The History of Tracklocross
In this article, I will explore the history of tracklocross cycling that I have been able to find and dig up. If you would like to challenge or add anything, please feel free to do so in the comments or send me a message on the contact form.
Early fixed gear riding
Many of us will feel that tracklocross is a newer niche in cycling. A niche that grew up in direct contravention to the consumerism that was ripe in cycling. You didn’t need an expensive carbon fibre frame, and you didn’t need a new, improved groupset (“We added one rear cog, the world has progressed more than you can imagine”), you don’t even need to wear Lycra or belong to a club.
All you needed was a track frame, wide tyres, and a fixed cog. Looking at your tracklocross bike, it is aesthetically pleasing. There is not a lot to go wrong. It is simple, it also, excepting rear tyres, will not need a huge amount of maintenance. You won’t need to be fitting a new chain four times a year or spending a couple of hundred pounds on a new drivetrain. It just works.
More people used to have this opinion. Between 1877 and 1906 in London, alone, there were 750 patents for bikes with variable gearing. At the time most people didn’t care, they preferred the simplicity of a fixed gear. The derailleur itself came in 1905. It was invented by Paul de Vivie, also known as Vélocio. Sadly, he didn’t patent his idea and made next to nothing from changing cycling.
It was a simple four gearing design that he used for cycling through the Alps. At the time people would generally have two cogs on their rear wheel—one for uphill and one for downhill. You would stop at the top or bottom of a hill and take your wheel off and flip it over. People used wingnuts to help speed this process up.
Leading to one cold and frozen day in the Italian Alps, when one racer had fingers that were so cold he had great difficulty with the procedure. He went on to develop the quick release, and his name was Tullio Campagnolo.
So, where am I going on this little diversion? Where I am going with this is slightly speculative, I’m taking a bit of knowledge and adding some guesswork.
The derailleur was invented in 1905, yet it was not until 1948 that they became widely used in bike races.
Cyclocross was being birthed around the start of the 1900s. It was a winter pastime of racers where they challenged each other to race to the next village. Rather than sticking to the road, some people started to cut across fields, jumping hedges and fences. As the easiest landmark to find in most villages was the local church, you’d find that people raced from steeple to steeple, which is why early cyclocross was also called a steeplechase.
The French Champs
These unofficial races became more organised, and the first French Champs was created in 1902. What seems to be easy to find is that Daniel Gousseau organised it but trying to find out who won is much harder; they have been lost to the passage of time. What is easier to find is that the 1910 winner of Le Tour de France, Octave Lapize, credited cyclocross as giving him the fitness to win the Tour.
By crediting cyclocross, Octave Lapize placed cyclocross on the cycling landscape. Belgium launched its own championship that winter. Switzerland joined in 1912. Then came Luxembourg in 1923, Spain in 1929, and Italy in 1930.
In 1924, in a little forest to the west of Paris, the first world championships in cyclocross were held. They were an immediate success with the public. In the Paris course, there was a section called the “Trou du diable” (the hole of the devil), this descent became a crowd favourite.
The Critérium International de Cyclocross was held on this course until 1950. It was then replaced by the UCI champs. All I can find about this time was that the race was won 15 times by a Frenchman; Robert Oubron won it four times (1937, 1938, 1941, 1942). World War 2 stopped the race three times, 1940, 1943, and 1946.
The dates of the races
You might now have been able to put together where I am going. The winner of the first French Champs was more than likely to have been on a fixed gear. The winner of the first World Champs was more than likely to have been on a fixed gear. Robert Oubron was more than likely to have had at least one of his wins on a fixed gear.
That would mean the first “official” tracklocross race winner would have been the 1902 winner. There would also have been winners of unofficial races before then. Let us say people were having tracklocross races in 1900, that would mean the idea has been around for 120 years.
The ghost years
There is then a big gap where fixed gear bikes fell out of favour, and I guess despite the boom a little while back, that has remained the same. We could make a great case that this is because they are impractical, and we could also make a case for why would the bike trade want us all buying bikes that don’t wear out as fast?
After the years of not much, I’m not saying tracklocross didn’t happen, just finding stuff at the moment is not much fun, you’ll find the birth of tracklocross.blogspot.com in early 2008. There is also the start of John Watson‘s (John Prolly) career at the same time.
Randall’s Island Tracklocross
At the start of 2008, Randall’s Island Tracklocross had a lot going on, and big plans for tracklocross.
Around this time, tracklocross caught the attention of Bike Snob NYC who commented,
Ah yes, alleycat “racing” and cyclocross are now coming together in a succession of bad mud-related puns. What does this mean? Will tire clearance now be a frame attribute more prized than track geometry? Will canti bosses become the new horizontal dropout? Will we now see a new breed of urban rider who takes pride in his bicycle’s versatility and his own adroitness on a variety of terrain?… Perhaps the era of the fixed-gear as the dominant urban bike species is at an end.
We can pretty much see that he nailed tracklocross. How many questions on Reddit is there about tyre clearance? Look at the frame guide I did, and you’ll see the majority of frame’s feature versatility as their dominant selling point.
Fixed gear riding was at a boom during this time. The boom only ended by the arrival of Premium Rush. TBF it had probably died down a year or two earlier.
The fixed gear trend
In 2008, fixed gear bikes were cool. I’m going to ignore the fixie term by the way. The craze didn’t appear overnight. It was decades in the making. The roots were laid in the 1980s with the arrival of West Indian immigrants in New York.
