We cyclists don’t usually like to compare our sport to others. Cycling is special, we cry. It’s unique, the toughest sport in the world. Well, yes. But other tough sports do exist. Just because we’re daft enough to ride our bikes over alpine passes doesn’t necessarily put our discipline beyond comparison. While researching a book about cyclocross I was looking for another sport to weave into my analysis; sometimes, throwing in a counterpoint can shed a little more light onto the original subject.
Words: Paule Maunder
Illustrations: Matthew Burton

Like most people in Great Britain, my experience of ice hockey was previously limited to watching television coverage of the Winter Olympics and trying to work out what the hell was going on. In the UK, hockey (on ice, as opposed to our more familiar field hockey) is a niche sport that, like most winter sports, has no real grip on the public consciousness. I knew that it was fast, often violent and, in a Cold War context, politically charged, but little else. As I read about the sport’s history and lost many evenings to watching videos online, I discovered a game that bore some interesting similarities to my beloved cyclocross, even if on a physical level it was very different.

Most accounts of hockey’s genesis place the first organized games in Montréal, Québec, specifically at the Victoria Skating Rink. There, in 1873, an engineer named James Creighton, working on a new railroad in Montréal and originally from Halifax, Nova Scotia, brought with him his Halifax-made skates, wooden pucks and one-piece sticks (“hurleys”) that Nova Scotians had been playing with since 1800. Their “hurly on ice” was derived from Ireland’s national game of hurling—a rough-and-tumble sport that’s been practiced for three millennia—which locals adopted to extend the game into the snowbound Canadian winter, using the frozen lakes and estuaries of eastern Canada. So Creighton wasn’t the inventor of hockey; but he was the man who brought the game to greater attention, coached it to Montrealers and established it as Canada’s national sport.

Here is our first point of comparison. There is no definitive version of how cyclocross started, but the generally accepted story is that a private in the French army, Daniel Gousseau, came up with the idea of riding his bicycle cross-country in order to keep up with the horse-bound general he was supposed to be looking after. Soon whole battalions of French troops were being trained to ride bicycles between engagements. And Gousseau must have enjoyed riding off-road for he and his friends began having informal races between villages, riding as the crow flies and dealing with whatever obstacles came their way.

The first cross-country cyclo-pédestre events in France replicated the format of horse racing’s steeplechase and cross-country running (that was already an organized sport), with competitors riding from point to point and crossing natural obstacles en route. Not surprisingly no footage exists of these early races, but we can imagine them as slogs across the French landscape, the foolhardy cyclists being watched by thickets of incredulous country folk.

Cycling’s new pastime gradually became popular for road racers seeking to keep fit and mentally fresh during the winter. It wasn’t long before ’cross racing became formalized—Gousseau wrote to the French Cycling Union in 1901 to introduce his concept of cross-country racing. He wanted official approval for a French cyclo-pédestre championship, arguing that such an event would promote a sport that supported the military in keeping fit. The officials bought his sales pitch and in 1902 the first French national ’cross championships took place, a year before the first Tour de France. The first Belgian ’cross championship was held in 1910, and Switzerland followed two years later, but the sport’s development wasn’t rapid—for instance, the Dutch didn’t have a national championship until 50 years later, in 1962.

In 1907, the French title was won by Octave Lapize, who went on to win the 1910 Tour de France. Alongside his Tour victory Lapize became famous for the accusation he shouted at Tour officials as he struggled up the Col d’Aubisque on the Tour’s first-ever stage though the Pyrénées, a monster 326 kilometers with seven mountain passes: “You are murderers, yes murderers.”

Through the early decades of the 20th century, cyclocross was not taken particularly seriously by the cycling authorities, nor by most professionals, but it remained a fun way to race your bike during the winter. Only after World War II did it start to become a professional sport in its own right, with the establishment of a world championship in 1950 and the emergence of specialists such as Frenchman André Dufraisse and Italian Renato Longo. Ice hockey developed its own identity much sooner—the first professional teams and leagues were forming by the early-1900s.

Montréal at that time was an uneasy blend of several different communities, the most prominent being the British (mainly Scottish), French and Irish. Language divided the city (English and French), though Catholicism united the French and the Irish. Hockey spread from its British pioneers to the French and Irish communities and became a game for street kids and college students alike. And while its rivalries became the locus for cultural difference—exemplified by the Shamrocks, the Montagnards and the McGill teams that each represented their respective communities and competed for both titles and players—it also became a sport to unite Canada. While Flanders is now the world center of cyclocross (or veldrijden as it’s called in Flanders), Canada is the spiritual home of ice hockey.

It may not be a perfect analogy, but in cyclocross too we can see a history shaped by two languages. The roots of ’cross are in France—French riders and events dominated the sport until the mid-1960s and therefore so did the language. But when a young Belgian named Eric De Vlaeminck stormed to his first world title, in 1966, on a tough course in the Basque Country town of Beasain, Spain, a new era was ushered in. Belgium, that is to say Flanders, became the dominant force, and Dutch gradually became the language of cyclocross.

