Cyclo-cross videos do not really go viral – at least not outside of Dutch-speaking Belgium – but there’s one that been doing modest traffic recently. It features the 20-year-old British rider Tom Pidcock at this month’s world championships in Switzerland. When the action starts, he’s surrounded by four Belgian riders in national-team uniform, making it a pleasing echo of the famous Diego Maradona photograph from the 1982 World Cup. But suddenly Pidcock accelerates, weaving in and out of the Aertses and Van Aertses, skimming over the grass and claggy mud like a four-wheel drive set against underpowered automatics. The clip is 11 seconds long, but when it cuts, Pidcock is no longer even in shot. It was filmed on 2 February, and underneath the cycling writer Simon Warren noted: “Britain leaving the EU”.
The video reminded me of a Fabian Cancellara attack at Paris-Roubaix in 2010. It’s hard to talk about that sandwich-dropping footage now, because it has been overtaken by claims – in a video watched five million times – that the Swiss rider could only have achieved it with mechanical doping: that he had a motor inside his bike. Suffice to say that cycling has so brutalised its fans, for so long, that no form of cheating would be entirely surprising. But also, there are clearly brilliant, mercurial (and clean) individuals in the sport who are capable of feats on their bike that make you jump from your sofa. Which, I guess, is why so many of us keep watching the sport.
Pidcock, who is from Leeds and whose parents are enthusiastic cyclists, is clearly a young man of outrageous talents. He didn’t go on to win the world championship. First place went to the 25-year-old Dutch polymath Mathieu van der Poel, who has enthralled and confused the cycling world by competing with equal swagger simultaneously in cyclo-cross, mountain bike racing and professional road cycling. Pidcock did, however, finish second. He could have been competing in the under-23s race in Switzerland, which he won last year, but that’s not his style. Instead, he became the first British man to win a medal at the cyclo-cross world championships, an event that’s been held since 1950. “Well I’m no longer u23 world champ,” Pidcock wrote on Twitter. “But I’m now second best in the world. Today feels pretty special.”
In an age when, on track and road, British riders have become accustomed to lining up as favourites, cyclo-cross has not really figured. In fact, it might need some introduction. The sport has been called “Tough Mudder for cyclists” and typically has competitors race laps of short courses across grass, sand, mud and gravel. Riders will, at points, have to hoick their bikes – which look similar to road bicycles, but sturdier – over staircases and barriers. It’s all-action (races usually last about an hour) and there is rarely a dull moment for spectators; not comments you’d always make about road cycling.
Cyclo-cross dates back to the early 20th century and originates from racing cyclists in France wanting to stay fit in the winter (the season runs from September to February). The sport received early validation from Octave Lapize, who gave credit to his cyclo-cross conditioning after he triumphed in the god-awful 1910 Tour de France: “You are murderers,” he screamed at organisers during a seven-summit, 202-mile stage on his single-gear bicycle. “Oui, des assassins.”
Since Lapize, though, excelling at cyclo-cross and road cycling has been less than guaranteed, at least among the men. (The Dutch rider Marianne Vos is a multiple world champion in cyclo-cross, on the road and on the track and probably on jelly and basically anywhere you can ride a bicycle.) The diminutive Jean Robic, who won the 1947 Tour de France, also claimed the inaugural cyclo-cross world championships in 1950, but since then there has never been another man who has achieved that double.
Today’s road champions, it seems, prefer winter training in sunny Majorca to trudging through the Flanders mud. Meanwhile, cycling has become slick, expensive and data-driven. Could a fearless young tyro like Pidcock be about to shake that up?
Pidcock is certainly not short of confidence. He begins a recent promotional video listing his career goals: “I want to win the Tour de France, Roubaix, road worlds, cross worlds, mountain bike worlds, downhill world champs.” From behind the camera, a voice asks if that’s really possible. “No, I don’t think that’s possible,” Pidcock concedes.
There’s a little bit of the early-career Mark Cavendish in Pidcock: not in the way he rides, but more in his attitude. The words “cocky” and “arrogant” tend to come up in profiles of Pidcock, but everyone who knows him well insists that’s a misread of what he’s like. That was true of Cavendish, too, certainly when he was starting out. Another similarity is their size. Cavendish was told that he had the wrong body shape to be a professional cyclist; Pidcock, whose stats put him at 5ft 2in and 50kg, would probably be the smallest rider in the pro peloton.
Pidcock says that he has already had offers from WorldTour teams – the level that Team Ineos races at – but he is not ready to commit yet. Whether he will match the feats of British Tour winners Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas is a long way down the road.
But what makes Pidcock so exciting is that he represents a new generation, perhaps a new mindset. His role models are current Tour riders such as Peter Sagan and Julian Alaphilippe, both of whom raced cyclo-cross to a high level as juniors and whose styles are explosive, technical and unpredictable. He aspires to emulate Van der Poel, who can do anything on a bike. At a time when the default is for racers to be pre-occupied by power outputs, there is something thrilling about riders who are instinctive and impulsive and maybe a little unhinged.
Riders, in short, who in their first major senior race, find themselves surrounded by a cluster of world-class Belgians and decide to go on the offensive. “Having fun on the bike is the most important thing,” said Pidcock this month. “Nobody is inspired by somebody who is boring, are they?”