Mud, Sweat, and Beer
by Chaz Boutsikaris
Cyclocross season has arrived, and we’re here to give you the dirt on the muddiest sport since pig wrestling, along with a few words from Church of the Big Ring founder/racer/voice, Art “Reverend” O’Connor, and cyclocross rock star Ali Goulet.
Sections in this article:
’Cross racing has come a long way since its late-19th-century beginnings—cyclocross as we know it today originated in France, where a French soldier by the name of Daniel Gousseau decided the best way to maintain his fitness during the winter months was to ride his bike over rough terrain—and often in less-than-favorable weather. A French general took notice of Gousseau’s “go anywhere” approach to cycling, and shortly thereafter, the French Army began training soldiers on bicycles rather than horseback—after all, bicycles require much less maintenance than a horse.
Impromptu cyclocross races began popping up across Western Europe, attracting many to line the courses in the bitter cold to watch grown men suffer. Early cold and muddy races were often referred to as “steeple chases,” due to the fact that each successive landmark was often the church steeple visible off in the distance. Races often crossed fields, muddy cobbled roads, and fences or other barriers that forced riders to dismount and portage their bikes on their shoulders over the terrain.
Cyclocross in its original inception was less of a discipline and more of a necessity—remember, in the early days mountain bikes weren’t even a dream yet—and lumbering a state-of-the-art 1920s road machine over a farmer’s fence during Europe’s half-frozen mud season was no easy task. This, however, was precisely the point. Cyclists needed a discipline that would help maintain their fitness in the winter months and hone-in their bike-handling skills—thus, cyclocross was born.
Usually held on a circuit-style course, cyclocross is similar to a criterium race in structure, in that both types of races may last anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. The nature of the circuit-style venue makes ’cross a super-fun spectator sport—so bring your mom along; she’ll love it. ’Cross season runs September through December—ideal for offseason motivation.
According to the UCI rulebook (our fearless leaders in the cycling world), the course should include a maximum of six obstacles not exceeding 40 centimeters tall—can you bunny-hop 40 centimeters? This may include anything from a flight of stairs to straw bales or specially constructed wooden obstacles. Riders are not required to dismount if they don’t need to, but unless you can bunny-hop 40 centimeters, practice shouldering your ride before you get on a course. Sand pits may also be included in a ’cross race—apparently mud, snow, and barriers don’t provide enough suffering for racers.
Cyclocross-specific bikes have come a long way in the past decade—making it easier to hammer through mud and corners and to toss over barriers. Recently the UCI decided to allow disc brakes in sanctioned races, a big leap from cantilevers. You can bet technology will gravitate toward the new ruling, resulting in some impressive new disc brake technology.
If you want to race your mountain bike (as opposed to a ’cross bike) at your local cyclocross series, be sure to check with race organizers first to make sure it complies with rules and regulations, otherwise you may end up spectating.
Quite possibly the most popular group of ’cross racers you’ve never heard of, The Church of the Big Ring riders have been showing up for Dirt Church for three years now. Realcyclist.com joined up with the Church of the Big Ring to form a local grassroots cycling team made up of the hardest working riders in cyclocross, not to mention the best-looking.
However, we can’t properly discuss dirt church without speaking to Church of the Big Ring founder and local legend, Art O’Connor, a.k.a. “The Reverend.” With more than 20 years of racing under his belt and a hand-picked crop of riders behind him, the Reverend has not only built a team and a website, but a philosophy. No, kiddies, there is no Kool-Aid to drink here, just the Reverend’s gospel on bikes, racing, and leaving it all out on the racecourse—along with a bit of Slayer for motivation.
The following are a few questions that the Reverend was kind enough to answer for us; to find out more on the Church of the Big Ring, check out its website.
Art O’Connor, “The Reverend”
R.C.: Do you see the domestic ’cross scene infecting the masses like the Black Plague or simply becoming more popular within the core cycling community?
Reverend: Black Plague might be a little harsh; I would say it is more like an STD. Only those who are willing to get dirty get it, and you have to be a bit reckless.
R.C.: Does mainstream exposure dilute the soul of cyclocross?
Reverend: I think the growth of 'cross can only lead to good things. More races, more promoters, more manufacturers will make everyone step up their game. My first cross bike in '96 weighed 21 pounds, and it was the hottest bike on the market; my new Santa Cruz is 17 pounds. That would never have happened if cross stayed small.
R.C.: Any pre-race rituals? Any debilitating superstitions? What’s on your iPod right now?
Reverend: I think the most important thing anyone can do pre-race is get to the course early. Ride it, watch the other races, and see where the good lines are. About the closest thing I have to a ritual is taking the time to apply embrocation, really taking the time to work it in and get the shine right.
I don't like to shave the day before or day of a race. Also, I think it is bad luck to listen to Dave Matthews Band, ever.
Pre-race it is all metal and punk. Slayer, Lamb of God, Fugazi, etc. Post-race, I have been getting into dub-style reggae, Horace Andy, King Tubby, Thievery Corp.
R.C.: In as few words as possible, can you explain the message or philosophy of the Church of the Big Ring?
Reverend: Our philosophy is simple. Leave it all out on the course. We all have our own Big Ring, and if your effort is honest, and you truly give everything you have, then you cannot lose. The final placing is only a number.
R.C.: The Beatles claimed they were more popular than Jesus. Is this the next step for The Church of the Big Ring–Realcyclist?
Reverend: We want to be more popular than Dave Matthews.
