Is 'cross the new mountain biking?

Vox-pop from the UK national 'cross championships

On a cold but dry day, top pro Roger Hammond made history by picking up a record 8th UK national cyclo-cross championship after a tough battle with pro mountain biker Liam Killeen for the duration of the 50min race.

Despite both riders having put in very few 'cross races this season, it was soon clear that the gold and silver would be decided between the two pros. With intense speed and awesome displays of bike handling, neither could shake the other and in the end the outcome was decided in a nail biting sprint, a near action replay of the same event two years previously.

Close behind in third was another prominent UK mountain biker, Paul Oldham, whilst elite mountain bikers took another five of the top ten places.

"That was a really tough race out there today," Hammond told BikeRadar. "It wasn't easy at all for me, it was pretty technical and my cyclo-cross technique has suffered this year. This is only my third race of the season and the first one was an utter disaster.

"Sutton seems to suit me. Out of the eight titles I've won over the years only one was outside of Sutton. Unfortunately for Liam, this type of circuit lends itself to a sprint finish, but to be brutally honest I don't actually like the circuit. For me the more corners there are the harder it is for me to win. I like it to be more flowing so I can really use my road power. Round here I feel so limited.

"Liam was really strong, so good on the corners I was struggling to hold on for most of the way. He kind of tired towards the end whereas I'm used to racing six or seven hours and am just getting going! In a way Liam should have taken the win as he deserved it, he rode brilliantly, but I'm pleased really to take the win it's a great way to start a season."

Helen Wyman showed the women's field why she is ranked number five in the world with a classy dominance of the senior race. Only team mate Gabby Day could keep Wyman in her sights, finishing in second to take the silver whilst local favourite Isla Rowntree took the bronze.

Mountain bikers reign

Over the weekend, out of a possible 10 national titles, six were taken by riders who are regulars at mountain bike races throughout the year.

A recent explosion in the popularity of MTB endurance events seems to be helping to fuel a resurgence in cyclo-cross in the UK, with many mountain bikers adding a cross bike to their stable of machines. Plus British Cycling's much improved regional structure is adding to the already strong regional structure already inherent in the 'cross community, encouraging younger riders to participate at grass roots level.

It seems to work both ways too. We spoke to quite a few of Britain's newly crowned champions and found that although many consider that mountain biking is their sport, many cut their teeth as youngsters on 'cross.

National junior lady champion Annie Last explained to BikeRadar, "My mountain biking definitely helps with the technical sections and with the racing itself to be honest. It's much faster you go straight from the gun, but there is a definite cross over between the two disciplines.

"I got into mountain biking via cyclo-cross. I started 'cross a few years ago and then moved over to the other discipline and it's good now to see it working the other way with a lot more mountain bikers taking up the sport. 'Cross is a great sport to start in when you're young, it's much easier. In mountain biking it's always a big lap and the races can be hard to get to but in cyclo-cross there's always lots of regional races around which cater for the under 12's and older of course."

Junior national men's champion Alex Paton told us, "I started out with 'cross and stuck with that for quite a few years, that was my main focus, but recently I've turned my attention to mountain biking more and gained selection for the Olympic development program and now my career is progressing from there.

"Cross gave me a real good base when I started mountain biking and now I find they both complement each other really, skills and bike handling from mtb and the speed from 'cross helps with mtb occasionally. 'Cross has always gone well for me and my mountain biking is still coming on, so I'll continue to do both for as long as I can."

One man who has seen the popularity of cyclo-cross rise and fall and now rise again in the UK is noted 'cross racer and bike shop owner Peter Hargroves, who has been racing and trading for over two decades.

"We sell an awful lot of mountain bikes and then find that their owners eventually turn up to cyclo-crosses with them and soon end up realising that they aren't quite as quick and so buy themselves a proper 'crosser," he said. "From a business point of view it's done us very proud and I'm delighted to see the sport growing at local, and as a consequence, national levels too.

"We had a local race not too long ago where they had a maximum cap of 80 and the race was massively over subscribed. We're now seeing races with bunches of six to eight riders battling it out on the course which is excellent to see. It's totally transforming the grass roots of the sport and I just hope that this pushes up the overall standard of racing higher so we can take our place on the international circuit once more.

"There's an awful lot of noted mountain bikers taking 'cross races by the scruff. They're good bike riders, they know how to handle their bikes and enjoy racing. Hopefully they will encourage more mountain bikers to enjoy the sport and add an extra dimension to racing off road."

BikeRadar caught up with mega-champion - both in mountain biking and 'cross - Roy Hunt who picked up his fourth consecutive win in the over '50s vets last Saturday to find out his take on this resurgence of the sport.

"I'm a mountain biker at heart and think my passion for that sport definitely helps with 'cross. It's great to see the ranks swelling, though it's predominantly from the younger end and the vets but at the moment there's not much in the middle. Hopefully the balance will alter. I call it the new mountain biking because all the grass roots mountain biking, especially up north, has gone so 'cross is an excellent safe way to get kids on bikes. Then we'll see them progress over to mountain biking and join another sector of the cycling scene that seems to be experiencing a resurgence too."

It seems too that the States is experiencing a huge resurgence with cyclo-cross now the fastest growing section of cycle racing, so with all this growth manufacturers obviously want a piece of the action, the results being more mainstream availability of these specialist bikes. Plus the nature of the spectator friendly races has helped draw the crowds. Now America is poised to become a force to be reckoned with in the world team rankings whilst Katie Compton is taking the USA forward in the world rankings, coming in at no.2.

The rise in popularity of this sport in the USA can seemingly lie at the door of the improved performance of the American competitors on a worldwide stage, making headlines that make the sport fans sit up and watch, as well as encourage young and like to get involved in this niche sport. The sponsors are following now, helping to build the sport up even more with good publicity attracting huge crowds.

Still, both the UK and the USA have a way to go before we'll see the likes of 50,000 spectators crammed into a venue like we saw in Belgium last year at the world's. There it truly is a national sport, ranking even higher than football...

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