Today, the meadows and woodlands of Flanders are the heartland of ’cross, and when we watch livestreams from Belgium, it’s Sporza’s Dutch-language commentators we hear. Yet the French influence is still present, including the races at Namur and Spa-Francorchamps in the Walloon region of southwest Belgium; and we have seen before how professional cyclocross can shift in its geographic allegiances. From the mid-1970s Switzerland, not Belgium, was the focal point of the sport. Cyclocross may seem thoroughly rooted in Flanders, but nothing lasts forever.

That its origins lie in hurling explains hockey’s robust physical nature. Like hurling, it is a contact sport, which combines moments of individual speed and poise with crunching collisions between players. It has a reputation, on the whole rightfully deserved, for being a violent sport. We’ve all seen the videos of games ending in brawls. Sometimes cultural and political differences have played a role, but more often it is simply the worst end of the macho-behavior spectrum. That hockey is often portrayed as a blue-collar pastime is a kind of shorthand for a rough, tough sport. The implication is that the working class likes to watch violent sports, including boxing and rugby, while the middle class prefers slower, more genteel pursuits such as cricket and baseball.

In the 21st century, this feels like an outdated concept. Stadium sports like football, basketball and hockey, originally the preserve of the workingman, have become affluent through television coverage and sponsorship. Ticket prices to National Hockey League games are beyond the reach of those on minimum wage, and corporate packages are growing. A recent study by Experian Marketing Services showed that hockey fans are better educated and wealthier than fans of comparable sports.

Though it too has become more professional and corporate, cyclocross has remained a blue-collar sport, at least in Belgium and the Netherlands. It is played out in the communities of its fans. Crucially, it’s difficult for an organizer to justify charging more than 12 euros (less than $15) for a fan to gain access to a large, muddy cow pasture. Race organizers depend on attracting large numbers of fans at a low price, which keeps the racing accessible. As with hockey, the heroes of cyclocross are revered, but their egos are kept in check.

The blue-collar ethic demands hard work, respect and modesty. In hockey, the individual’s status is subordinate to the team. In cyclocross the individual’s status can swell, but respect for the sport, and for the communities supporting it, is vital.

Other than Bart Wellens’ legendary karate kick in Overijse, cyclocross is not a violent sport. The racers are too skinny—or too exhausted—to have fights. If hockey players have missing teeth from getting sticks smashed into their faces, ’cross riders only have missing teeth from consuming too many sugary energy gels. Yet ’cross is brutal in its own way. It pits man against the landscape and the elements. Every rider, no matter how large their ego or salary, gets mud between his teeth. All riders drive themselves into deep pain. Some races are fast and technical, but there are plenty that are simply a slog through the mud or snow.

In his excellent book, “Winter,” Montréal native Adam Gopnik examines why he loves hockey over other sports. In part, Gopnik’s affection seems to be bound up in his Montréal childhood, but he also outlines why he considers hockey to be a sport that is much more beautiful than the commonly portrayed punch-up, because, he writes, hockey combines brutality with beauty and in the juxtaposition of the two lies its appeal. Played well, it is a game so fast-moving that the naked eye struggles to keep up. The puck flies across the ice between teammates. It rewards spatial intelligence—the ability to make quick decisions in a changing situation. The best players can anticipate and direct the flow of the game, and they can see the shape of the whole situation and instinctively know how and when to move, pass or shoot.

The greatest hockey player in history is considered to be Wayne Gretzky. Neither particularly fast nor strong, Gretzky’s talent lay in his ability to read a game. Before Gretzky, hockey tactics centered on the man with the puck. To score, you had to get the puck and find a way through the other team’s defense. Gretzky’s strategy was to wait and watch the game, then move into open space. He was able to predict where the puck would go and move there, so the opposing team ended up chasing both him and the puck around the ice. His trademark tactic was to stand motionless behind the opposing team’s goal, waiting for the right moment to attack the ice.

For Gretzky read Eric De Vlaeminck or Sven Nys, who were each dominant in their respective eras. The two Belgian ’cross racers were supreme athletes, yes, and dedicated professionals, yes, but their achievements were not founded on watts alone. De Vlaeminck was that rare performer whose otherworldly bike-handling skills enabled him to win races even when he wasn’t in top shape. He was stylish on the bike and his running strength was another key to success at a time when ’cross courses featured many more run-ups and hurdles than they do today.

As for Nys, he was always aware of the whole situation: his opponents, the course’s obstacles and opportunities, the weather, his equipment. He understood every nuance of a race, and because his physical condition was usually above his opponents, he was able to think and plan. Early in a race he would take slower lines, while noting the faster lines and calculating when to use them. The “Sven line” has become a trademark in modern ’cross, symbolic of taking an alternative path that was unexpected and usually superior.

Psychologically, like De Vlaeminck before him, Nys seemed to be in a different place from his rivals. Only they knew what this state of mind felt like. We can conjecture that it was a kind-of sporting Zen, an inner calm, but that could be nonsense. They might have been stressed out for their whole careers. But it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that, like Gretzky, their performances elevated a sometimes-brutal sport to a place of beauty.

Something that takes your breath away And that’s good enough for me.

Paul Maunder on Twitter: @PMaunderpaul

From issue 59. Buy it here.