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Rainbows in the Mud, by Paul Maunder

Sanne Cant in action at the GP Adrie Van der Poel, Hoogerheide, 2018
Sanne Cant in action at the GP Adrie Van der Poel, Hoogerheide, 2018
Luc Claessen / Tim De Waele (Getty Images)

Title: Rainbows in the Mud – Inside the Intoxicating World of Cyclocross
Author: Paul Maunder
Publisher: Bloomsbury Sport
Year: 2017
Pages: 276
Order: Bloomsbury UK | US
What it is: A forty-something Briton falls out of love with road racing and rediscovers the joys of ‘cross
Strengths: At its best with some atmospheric and evocative musings on what it is about ‘cross that captures the attention
Weaknesses: The race reports from the 2015/16 season probably won’t age gracefully - race reports rarely do

The sixteenth century Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder is not, perhaps, someone you might automatically think to associate with cyclocross. But in Rainbows in the Mud – Inside the Intoxicating World of Cyclocross the Rouleur, Peloton, and Soigneur contributor Paul Maunder makes a curiously engaging case for a link between ‘cross and the Dutch Renaissance master, using Bruegel’s 1559 The Fight Between Carnival and Lent as evidence:

Currently residing in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the painting is set in the market square of an unnamed Flemish town and shows the transition between the Carnival, the last winter feast, and Lent. Half of the painting is taken up with the debauchery of the peasants celebrating Carnival. There is drinking and dancing, and in the foreground a fool rides a beer barrel with a pork chop attached to the front. There are beggars and bonfires and women carrying waffles. The hilarity and excess of Carnival is contrasted with the other half of the painting, in which we see the self-denial and sobriety of Lent. The churchgoers bear ash-marks on the heads as signs of their penitence.

Debauchery and indulgence contrasting with sobriety and penitence? That sounds like a Belgian bike race. The fans get drunk and eat friets and waffles, while the sober tortured riders pass by in a procession, their faces smeared with ash and mud. Is this stretching the symbolism a little too far? Perhaps. But if Bruegel were alive today I’d like to think he’d be out there on the Koppenberg, watching the fans, absorbing the atmosphere.

There is more to it that just that, though. Bruegel, Maunder tells us, plays an important role in how we perceive winter, the season we give over to ‘cross to such an extent that it is hard to imagine the sport taking place at any other time of the year. Referencing Adam Gopnik’s Winter – Five Windows on the Season, Maunder argues that Bruegel was at the forefront of changing our take on winter from being a joyless and brutal time:

The ice skaters in small villages were the first depiction of winter leisure but set against the broader context were something of an anomaly.

It’s really only since the latter part part of the eighteenth century that the rest of western culture caught up with Bruegel and co. By the time the Victorians came around winter had pretty much been fully romanticised with Christmas at its heart. The kerstperiode, Maunder argues, is also crucial to our modern perception of what Belgian cyclocross is all about:

It’s a pity not to be there but family is more important, and that’s a sentiment entirely in keeping with Kerstperiode. For while this is an important week for the racers – both in terms of prestige and earning potential – the significance of Kerstperiode lies in the way it reinforces what Belgian cyclocross is all about, that is to say family and community. […] During Kerstperiode this social aspect of the races becomes festive, even poignant. Like all blue-collar sports, cyclocross acts as a kind of social glue. It brings people together, gives them a weekend release valve. Over the extended Christmas holiday, with its unique mix of celebration, relaxation and boredom, what better than to meet one’s friends in a muddy field and raise a glass together while the nation’s chaste heroes plough past. If nothing else it gets you out of the house and away from the Kerstronk.

It’s worth remembering here that, while today ‘cross has a very strong Belgian identity, this has not always been the case. Arguably, the sport is French in its origins and, for a time in the seventies, it was very much a Swiss sport. Its modern identity only came about after a Belgian TV channel (Sporza) lost the rights to televise football matches and, casting around for something to replace soccer, landed on ‘cross:

Throughout the nineties professional cyclocross had been a battle between the Swiss and the Dutch, with Belgian riders having limited success outside of their own country. As most Swiss races were not televised, for a Belgian station to show them would have meant transporting a huge load of kit and people over to Switzerland – all to watch Belgian riders being beaten; hardly an attractive proposition. But someone at Sporza knew cross well enough to know change was coming.

That change happened barely two decades ago and, at times, people seem to be too aware of it, to the point that they worry the time away about the next change, what it will be and when it will come. Any drop in form by Belgian riders is seen as presaging the end of days as far as ‘cross is concerned. Maunders himself is very much engaged by this change and throughout Rainbows in the Mud he tracks the progress of the sport in the UK and the US, with the latter seemingly held out as the holy land, if only American riders could get to grips with European mud.

Maunder is at his best when occupying similar territory to Max Leonard in Higher Calling – Road Cycling’s Obsession with the Mountains, trying to understand and explain what matters and why, with thoughtful explorations of different aspects of the sport. As well as this more thoughtful take on the sport, Maunder also serves up stories from the sport’s history, while tracking the course of the 2015/16 season, sometimes in person, crossing the Channel and the Atlantic to be at races, and sometimes coping with the streaming option. Here he focuses on some of the American and British riders – such as Katie Compton and Gage Hecht and Dan Tulett – trying to draw out a season-long narrative with stories about them and race reports, in places reminding the reader of Daniel Lee’s The Belgian Hammer, the two engaging with the cultural and other difficulties Anglosphere riders have to cope with when taking on a sport that is very much European.

All told, Rainbows in the Mud makes for an interesting read and Maunder’s thoughtful approach to the subject will hopefully see it outlast memories of the 2015/16 season.

Rainbows in the Mud – Inside the Intoxicating World of Cyclocross, by Paul Maunder
Rainbows in the Mud – Inside the Intoxicating World of Cyclocross, by Paul Maunder