Klaus-Peter Thaler, something of an Anglophile who speaks perfect English with just a hint of his native German, talks fondly of the race that projected him onto the world stage.
Unlikely as it may sound, an event in Crystal Palace park, 1973, was the launch pad for a career that included a brace of Tour stage wins and two years with the mighty TI-Raleigh squad, and third overall in the 1977 Vuelta.
The first cyclo-cross World Championships to take place outside mainland Europe came to the hilly suburb of London best known for, and named after, the colossal cast-iron and glass structure that once housed the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, before it was moved eight miles south of the Thames.
A staggering six million people visited the Victorian structure prior to the catastrophic fire in 1936 that destroyed it, despite the best efforts of 400 firemen. A crowd of 100,000, Winston Churchill included, gathered to watch the blaze, seen from tens of miles away.
By the time Thaler returned to Crystal Palace some 37 years later, only the massive sprawl of the foundations and majestic flights of stairs leading up to building remained. The cross course weaved in and out of the ruins, climbing and descending the steep slopes facing south-east towards the Weald of Kent.
For Thaler, an amateur at a time when professionals rode separately, his Crystal Palace win remains the highlight of the four world cyclo-cross titles he took, spread over 14 years.
“The first championship is the most important. The boss of our club was so happy after I won the German championship [in 1976] that he promised to buy me a Mercedes if I won the Worlds.”
Thaler duly delivered, and the boss kept his promise. The newly crowned champion would be travelling in style to the races from now on.
For the British Cyclo-Cross Association (BC-CA), less than two decades in existence, hosting the Worlds in ’73 was an ambitious project, but they also delivered. Thousands queued to hand over the 50p entry fee – until the police advised organisers to stop taking money and allow the public in for free to ease the crush. Belgians, flags and banners aloft, added colour; the Swiss, with their ludicrously outsized cowbells, the noise. Sponsorship came from The Daily Telegraph, a big supporter of the sport at the time.
“Of course, a lot of the spectators were cyclists,” says former Eurosport commentator David Duffield, MC for the three-day championships, “but I think there was a lot of curiosity from the local people. It was a built-up area. I remember looking up and seeing this massive crowd coming towards me and thinking this was terrific.”
“A busload of us came down from Ipswich,” remembers Ken Nichols, co-author, with his wife Maureen, of Mud, Sweat and Gears: A History of the British Cyclo-Cross Association. “It was something we had never seen; the foreign teams with all their banners. We thought it was amazing.”
It was equally amazing that the BC-CA had pulled it off in the first place, or that the sport had developed at all, considering the masochistically British twist applied to what had started as a harmless winter training exercise for continentals.
Take this account of the 1950 edition of the Bagshot Scramble, published in Cycling magazine: “Biggest ‘pile up’ of the day was early in the race when on a 45-degree up and down ‘switchback’ at least 30 riders came to grief. Like sheep going to the slaughter they plummeted down to disaster. Surprisingly though, only two lost interest in the race; one with a wrecked wheel and the other unconscious. Despite falls, knocks and cuts it was voted by all to be a great success – especially for the trade repairers.”
Thirty riders down, one unconscious, “a great success”…
Such reports are seemingly par for the course during the emerging decades of ‘cross. The oft-quoted Mark Twain line about getting a bicycle and how “you will certainly not regret it, if you live” is perfectly apt here. Early cyclo-cross was a brutally hard sport, featuring stream crossings, hurdles, dry stone walls and fences, requiring as much carrying of the bike as riding.
Little had changed as the sport took off in the 1960s. David Duffield may be better known for his love of the even more eccentric discipline of trike racing, but was a regular competitor in the ‘cross stronghold of the Midlands.
“Some of the courses that we rode… I remember one near Hereford where we had to run for the best part of a mile before we could even get on our bikes – through mud and ploughed fields and God knows what. And another one, at Rugby, where I had gone and researched the course before the race. When I got to the first brook, which seemed to have swollen from overnight rain, I went charging at it, straight in. The water was up to my armpits. The rest took one look at me and went round it!”
Extract from issue 43 of Rouleur magazine