The first time I raced cyclocross, I was immediately hooked.
There was dirt, there was grass, and there was pavement. Sure, it was all about speed, but the varying course conditions and the forced dismounts required you to be adept with your machine in a way that went beyond simple bike-handling. Inside of 45 minutes, cyclocross managed to distill the act of cycling into its core elements, and I resolved to do it as often as I could.
So, it seems, has everyone else, and now cyclocross has gone mainstream—at least to the extent that any form of bicycle racing can be considered mainstream.
(And yes, of course it's always been mainstream in Belgium, but globally speaking the phrase "mainstream in Belgium" is essentially an oxymoron.)
Cyclocross's influence on American cycling in general has been decidedly positive. For one thing, consider the bikes. Before cyclocross started getting popular, the most exciting thing that had happened to road bikes was the sloping top tube. (Rember those Mike Burrows ONCE Giants?) Wheel design basically meant removing spokes until the thing collapsed, then adding one. And the only time anybody ever seemed to utter the phrase "frame clearance" was when Nashbar was having a blowout sale.
But as more companies started adding cyclocross bikes, more riders became intrigued with the idea of a drop-bar bike with some versatility. Roadies might not have given touring bikes a second look, but suddenly that cyclocross bike seemed like an essential addition to their stable. The cyclocross bike was the roadie gateway drug to things like wide tires and mixed terrain riding, and in this sense you can draw a direct line between that first bumper crop of production cyclocross bikes over a decade ago and the proliferation of go-anywhere drop-bar bikes we're experiencing today.
At the same time, the cyclocross bike also helped usher in an age of extreme hyper-specialization that is bewildering and, quite frankly, absurd. There's not all that much daylight between a road bike and a cyclocross bike to begin with, and now they're squeezing in adventure bikes, and gravel bikes, and all-road bikes, most of which have little to distinguish them except for some infinitesimally small geometry tweaks that get lost in the plush volume of those 35mm tires.
Indeed, versatility has now doubled over on itself, and as it reaches its breaking point, we're now seeing 650b "road plus" becoming a thing, which means we're basically witnessing the industry reinvent the mountain bike. Granted, there's something undeniably appealing about a bicycle spectrum that runs from fat bike to time trial bike with the seamlessness of a CVT, and we also get some pretty cool bikes out of the deal. But the very existence of, say, a production aero gravel bike may be a sign that we've taken things too far—and in a way it's all cyclocross's fault.
Another aspect of cyclocross I found immediately seductive was the affable nature of it, which was in sharp contrast to the road racing season that immediately preceded it. The top riders took cyclocross seriously with endless pre-rides and vast tire inventories, but this was mitigated by an infections spirit of "run what you brung" in which people shared tips on how they'd cobbled together that single-ring drivetrain or where they'd found those obscure cantis. People actually wanted to hang out at a cyclocross race and bring you into the fold, whereas a road race felt more like a bunch of people who were there to help somebody move and just wanted to get it over with. (If you've never been in a breakaway, carry a sofa down six flights of stairs with a few strangers—it's exactly the same thing.)
Perhaps best of all, at the cyclocross race, here were those same roadies humbling themsleves as they attempted this new discipline. Cat 1s got lapped by riders on primitive steel bikes. They came out of their shoes as they attempted to dismount for the barriers. They stutter-stepped and portaged their bikes with all the grace of someone attempting to hurl a giant floppy javelin, their swinging handlebars thwapping them repeatedly in the face.
But like those steel bikes with cantilevers, it couldn't last. The roadies got better. Then came the carbon bikes, and the disc brakes, and the beginner riders sporting freshly glued Dugasts. Getting into a race before it filled up meant hovering over your computer and waiting for registration to open so you could pounce. The process of getting the hole shot now started in your living room. And here we are.
Of course, it's silly to lament the state of something to which you were a relative newcomer yourself. It's like how your neighborhood was great up to and including the time you moved in, but everyone who's arrived since is like totally ruining its character. It's even sillier to imply that a sport is getting too competitive or too gear-oriented, since even hip ones like cyclocross are supposed to be competitive and gear-oriented. After all, you may hate digital and think your favorite album sounds better on vinyl, but the truth is you've probably just grown attached to all those crackles and pops.
Ultimately American cycling is much richer for cyclocross's explosion in popularity. I'm sure the rest of the world appreciates it too—we've hosted the World Championships, we've added marquee races to the UCI calendar, and we've given the stars of the sport an adoring fanbase. Yet given our endless capacity to take ourselves too seriously and focus way too much on training and gear, it's inevitable cyclocross will lose some of its fun factor. "Though top racers ride fancy European-made cyclocross cycles that cost upwards of $2,000, most riders make due with old road bikes retrofitted with wide brakes and skinny, nubby tires designed for control and traction," read a New York Times article from 1999.
Cyclocross is about clearing barriers, but it shouldn't be about barriers to entry.