At cyclo-cross purposes
While cyclo-cross gets increasingly popular each year, seasoned racers fear events are losing a lot of their character as more and more restrictions are being placed on course design.
There are exceptions, such as the Three Peaks of course, but in the main, some of cyclo-cross's best features have been faded out.
Take stream crossings. Once a frequent highlight in cyclo-cross events, now you'd be hard pressed to find one anywhere. According to British Cycling's technical regulations: "Courses shall not be directed through water where an alternative route can be found."
Back in the good old days, stream crossings were a regular feature of cyclo-cross.
As for singletrack, this "should be avoided", reads the event promotion guidelines in BC's cyclo-cross handbook. "It is not a feature of modern cyclo-cross."
Instead, regulations insist courses should be "sufficiently wide to allow overtaking at all points".
In top events, courses have to be at least three metres wide the entire way around. Then there are steps, obstacles and sandpits to consider. All are governed by measurement and frequency restrictions that conspire to make at least 90 per cent of a cross course rideable.
"I think some of the old-school stuff was excellent," remembers former national champion Nick Craig. "It was hard and made you very fit. Old school British races used to be quite extreme really. But we've sanitised it now in line with Europe. I think the theory is to produce better riders. But I think we are missing a trick. I think we need to toughen them up a bit."
Although Craig admits he doesn't miss the stream crossings ("when it's December and it's minus seven, you can do without them"), he really laments the loss of steep running sections.
"Running up a steep run-up and jumping on your bike used to be part of cyclo cross," he says. "They're dirty, they're hard, they're horrible and your legs hurt when you jump on because you're in oxygen debt. But that's the physical side of cyclo-cross that we now miss out on."
Illustrating the loss, Craig recalls a race he recently rode at Leverhulme Park in Bolton.
"I rode my first ever cross race there when I was nine. There used to be a run-up, but now everything's rideable. That's a shame."
Only at the Three Peaks can Nick Craig find a decent run-up nowadays.
Craig is not alone in ruing the dumbing down of cyclo-cross. Numerous other riders we've spoken to are also in agreement. National Trophy leader Paul Oldham is one. CW's own South of England Champion, Stu Bowers, is another.
"It's a very strong sentiment but cyclo-cross is having the soul sucked out of it," says Bowers. "Natural dismounts, for example, used to be very much a part of cross back in the day. It didn't have to be a regulation 40cm plank back then. If there was a dead body on the course, that would have been the dismount! Now things like fallen trees are vetoed. Everything has to be regimented."
Although some of the new rules have been introduced following increased concern over health and safety litigation, many other regulations that cover cyclo-cross races have trickled down to the domestic level from international race rules devised by the UCI.
Forever keen to homogenise cycling, its changes have made cyclo-cross more like a winter form of road racing.
Now, where is the fun in that?
It can easily be argued that less technical courses have made cyclo-cross events more welcoming to beginners and youth riders. And with numbers increasingly going up at local league events across the country, it's hard to claim more sanitised courses are proving a complete turn-off.
Craig points out: "you just can't put 170 riders on a technical old school course. That's the sort of turn-out they've been getting in some of the senior events at the Notts and Derby league. Even with the newer style courses, if numbers go up much more than that, they're going to have to consider running two races."
Of course, a more accessible sport -that encourages more participants- is no bad thing. But stringent course specification means there's not even the option of putting on a more challenging, old-school-style event.
Minimum width restrictions and an almost blanket ban on technical sections have resulted in the loss of some of our favourite courses.
Listed below are just a few of them.
Took place on an army trench-warfare training ground in Surrey. A romp around the sandy heathland was interspersed with scrambles through the dugouts.
A tough, woodland-based number that went up and down a slippery technical hillside near Ringwood.
Southampton Sports Centre (Southampton International)
A phenomenal course that incorporated a steep descent, a river crossing and a natural dismount over a thigh-high fallen oak tree.
Shirley Hills (London Open Championships)
A proper hardcore cross course just down the road from CW Towers. A relentless roller-coaster route through woodland, with steps and tree roots aplenty.
Sutton Coldfield (National Championships 1999)
Featured a very steep section in and out of a quarry, and lots of tight turns in the woods. The 2010 Nationals took place in the same park but had to steer well clear of these parts.