Book review: ‘Mud, Snow, and Cyclocross’ by Molly Hurford

By Adam Newman

There’s no doubt author and racer Molly Hurford is passionate about cyclocross—after all, this is the woman who permanently inked it into her skin, an act made famous by her column known as “The Girl With the Cowbell Tattoo” that appears in "Cyclocross Magazine." 

She has recently turned that passion into her first book, “Mud, Snow, and Cyclcross,” where she traces the history of ‘cross in North America as it spread from humble beginnings in the 1960’s and ‘70s to the rabid, nation-wide passion it garners today. She tracked down and interviewed anyone and everyone who has had a hand in shaping the sport and collected it into an oral history, letting the subjects themselves tell the story.

Like most ruminations on the sport of cyclocross, this book—published by Deeds Publishing—begins with an explanation of the racing and its rules. Rather than rehash the expected “cross between mountain and road biking,” Hurford lets the racers and race promoters share their own thoughts on the matter: “It’s one of those things you just have to see to understand,” says one quote from elite racer and two-time National Champion Ryan Trebon. “Its like a road race and a mountain bike race, combined… without the crappy parts.”

Trebon is just one of dozens of elite-level racers, both past and present, as well as men, women, and juniors, that makes an appearance in the book, with each sharing their first-hand thoughts on why they love the sport. Katie Compton dishes in on her “Best Worst Day,” and racer-turned-race promoter Adam Myerson traces his career from winning collegiate Nationals in 1997 to winning the Verge Series overall title in 2010.

Women play a key role in the story as well, as female American racers have had far more success on an international level than their male counterparts. Mo Bruno Roy, a native New Englander who spends a large chunk of her season racing in Europe, recalls, “In my first race, there was a women’s category—Women’s Open—and there were 10 to 15 women, so now to see a Cat 3/4 field with over 100 riders in a phenomenal difference in a short amount of time.”

Recounting the drama of the racing and elite racers is to be expected, but Hurford goes beyond the course tape to share the spotlight with the race promoters in the early days that put in a massive effort to attract national sponsors and grow the sport beyond isolated, regional scenes. For example, Paul Curley helped organize the National Championship races in 1992 when, for the first time in the U.S., courses were designed, marked, and maintained by professionals with professional-level amenities for riders and spectators. “It’s the first time we had pro and amateur fields, locker room facilities, and hot showers. We charged admission. It took it to a slightly higher level,” he said.

While one chapter focuses on the individual race series’ and their key venues, one of my favorite sections is the contrast of East Coast vs. West Coast racing and their very different styles. The East Coast scene has a long-held reputation as being very serious and very aggressive, while out west the races are often more laid-back with a greater emphasis on spectator fun.

The spectators are as big a part of the sport as the racers, and Hurford gives credit to the hecklers—both at the races and online—for helping expand the popularity of the sport. After all, cyclocross is perhaps the most spectator-friendly type of bicycle racing. Jeremy Powers discusses being the subject of an online reality show, “Behind the Barriers”, and Hurford shares her advice for choosing the right spectating location: “Just visit any major race… and look for where the crowd is cheering the loudest. Congratulations, you just found the beer garden.”

Like the sport itself—and its often rowdy participants—the book is a little rough around the edges. One bummer was that despite the attention paid to the importance of women and equality, there is also no listing of the Women’s National Champions alongside the Men’s in the appendix. Hurford told me it would be added in the next printing.

Bumps and bruises aside, I thoroughly enjoyed “Mud, Snow, and Cyclocross.” Already a huge fan of the sport, I was glad that Hurford kept the introductory and beginners sections short. Most of the books I’ve read about cycling are written with a beginner rider in mind, and I never understood why some authors write books designed to introduce readers to a sport, despite the fact that most of the actual readers will already be well versed. Thankfully, Hurford avoids this trap well and presents a novel account of a sport I love. This is a rare book that can appeal to newbies and experts alike.

So what’s next for cyclocross in the U.S.? This winter, Louisville, Kentucky, will host the 2012-2013 UCI Elite World Championships, an event that is sure to boost the visibility of the sport and expand its American audience. “Most of the elite racers think that Worlds in the U.S. will be game-changer,” Hurford writes. “For one thing, there’s a mandatory clause that it needs to be televised, presenting the first chance to make a push for races to be watched and popularized… And that’s when the shift from a fringe sport to a major American pastime begins to happen.”  

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