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The origins of cyclocross lie not in Belgium but in France. To be precise, a forest in a western suburb of Paris. There, in 1924, the first major cyclocross event took place, Le Critérium International de Cross-Country Cyclo-Pedéstre. This snappily named race soon became an unofficial world championship. Huge crowds flocked to the course, congregating at the renowned ‘drop of death’, a vertiginous descent that only the most skilled could ride. One of the dominant riders of the time was Robert Oubron, winner four times between 1937 and 1942. Oubron, from Versailles, developed a new technique for running with the bike, involving taking very small quick steps, and holding the handlebars close to his chest. His technique became the foundation of running in modern cyclocross.
With the international growth of the sport in the 1940s, the UCI recognized cyclocross as a discipline in its own right. The first official world cyclocross championships took place in 1950, in the Bois de Vincennes, an expansive public park on the eastern fringe of Paris. Yet this milestone in the development of the sport was something of a last-minute decision; it was only two days before the race that the UCI awarded an already planned event the status of world championship. Its winner was Jean Robic, the tiny Breton who’d won the Tour de France in 1947 with a brazen attack on the final day. Robic was a hugely popular figure in France, despite his sullen and spiteful attitude.
Because the sport was – officially, at least – new, the UCI shared the world championships venues around Europe. For its first ten years, the event took place in seven different countries. It even has the historical honor of being staged in a country that only existed for eight years: the Saar Protectorate, a tiny but wealthy piece of land in West Germany, annexed by France after World War Two, then returned to West Germany in 1956.
French riders dominated those early years of the Worlds. After Robic, the rainbow jersey went three times to Roger Rondeaux, but it was André Dufraisse who can legitimately claim to be one of the all-time greats. Dufraisse, from Limousin, finished second behind Rondeaux in 1951 and 1952. Then in Crenna, Italy, in 1954 he won the first of five consecutive rainbow jerseys. His fans called him ‘Coppi of the Fields’.
Following the Dufraisse era, the sport saw an enthralling duel between Italy’s Renato Longo and Germany’s Rolf Wolfshohl. In 1959, in Geneva, the pair fought a close battle for the championship, with the long-legged Italian coming out on top. Wolfshohl took the next two titles, though something of a shadow hung over his win in Hanover in 1961. When they undertook their pre-race course inspection the UCI were dismayed to find the course had been designed specifically for the German, who was strong technically but often lost time to Longo on climbing and running. They asked the organizers to toughen the course, but in the event, Wolfshohl was on such imperious form that he rode the race alone, in front, anyway.
In 1962, the Wolfshohl was sick, allowing Longo to even up the score. The following year, on a frozen course in Calais, northern France, Wolfshohl used his technical abilities to win again. After that he focused on road racing, only riding cyclocross as winter preparation, giving Longo free rein to take two more world titles.
At this time, many top road-racers rode cyclocross during the winter, for training and to prevent getting bored. In the sixties, some of those aiming for Tour de France success preferred to spend their winters in the south of France. But some remained, including Charly Gaul, the Luxembourger climber, and Raphael Geminiani, the quick-tempered Frenchman who knocked five of a spectator’s teeth out with his pump in the 1957 Giro d’Italia. The French connection to cyclocross is so deep-rooted that the tradition of road riders competing on the mud has continued to this day. Bernard Hinault rode cyclocross events in his native Brittany, as did Marc Madiot, and in recent years riders like John Gadret and Clement Venturini have represented France at the world championships.
If the UCI were late to the party with cyclocross in general, they almost missed the party entirely when it came to women’s cyclocross. Incredibly, the first elite women’s race did not take place until 2000, in the Netherlands. German phenomenon Hanka Kupfernagel won that first edition, kicking off a remarkable Worlds career that totaled four golds, five silvers, and a bronze. However, the record for the most rainbow jerseys rests with another multi-discipline phenomenon, Marianne Vos. If Vos wins this year she will collect her eighth gold medal in the discipline. Though woefully belated, the development of the women’s side of the sport is now getting some traction. In 2016 the women under-23 category was added, followed four years later by the junior women’s category.
For much of its history, the world cyclocross championships have been a thoroughly European affair, circling between a small group of nations. Unsurprisingly, Belgium has hosted the most worlds – ten, with another planned in 2027. This is why Louisville, Kentucky, in 2013 was such a landmark moment for the sport. Over the last two decades, cyclocross has been on an unsteady march towards internationalization. The American-hosted World Cups have played a significant role, but it is the world championships that are the emblem of the sport. They are the Tour de France of cyclocross, the pinnacle of the sport. Where they take place is important. Next weekend the world’s best return to the United States, to Fayetteville, Arkansas. The racing promises to be more intense than ever, with exciting talent on display in every race. While northern Europe may be the spiritual home of cyclocross, let’s hope it can continue to spread its wings.