Many of these immigrants became cycle couriers. They needed cheap and easy to maintain bikes. Fixed gear bikes fitted these needs. Many of them had one before they immigrated and they brought them with them, making sure they could find work as soon as they arrived in America.
Eventually, other couriers started to copy them, and the trend began to spread around the globe. We also can’t look at the 1980s scene and miss out Nelson Vails. Nelson was the first African-American to win an Olympic medal. Nelson came out of the New York courier scene to win the silver medal in the 1984 Olympic games’ sprint event.
Couriers had to be fast, especially if they liked to pay rent and eat food. As with anything involving speed, races eventually appeared. These races, similar to the roots of cyclocross, began as unsanctioned events. The first race to be called an alley cat occurred on the 30th of October 1989 in Toronto.
Alley cats belong to two different camps. Those that are designed to test competitors to the maximum, so only the best courier can win. The other style is more relaxed and designed to bring a community together.
Regardless of which camp an alley cat falls into, they all tend to have a few similar features.
- Checkpoints – The first checkpoint is given at the start of the race, and on arrival the next checkpoint is revealed to the racer. Doing this is designed to replicate the daily life of being a courier. There is no fixed route, so knowing you’re surrounding is key to winning.
- Task checkpoints – When you reach the checkpoint, you’ll have to perform a task to gain the next checkpoint location.
- Checkpoints up front – You’re given the checkpoints 5–30 minutes before the start of the race. You are then free to create the fastest route you can, again using your local knowledge.
- Point collection -These races are pretty similar to scavenger hunts or treasure hunts. In the UK racing on roads without the police is illegal. However, treasure hunts are, allowing people to bend the rules.
Alley cats have helped further the growth of fixed-gear riding, heading towards the fixed gear boom. There was also the growth of the internet at this time, particularly message boards, with most major cities having their own collective.
In 2008 we also saw the birth of a series that has kept the fixed gear light going after the boom and brought fixed gear racing outside the velodrome to the masses. Looking for something to for his 28th birthday, David Trimble ran a crit in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn.
The Red Hook Crits grew to take place all around the world. They created many cycling careers and launched many Youtube channels. It allowed people to see the fun you could have racing. They are currently on a sabbatical but will no doubt be back bringing more to fixed gear riding.
Back to Randall’s Island Tracklocross
In 2008, the tracklocross.blogspot.com website arrived with a lot of hope and a whole pile of events. On April 11th 2009, they launched their second big event.
The flyer for their event being their final post. It is also worth noting their rules for the race.
1. FIXED OR SLICKS RULE: Your bike must either have either a fixed gear, or slick tires no fatter than 25mm. Want to ride your cyclocross bike? Fine, as long as you throw proper road tires on it. Wanna ride your fixed gear? Great. You’re allowed to use cross tires. What? You only ride singlespeeds? All right, just make sure it has slicks.
2. SPECIAL TRACK BIKE CATEGORY: There will be a special prize for the highest-placing rider riding a track bike. By track bike, we mean a bike with: a fixed gear, geared at greater than or equal to 49×16 (700x23c). Plugged drop bars. No brakes. Slick tires.
I guess we could call these the purist rules of tracklocross.
The tracklocross.blogspot.com site might be dead and John Prolly went off to create prollyisnotprobably.com. Which then went on to become The Radavist.
The first official tracklocross world champs
The first official tracklocross world champs were held in Japan in 2019. The world champs grew out of a rebirth of people racing tracklocross. It was only inevitable that at some point would start to take their track bikes offroad again.
The new movement was not coming from New York this time. It was coming from the other coast in America. The Resistance Racing folks were busy creating a bunch of new national events. In 2018 they organised a bunch of races in America, and one in Japan.
They also have a pretty simple rule for racing. Fixed gear only. You can race with a brake, but you won’t then be allowed to win a title. A pretty simple bike setup is all you need, the cost here can hopefully keep up the inclusive nature of tracklocross.
Mash did a bunch of great photos of the Berkley race, showing a real sense of community.
The Resistance Racing events built on the Westside Invite races. The Westside Invites were created as a response to, and after a little falling out, the Philadelphia Cycle Messenger World Championships. The Westside Invites were courier races that involved some fun categories, such as foot down or a downhill time trial and an alley cat. They also have a pretty simple rule for racing. Fixed gear only. You can race with a brake, but you won’t then be allowed to win a title. A pretty simple bike setup is all you need, the cost here can hopefully keep up the inclusive nature of tracklocross.
In 2017, the Westside Invite was held in San Francisco, and Resistance Racing ran a tracklocross race in the Golden Gate Park for the event. In 2018 they moved out of the park and held events in, New York, Portland, Los Angeles, D.C., Japan, Minneapolis, and just slightly out the park, the Bay Area.
The National Championships were held in Minneapolis. The guys was won by Chas Christiansen and the gals by Chelsea Strate.
Tracklocross in 2019
In 2019, the US National Champs in both male and female were to be reward with a ticket to the first official tracklocross worlds in Japan.
The Oakland nationals were won by Sammi Runnels and Kell McKenzie.
Whenever you read an article on the Oakland nationals, not that there is a lot of them, you’ll come away with a feeling of how inclusive tracklocross is. How everyone is welcome, and all that people want is skids and a great time.
At the end of August 2019, we saw the world’s best tracklocross riders line up for a world champs and a party. Held at the base of Mt Fuji, could you imagine a more Japanese looking location. Gone was the dry sandy surfaces of the Bay Area and here were the lush loamy forests of Japan.
When everything had settled down we were left with Michelle Wilcox and Kazzle Spencer standing victorious at the first tracklocross world championships.
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