Friday, October 29, 2010


Fondue and Alpenhorns

It was the cowbells that got me thinking. The incessant clanging I've experienced over the last several 'cross races first had me considering how you shouldn't give your three-year-old a cowbell if you want to keep your friends or your sanity. But once I recovered from that fundamental error, I started thinking about how cowbells are a sort of a universally accepted cultural anomaly in American ‘cross.

Ask most American cyclocross aficionados what their standard reference culture for the sport is, and you’ll likely get a single answer: Belgian. And these days, that makes sense. For over a decade now, a herd of Belgians led by riders like Mario De Clercq, Sven Nys, Bart Wellens, and Erwin Vervecken have dragged the ‘cross peloton around the farm tracks of Europe by their collective knickers. From the Gazet van Antwerpen series, to the SuperPrestige, to the World Cup, to the World Championships, riders from one half of one small nation have dominated the discipline. There have been formidable challengers at the top end, of course, names like Pontoni, Groenendaal, Boom, and Stybar, but no other nation has come close to Belgium’s recent combination of strength and depth. Belgians have always been strong at ‘cross, but the last 15 years? Out of control.

And so, as cyclocross has boomed in the United States over the same period, Belgium has become the discipline’s defacto culture of record in these parts. Hit a cyclocross race on the right weekend, and you’ll see Flemish flags flying in Virginia, Leffe poured in Kansas, Sporza quoted in Oregon, and god-awful knit caps worn by fat, cigar-smoking old men in Massachusetts. That last one doesn’t really have anything to do with cyclocross, it’s just a problem I feel should be addressed. Anyway, many of the ‘cross faithful habitually try to recreate the Belgian experience, no matter how far removed from Ruddervoorde or Zogge they may be, from things as minor as dropping some faux-Flemish into pre-race chatter to more involved projects like constructing janky, cockeyed flyovers. Really, I think it’s only our more stringent open container and public urination laws that hold us back from complete authenticity.

But as the faithful, ubiquitous cowbell reminds us, or should remind us, the Belgian dominance of cyclocross wasn’t always so complete. It’s just that the era of greater parity was, perhaps, a bit before most of our times. Cowbell-as-cheering-device is, after all, a Swiss cultural phenomenon, one imported to cyclocross from Swiss ski racing culture back when its red-and-white clad riders were a dominant force on the international cyclocross scene.

After finishing second in the 1975 cyclocross world championship to Belgian classics legend Roger DeVlaeminck, Albert Zweifel won four consecutive world elite titles for Switzerland from 1976 to 1979, putting an emphatic dent in eight consecutive years of Belgian domination. The lower steps on those podiums added an exclamation point to Zweifel’s accomplishment. For his first three titles, Zweifel bested fellow Swiss Peter Frischknecht, who hailed from Uster, a town just about 10 kilometers from the longtime SuperPrestige and World Cup stop at Wetzikon. In 1976, Switzerland swept the podium, with André Wilhelm following Zweifel and Frischknecht. For his fourth title in 1979, Zweifel beat out first-year Swiss pro Gilles Blaser.

Though Zweifel’s Worlds wins and accompanying medal rides by Frischknecht, Blaser, and Wilhelm were undoubtedly the high-water mark of Swiss cyclocross, they were by no means the end of the country’s presence at the top level. Zweifel would net two Worlds silver medals behind Belgian star Roland Liboton in 1982 and 1983 before taking the title for a fifth time in 1986. And as with his first four titles, the man standing next to him on the ’86 podium was Swiss. This time, it was Pascal Richard, who would step up to take the rainbow jersey himself in 1988. When Richard pulled on his rainbow bands, he had to look all the way to the third step on the podium to find a countryman, Beat Breu. Dieter Runkel would net Switzerland’s final world title in 1995, with countryman Beat Wabel taking the bronze. Peter Frischknecht’s son, mountain bike superstar Thomas Frischknecht, returned to his cyclocross roots in 1997 to take the country’s last elite world championship medal, a silver.

