is many other riders’ dream.

Just like when someone (me) who is 15 seconds away from getting lapped keeps going because staying away shows that they can do it.

As cross racers, we know what it is to be dropped and keep going – so we know what Kenny was going through, and why he had to keep going. Because at one point on the bike, we’ve been Kenny van Hummel.

The cure for post-Tour blues

And so even if you’re a roadie at heart and are missing the madness of The Tour already, it’s easy to get your fix even at a ‘cross race. So racing or not, make that trip to Gstar, CrossVegas, Star Crossed, Ohio’s three-day weekend, or your local race and relive the fun. Just don’t be this guy:

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