When it comes to cyclo-cross, Matt Ellis, part-time roofer and part-time British team co-ordinator, knows of what he speaks. In the words of one long-term observer of the sport, “cyclo-cross is all he knows, it’s all he’s ever done.”
A ‘cross racer from his teens when the sport was decidedly niche, Ellis went on to spend four seasons as a professional cyclo-cross rider, living and racing in Belgium. Thus, it’s safe to assume that the 43-year-old from Whaley Bridge in the High Peak is well-suited to his new appointment in the arcane world of modern international cyclo-cross, with its fleece-lined skinsuits and towelling ‘chamois’ pads.
The days when British Cycling would give low-cut track skinsuits to the squad off to the Czech Republic to race in minus-fifteen degree temperatures are, one would guess, behind us. Right Matt?
“Well, I think there’s still a little bit of a gap in understanding of the sport, in some ways, but yeah, things have changed a hell of a lot,” he chortles.
The fact that BC has chosen only to invest in one part-time specialist in the sport says that cyclo-cross’s non-Olympic status is still held against it.
If there is still something of a ‘last kid picked on sports day’ relationship between the mothership of British Cycling and the filthy mud-coated sprogs playing on their cyclo-cross bikes, Ellis is confident that the new wave of riders has benefitted from British Cycling’s talent ID and coaching strategies.
“There are small pockets around the country that are doing really, really well. The last National Trophy race I was at, I was amazed at the quality and quantity of the junior riders. They were really good technically and strong physically too. Things are looking really good.
“When you look at Tom Pidcock last year, he was doing the fastest lap times around the nationals course, so some of those juniors wouldn’t be far off holding their own in the senior race.”
What Ellis still struggles to explain though is precisely why cyclo-cross has undergone such a resurgence. In fact, it’s not so much a resurgence as a totally new level of popularity.
“I was amazed at the numbers of people at the last Trophy,” says Ellis, sounding mystified, “I mean, there were probably about a thousand people there, and they were there with nice camper vans as well. I think maybe there has been an influx of riders from mountain biking, that must be related, and when I talk to the mountain bike coaches they all know the top cyclo-cross riders now.
“Mountain biking has changed too. Now those courses tend to be short, punchy, park-type circuits, so there’s not that big a difference to cyclo-cross, not as much as there used to be.
“But then, so much has changed in cycling, even in the past eight years or so, the culture has changed. Cyclo-cross used to be an old-school ‘cycling’ thing and now it’s like a health and lifestyle thing. Like, when I first started riding, there were ‘cross riders, like me, mixing it with guys coming from the road in winter.
“You’d see Sean Yates in his Peugeot kit racing and Roger Hammond too, but now there’s more choices, so road riders can go and race on track in winter, they don’t have to do ‘cross racing whereas the track wasn’t an option a while back.”
In the end, it doesn’t really matter to Ellis as to why there are more youngsters racing cyclo-cross, he’s just happy that there are numbers to choose from when it comes to international selection. If the names racing in the V40 class are still familiar to Ellis from his racing days, then the quantity and quality of the juniors is new since some “already look like the complete package, which is really exciting.”
As the new man in the post, Ellis insists he is keen to “find out what is happening nationally, though we haven’t got a big budget, it’s not like we can set up cyclo-cross academies, though that would help!”
At the moment, given that British junior men (Pidcock-Tulett-Turner) completed a clean sweep of all three medals at the 2017 world championships in Luxembourg, British ‘cross is bunny-hopping every obstacle put in front of it.
The question for Ellis is, can he keep that going? Are there other Pidcocks out there?
“I would have thought so, yes. The kids now have enough skills to do it, the mindset you need to win is the same in any branch of the sport, so if they have the winning desire and commitment when it comes to ‘cross, I can’t see why not.
“I think we have – or had – a bit of a complex. Like, the first 15 riders in the first World Cups in the States were Belgian, Dutch or Czech, but they’re not unbelievably talented – apart maybe from Wout Van Aert and Mathieu Van der Poel – but there’s no reason why other riders can’t get up there and once you are in the top five, then you can be a race winner, I’m certain.”
If success isn’t quite ‘all in the mind’ then it counts for a lot. It wasn’t so long ago British riders weren’t much of a force on the road either.
“When I was racing in Belgium I was seen as a bit of a novelty, I was ‘Ellis the Brit,’ but now other countries see us as a real cycling nation, their attitude to us has changed. There’s enough know-how at British Cycling now. They know what it takes to put together a good bike rider, whether its track, road or ‘cross and I’m hoping to tap into that a little bit.”