Runkel, Frischknecht, and Wabel would carry the torch for Swiss ‘cross through the early years of the UCI World Cup, which began in the 1993-1994 season. After a slow start in the series’ first two seasons, during which Breu’s third place at the Eschenbach, Switzerland round was the nation’s only podium appearance, the Swiss got their legs under them again in 1995-1996, with Runkel and Wabel scoring third-place finishes at the Wangen, Germany and Variano di Basiliano, Italy rounds respectively. Runkel took the win in the fourth round in Prague en route to his Worlds win the following February. With the jersey on his shoulders, Runkel won the second round of the 1997-1998 series, again in the Czech Republic. The following season, Frischknecht would register the Swiss dynasty’s final World Cup win, scoring an upset win at the fifth round in Zeddam, Netherlands, ahead of Belgians Mario De Clercq and Marc Janssens. Wabel was fourth.

Since Frischknecht’s win on January 3, 1999, no Swiss man has climbed on any step of a World Cup elite podium, and by the end of that season, the Belgians and Dutch had nearly taken over. At the Wortegem-Petegem round of the 2001 season, all of the top 10 elite finishers were Belgian. The sport is not all World Championships and World Cups, of course, but the results of series like the SuperPrestige show much the same trend.

Despite the diminishing returns in a sport that also used to boast more French, Italian, and German contenders, Switzerland retained its depth and interest in the sport, continuing to fill out its start allotments with hopefuls and usually hosting a World Cup round. In the years following Frischknecht’s win, Switzerland was still capable of placing four riders in the top 20 of any given event, and likely at least one in the first ten. But the very tip of the spear was gone. For a decade now, the nation’s standard bearer has been the very capable Christian Heule, a remarkably consistent finisher in the top-10 range, and capable of a top-5 on his best days. He was joined for several years by Simon Zahner, an early ‘cross talent currently with the BMC road team. Zahner seemed to be on the way up before presumably choosing to concentrate on the road. In the elite ranks, twenty-five-year-old mountain biker Marcel Wildhaber (Scott-Swisspower MTB) looks to be the brightest hope for the future, putting in his time in the 20s and 30s over the last few seasons before having what could prove a breakthrough ride at this month’s Pilzen, Czech round, where he finished 12th.

So how did one of the cyclocross’s biggest legacy nations drop from prominence, leaving only the incessant dinging of cowbells behind? I won’t pretend to know. Maybe, for anyone but the Belgians, it simply makes more sense to make your money on a mountain bike or on the road, not in a niche halfway between. Maybe the lack of top Swiss road teams to pay the summer bills undercut the support system. Maybe the sanitization of international cyclocross courses since the late 1980s has reduced the value of the Swiss technical precision in the slop. Maybe something changed in the 1990s in ‘cross, too, but we’re not going to go into that now. Maybe I’ll look into it further someday.

But maybe the trend also isn’t forever. Maybe the World Cup circuit’s recent return to Aigle after the three year absence of a Swiss round will spark some interest again, boost the participant numbers and level of domestic competition enough for a few super-talents to emerge. Maybe Andy Rihs, head of the Phonak and BMC empires and Swiss cycling's patron saint, can somehow help Switzerland regain its rightful place in its onetime specialty. Or maybe they just need a little more cowbell.


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Thursday, October 14, 2010


Paved Perceptions

In A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his génération perdue days in inter-war Paris, Ernest Hemingway suggests to a talentless, advice-seeking writer that he become a literary critic instead of foisting his own questionable prose on an innocent public. While I hope criticism never becomes my primary written product (at least not for that reason), I thought a quick review of Paved, the newest U.S. road cycling magazine, might be a good way to shake off the cobwebs that have gathered here at the Service Course.

Created by the editors and publisher of the venerable Bike magazine, Paved was something to look forward to from the outset. High production values, pursuit of offbeat topics, and good, thoughtful writing had always been hallmarks of the organization’s fat-tired publication, and there was every reason to believe those qualities would carry over to its skinny-tire venture. That initial anticipation was bolstered when ex-pro-turned-Bike-editor Joe Parkin revealed on his (defunct?) blog that he was venturing back to his old Flemish stomping grounds to gather material for the debut issue.

