By Sal Ruibal
Photos by Brian Vernor
I started racing cyclocross back in 2002 in the Virginia series. It was a fun circuit of local races that were more often than not run in some funky venues, such as a storage lot for huge mounds of steaming mulch or an island in the James River inhabited by packs of stray dogs.
For a $20 bill I could get a Masters 45+ bib number (sometimes a piece of paper with a number scrawled in Magic Marker) and a place in the third row next to the girls 12-14 racers.
I would drive a couple of hours to be humiliated, but only by my own performance. Ten years later the sport is booming but it seems that, for many fans, tossing insults and worse at the riders is the point of the race.
A lot of this is the result of some misplaced perceptions of what “real” cyclocross is all about. For me, real ‘cross is what they do in Belgium and The Netherlands: Professionals who train hard, live a spartan life, enter a lot of races and, like Amy Dombroski, sometimes die on the cobbles of Belgium because a random truck driver was distracted.
Cyclocross is second only to football (soccer) in Belgium and reflects the culture perfectly. The sport evolved around the start of the 20th century when most of the roads in Belgium were dirt tracks that got muddy from the cold North Sea rain and nasty from the farm animals who crapped themselves in their cages on the way to the abattoir.
In the same way that urban American kids played basketball because schoolyards were their escape from a dead-end life, Belgian kids raced their heavy bikes on those greasy roads, “crossing” over fences and ditches as a short-cut to the cold barns and dim factories where they could find work.
Belgium is no longer an agricultural nation. It is an international trading center and home to many major corporations. But at Belgian cyclocross races, you’ll still see bent men in waxed barn coats with a soft patina from years of tending to livestock. And you’ll also see Brussels businessmen wearing the same outfits, showing solidarity with their nation’s agricultural past.
I got a UCI international racing license and did a few races, but I felt like the city dude at a rodeo. I don’t think you can really ride ‘cross without learning how to suffer like the Belgian people did after two world wars.
The folks who think it’s “true cross” to wear tutus and costumes and spew inanities aren’t evil or even stupid, they’re just going with the cultural flow that seems cool and funny.
I see Belgium, and cyclocross, in a more personal way. In June 1944, my uncle Sal, with whom I share a first name, was killed by German soldiers in Belgium. Unfortunately, the Germans had not received the news that their nation had already surrendered to the allies.
In a way, a part of my identity is buried in Belgian mud. He gave his life to liberate that nation. There are things to believe in. There is a right and wrong. Not everything is ironic.
Cyclocross is pure, sweet hell. May it always be so.