R.C.: Can you tell us one thing nobody knows about The Rev and The Church of the Big Ring?
Reverend: I had a fixie for a while and kind of liked it. I make fun of the fixie kids, but riding a bike, any bike, is cool, even if it's in skinny jeans.
Here at Realcyclist our love for cyclocross, Stoli martinis, and expense reports gave us the perfect excuse to track down former pro-snowboarder-turned-cyclocross rock star, Big Ring rider Ali Goulet at Interbike in Las Vegas to ask him some questions regarding the Big Ring, ’Cross Vegas, and training. When Ali isn’t doing photo shoots for local breweries or interviewing with Velonews, you can find him dominating the local road race scene in preparation for cyclocross season. Just a few of Ali’s palmaries include:
3rd USA Cycling National Cyclocross—Masters 35-39. (12-09)
1st USGP Cyclocross Planet Bike Cup—Masters 35-39. (09-09)
2nd USA Cycling National Cyclocross—Masters 30-34. (12-08)
R.C.: You were spotted at ’Cross Vegas last night; what did you think?
Ali Goulet: It’s not really a traditional cross race there, but it’s strictly grass, barely any cement, not very technical from a riding aspect as far as like cornering or terrain. What you saw there is more group aspect, and more ability for tactics, as opposed to, like, a GP where the course is different. You probably wouldn’t see 10 or 15 guys off the front like that in a more traditional ’cross race.
R.C.: Do you think the UCI’s recent decision to allow disc brakes in UCI-sanctioned races is going to open the flood gates to disc brake and cyclocross bike integration?
Ali Goulet: I think people are going to embrace it pretty quickly. When disc brakes came out, they allowed them temporarily, maybe four or five years ago. And then two weeks before the UCI races started, they were like, “No, it’s not going to happen.” But Cannondale and Rocky Mountain and a couple other companies had embraced it pretty quickly. I think what we’re going to see with the recent rule change is that Shimano, Formula, you know, all these different companies are going to develop a hydraulic actuation-type road lever really quickly.
R.C.: Do you feel you need disc brakes on a ’cross bike?
Ali Goulet: I personally don’t think they [disc brakes] are necessary; my feeling is you don’t want to brake too hard. Because the surface is always so loose, you have to be gentle with the brakes. Disc brakes may give you more power and more braking ability in all conditions—but I don’t know that you really need it. I think what’s going to happen is that it’s going to come around, it’s going to get super high-tech and light, and everything is going to be on a smaller scale—because you don’t need all the power of a big mountain bike-style brake. I think it’s going to be streamlined and probably adopted by almost everybody. And personally, I like the way canti’s look, and I’m not excited about a disc brake—yet. But I’m sure something cool will come along.
R.C.: You’ve been racing on the Church of the Big Ring–Realcyclist.com squad for a couple years now and have known the Reverend for years; tell me your thoughts on Rev, the team, and maybe some philosophy?
Ali Goulet: Art “Reverend” is a major legend and has been in the ’cross game forever. Big Ring—I don’t know exactly when he conceptualized it, but I think it’s just really a cool thing. It’s more of a philosophy, if you’ve been to the blog and checked it out, it’s very much a philosophy of what is and what isn’t Big Ring. You know, in a road race, sucking wheel and then out-sprinting someone through the finish is not necessarily Big Ring. Not putting in your work in the group, not pulling through, but then going off the front later—you know, not necessarily Big Ring. It’s like being hard—but being respectful.
R.C.: Tell us a bit about your training?
Ali Goulet: ’Cross works well for my schedule because it’s great for the guy who’s got various commitments and time constraints because, you know, it’s a short enough race that you can work off of minimal fitness. Of course you have to ramp up for that high-end fitness, but ultimately for me, ’cross provides minimal time commitments with regards to training. I don’t think I trained for more than, on average, eight hours a week. That may sound like a lot for some people, but to race at a pro level, or to race at a high-end masters level, eight hours a week is nothing.
R.C.: You may be an exception to the rule.
Ali Goulet: Possibly, but also for me, the eight hours a week is very focused. Like, there’s no two-hour leisure ride there—it’s warmup, intervals, and cool-down. Then, when I’m not training, I’m not riding.
R.C.: Do spectators and cowbells motivate you during a big race?
Ali Goulet: Yeah, that’s one of the best things about those bigger races like your Nationals or any Elite level race that I’ve always loved. There are people at every corner of the course, and they’re cheering regardless of who you are, even if you’re in the back. You just want to keep drilling it because there is always someone there. For me, I am not ever going to soft-pedal around the course; I’m gonna keep pushing it—those people there, I mean you just want to stay on the throttle. People cheering, it is a motivator.
R.C.: Any final words on ’cross?
Ali Goulet: Well, the cool thing about ’cross is that people are going to welcome you in—you can start with a mountain bike, then work your way up from there. It’s a great sport.
Depending on where you live in the United States, cyclocross is either extremely popular and been around for some time, or it’s part of a niche group still flying under the radar. Either way, If you’ve yet to cover you’re new kit in mud or try your hand at pedaling through a sand pit until you puke, we recommend giving ’cross a try—or at the very least, grab your cowbells and thermos of Irish coffee, and head out to your local ’cross race; you’ll be glad you did, even after you lose your voice—and so will those who suffer for your enjoyment.
A huge thanks goes out to the Reverend and Ali Goulet for taking the time to chat with Realcyclist.com. Show your support for The Church of the Big Ring by reading the gospel at thechurchofthebigring.com. And get out there, and race.