So how did the reality line up with the early, lofty expectations? I’d say pretty well for a first effort. As expected, the photography was terrific, and it’s printed on paper that feels substantial in your hand – a nice, affordable compromise between mainstream magazines and more boutique offerings like Embrocation and Rouleur. The writing is up to snuff, and, in an unfortunately significant step for a cycling publication, it’s been thoroughly copyedited. (By contrast, the first issue of the now-capable Road was a festival of misspellings, run-ons, and incomplete sentences, most notably in then-editor Esteban Cortina’s opening column.)

In terms of content selection, Paved was a bit of a mixed bag. Parkin’s photo-saturated return to Belgium sets the tone for the magazine, with photographer Stephan Vanfleteren’s subsequent black-and-white photo spreads continuing the bleak-skies-and-hardmen theme. For riders wanting to mimic the high-kilometer or high-mountain challenges their heroes face, cycling journalism veterans Patrick Brady and Bruce Hildenbrand contribute solid pieces on gran fondos and the Dolomites, respectively. Short photoessays on the bootleg Red Hook criterium and other topics bring in some of Bike’s sense of both the grassroots and universal aspects of the sport.

Given the tone of those pieces and the target demographic they hint at, Vernon Felton’s article on doping in the pro peloton seemed a bit off the mark. I’d expect that most of those picking up an issue of Paved would be familiar with the reality of doping in cycling, and that they wouldn’t require an explanation of what EPO is and what it does. While the piece is well-written, it is a survey course where I would have expected at least a 200-level class or an insider view.

Similarly, I have to admit I was a little surprised and put off by the Lance Armstrong cover. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an understandable choice, probably even the right one for a new publication. No matter what the current tide of public opinion may be, Armstrong pulls the layman eyes on the newsstand. And it’s a great photo – one that captures the grit-and-pavé feel I think Paved was aiming for while still drawing on Armstrong’s transcendent marketability. But, as a new publication, I can’t help but feel that Paved squandered a rare opportunity to not be that magazine. If I’m reading it right, Paved’s intended audience isn’t one that’s desperately searching for one more picture of Armstrong.

The feeling the cover gave me was reinforced when I read Gary Boulanger’s American pioneers piece inside. Of the five profiles – Ben Serotta, Steve Hed, Gary Erickson, Chris Carmichael, and Jim Ochowitz – three stray into discussions of Armstrong. It’s not that I’m inherently against any Armstrong content. I’m not. Regardless of how you feel about the guy, he’s a central figure in American cycling, and pointedly ignoring him is as obviously skewed as featuring him on every other page. That said, if you’re trying to create something new, exploring some less travelled stories and figures might be preferable to highlighting the same social circle that’s dominated the literature for 15 years. Anyone have a number for Mike Neel or Jock Boyer?

(Others will undoubtedly point out that, with the debatable exception of Ochowitz, all of the “pioneers” interviewees are trying to sell you something, be it frames, wheels, food, or training plans. And then they’ll speculate on how that choice of subject matter jives with the nascent magazine’s advertising sales. To that, I’d say: People, it’s cycling. Everyone’s trying to sell you something. Cut out anyone with a brand to push, and you’d be hard pressed to find an interview.)

Lastly, following an entire issue of racing, hardman, and big-ride content, the unintroduced {showcase: bikes} section on “street bikes” like the Electra Ticino is a non sequitur. Paved ("celebrating the raw passion of riding on the road") has positioned itself to feature those sorts of bikes and the urban riding they’re intended for, but the piece would have been better placed with a more extensive package of city riding content. If the bike showcase is a regular section, this particular issue cried out for road machines from brands like Merckx, Ridley, Colnago, and DeRosa.

All of that might seem like quite a bit of criticism, but in the context of a first outing, they’re pretty minor quibbles. And make no mistake, I’ll be grabbing issue #2 when it hits the shelf. The contributing writers are top notch, the photography is excellent, and the editorial vision will solidify as time goes on. That’s a strong foundation, and I think it’s still reasonable to expect great things.

NOTE: These are boom times for the cycling magazine aficionado. The flock of cycling magazines at my local Barnes & Noble is now nearly as large as the neighboring gaggle of women’s beauty pubs and is getting almost as pretty as the surfing journals. Paved is already on shelves there, and another publication, Peloton, is set to debut on November 16. I’ll do a writeup on that one too when it’s available. Or, if they’d like, they could, you know, just send me one…

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