I told you it's glamorous.
So anyhow, on to other professional items.
I noticed some comments from a prominent New England crosser ranting on Twitter last week about one of their races not getting UCI C2 status, while the Nacht van Woerden earned top tier status. This struck him as unfair.
If you aren't familiar with it, they raced Nacht van Woerden last Wednesday. Loosely
translated, I think the names mean Night of Scaring the Shit out of Pro Crossers. The course is largely semi-groomed, ill-lit singletrack, where the racers have to bomb out of the groomed grass and light into ill-lit drops terminating in sharp 180's at full speed. The pros find it scary as hell, but sort of exciting. Daphny van den Brand (sigh...) nipped Helen Wyman in the women's field, and Sven Nys took the men's race (with Jonathan Page in 7th).
Then Sunday they raced the SuperPrestige Zonhoven. Zonhoven loosely translated means "like storming the cliffs of Utah Beach except sandy-er and without being raked by machine guns." If we amateurs could recognize 6 nutty features via streaming media, then you can bet there were a dozen heart stoppers on that course.
There's huge irony here and maybe some bitterness as we in the US are reaching for technical excellence, as the Europeans, even in the C2 and higher races, are reaching for circus-like spectacles. So why is that? Why all the insanity in top tier races, when we have technically excellent races that can't get a comparable level of UCI sanction?
I have a theory that this is a bit like what what we faced in rugby about 7-8 years ago (roughly 7-8 years after the sport recognized a full time professional tier). It has to do with growing the TV market, and how that warps decisions about what is permissible, and impermissible on the field of play. Bear with me here.
At the top tier domestically in the U.S., semi-pro clubs with maybe a handful of scantily paid chaps, the refs were damned pedantic about what we did at the tackle - the ballcarrier goes down, then has to release the ball immediately. We didn't get a lot of slack.
How you're supposed to behave at the tackle, in the "ruck," is explained here and demonstrated with crystal clarity:
Notice how fast the ballcarrier puts the ball out once he's on the ground. That's what is expected at the lower level - tackle, set, release. Just fast like that and a failure to get your hand off the ball toute suite results in a quick penalty. That is exactly how the laws of the game are written.
Now watch what a pro can do in an international test match, and focus on what the Welsh player (in red) does at 13 seconds, and how long he takes to produce a set ball:
First, the Kiwis (in black) do a really good job of producing cleanly set ball, real fast. But then did you notice that the Welsh player goes down on the ball, regains his feet, is in the midst of contact, goes down again, and then the ball seems to roll back over 2-3 seconds, and Wales maintains clean possession of the ball? Did you also notice the result of that "cheating" - that Wales were able to launch a scoring attack?
Why are the technical standards looser on the pros - where you'd think tech standards would be tight - than on amateurs?
Treating some top tier events differently under the same set of rules creates different modes of play, and some of those modes of play are more telegenic than others. The amateur style ruck, with quickly set ball, is often disorderly. It is scrupulously fair - and it's a damn sight harder to hang onto the ball because a quick "set" often means the ball is bouncing around and not really still on the ground. It's hard to mount an attack when the thing you need to move and throw and chase, will not hold still long enough for you to place hands on it. In contrast, allowing the player a few seconds to place the ball back in a "continuous motion" permits the tackled ballcarrier to carefully set the ball, resist initial efforts by the defense to steal or poach the ball, and it leads to a more organized, neater, and more effective offensive attack by the ballcarrier's team. And scoring.
So WTF? Where is this going?
It's pretty simple. In allowing the top tier players to "cheat," the officials help create a product that sells well on TV, and to casual fans who aren't as hung up on the rulebook as serious fans.
More telegenic, of course, means more pleasing to the crowd. Allowing slack standards at the ruck is the kind of idea, like the proposal to eliminate offsides penalties in hockey, aimed at convincing casual fans to watch and get invested in the sport. I know a fair number of you are hockey fans, but can you imagine regularly watching 12-10 hockey games? You probably can't, but a lot of casual fans might find it pretty interesting. Purists wouldn't like it but maybe it would draw in more casual fans looking for a diversion, who aren't wise to a more traditional 2:1 defensive battle. In the search for telegenic sports action, the rules aren't the only thing that get crushed. The NFL has singlehandedly destroyed proper form tackling with it's high impact shoulder charge "tackles" and the NBA allows traveling in direct proportion to the marketing power of the star who is walking with the ball. It's all about the Benjamins...
That brings us back to cyclocross.
I suspect that part of the motivation for some of the crazy, mountain bikey features in top level cross (as in these two races, or the whoop-dee-doos at Ruddervoorde) is that perhaps top tier courses feature some unfair, spectacle-creating aspects to create interesting visuals that televise really well. Of course part of the deal is that when you have the best racers in the world collected in one place, you need to have a somewhat selective course - but that only explains basically hard courses, it doesn't explain gimmicks like the 60 foot sand dunes that caused tons of spectacular (but basically safe) endos at Zonhoven or the insane night riding at van Woerden. What explains them, is the need to create a scene that is a little different from the ordinary amateur race vista, to engage the fans and build the business of the sport.
Bart Aernouts (U-23 winner at Nacht van Woerden)
Struggling Through The Ill-Lit Places
Struggling Through The Ill-Lit Places
Pauwels Makes Like Superman
That's my theory anyhow. There could be really petty reasons or maybe substantively good reasons that technically excellent US courses get the cold shoulder from the UCI while technical nightmares in Europe get warmly welcomed into the brotherhood... but it sure looks to me (an admittedly ignorant, total outsider) like somebody is taking TV marketing into consideration.