Interview: Ian Field on cyclo-cross, road racing and earning the respect of the fervent Belgian fans
Former national champion continues to fly the British flag on the world cyclo-cross stage
The cyclo-cross rider’s beat can be a lonely one. High summer finds him preparing for a season yet to begin, while his road compadres are in mid-season form. No matter. Ian Field (Hargroves-Ridley RT) has a solution: mix the solo miles with some of the UK’s biggest road races.
Blessed with the fitness and ability to join the peloton at, say, the RideLondon-Surrey Classic, Field finds that his legs and lungs, honed by flat stick cyclo-cross efforts, are more than adequate for a training exercise shared, unwittingly, by WorldTour pros.
“I do the big races almost as training," Field confides. “Instead of getting in long hours on my own, like a roadie would in the winter, I have the opportunity to do a bike race and get towed around for the first 120km and then press on for the last 80km.
“It’s pretty easy to cross over from ’cross to road, because the fitness is there and the bike handling is there. To a certain extent it’s easier to do that than to hurt yourself in training.
“Rather than watch the watts on the Garmin for five hours, I’d rather get involved in a race and have people stick it to me and try to match them."
Field will again fly the flag for British cyclo-cross in the world’s most prestigious cyclo-cross races. He will contest the World Cups and Belgium’s formidable SuperPrestige series; the most, well, prestigious competition in a country where ‘cross is a national obsession.
He is no stranger to the sands of Koksijde and Zonhoven; ‘cross arenas to rival the fervency of Anfield or the Maracanã.
“As an Englishman growing up, a lot of kids aspire to become professional footballers because it’s so big, and over there [Belgium] ‘cross is pretty similar, especially at Zonhoven. That first sandpit is a natural arena. When you go over the first drop off, the noise is pretty immense. Towards the end, you’re carried along by the noise, which is no bad thing."
A mix of domestic and international competition suits Field well. Competitions like the National Trophy Series place him at the sharp end of a race (in the winner’s circle, to be precise), while World Cups are a matter of ‘taking a kicking, and striving for a top 15 finish’.
It is the second part of Field’s twin track approach that has won him the respect of champions. Cyclo-cross is a small world, and by returning week after week to the biggest races in the sport he has won the respect of the best. To the Belgian fanatics, he is known by the sobriquet Field de Brit.
“You get the respect for going back," Field says. It’s an acknowledgement to which he is entitled, to say the least. Chasing a quintessential Belgian hardman like Sven Nys around Zonhoven is not for the faint hearted. To come back for more at Zolder or Koksijde shows real grit, and Field has been at it for years.
“Everyone, no matter how much support they get, knows how hard ‘cross is. A lot of the Belgian guys realise how hard it is for foreigners to go there and try and make it. Just going back there over the years has gained that respect. As the results have got better, that respect has increased."
Cyclo-cross remains a niche pursuit in the UK. In Belgium, it is the televised mainstream, and the best riders accrue the trappings of star athletes. On a race weekend, this means a plush motorhome, mechanical support, and a fleet of spare bikes, often jet-washed during the race by a salaried mechanic, who, lap-after-lap, presents his employer with a pristine machine. While such luxuries are the preserve of a privileged few, Field aspires to the same level of professionalism.
“I see myself snapping at the heels of those on the big teams and keeping them in line. I do my best to create a pro environment around myself by paying the mechanic at all the races, and trying to get support around myself.
“I try and do things as professionally as I’ve seen around the Svens and the Bart Wellens. I try to get close to what they have at races. Then I don’t have an excuse."
Milton Keynes calling?
A round of the 2014 World Cup in Milton Keynes gave Field a rare mix of his domestic and international schedule, racing on home soil, but against world class opposition. The quality of the course and the racing, and the sheer scale of the crowds made the event an unprecedented success for a ‘cross race in Britain.
Talk in the paddock was of Milton Keynes, like Zonhoven, a natural amphitheatre, being an obvious choice as a venue for the World Championships, but Field is reluctantly pessimistic about the chances of an encore.
“I’m afraid it all comes down to funding," Field says. “It’s an awful lot of money to stage a World Cup, and even more to stage the World Championships. It’s difficult. There isn’t the support there from British Cycling for a World Cup or a World Championships, because it isn’t an Olympic discipline, which makes things doubly hard. It takes an individual like Simon Burney to step up and put these things on."
Held soon after the Yorkshire Grand Départ, the Milton Keynes World Cup proved again that the British love a bike race, in whatever form (for further evidence, see the 2016 Track World Championships in London). That said, as with any sport, it is the chance to watch the best that brings out the crowds in the greatest numbers.
“We simply need more and bigger races in this country," Field says. “People ask, ‘Why don’t more people go and watch National Trophy races?’ I doubt there were 1000 people in Milton Keynes left over to watch the National Trophy the day after the World Cup. That shows you that people want to watch superstars.
“Go back to football: Premier League crowds are 50,000 or 60,000 people; go down your local village, and it’s five men and a dog. The crowd is there. They’re simply waiting to come out and watch the best in the world."
In an era in which British success on two wheels is the norm, rather than the exception, Field’s one-man assault on the cyclo-cross World Cup is almost a throwback to a bygone age. There is no shiny team bus to transport him to races; no sports scientists monitoring his warm up and down.
Field’s career began with a stint inside British Cycling’s so-called ‘medal factory’ - four years in the Olympic Academy for mountain bikers - but ever since he has taken a more decidedly old school approach: living in Belgium, and racing with the support of a shop team.
“On the whole, it was very, very positive," he says of his alma mater. “It took me from a young, naive junior and gave me the skillset to become a professional rider. I can’t fault the people who were in place at the time, helping me, especially. Simon [Burney], who was in charge of the programme, and Nick Craig, who was one of the coaches. I had some really good support around me."
Field’s minor criticism is that the mountain bike effort may have been a tad under-resourced, but even this he understands, given the vastly greater numbers of medals available on the track, and its infinitely more controllable environment.
The new season, now almost upon us, will see Field defend his National Trophy Series title and contest “the majority" of the World Cups. Regaining the national champions jersey, which Field lost last year in a head-to-head with the gifted Liam Killeen, also remains high on his agenda.
There are two other significant prizes that interest him. One is the World Championships, due to be held on a comparatively unknown course in Luxembourg. Field has heard that it is tough, and, as such, one that will suit him.
Only the second ever running of a European cyclo-cross championship for elite men is also high on his agenda. Last year’s inaugural race was won by Dutch wunderkind Lars van der Haar and Field will hope to deliver a strong performance at this year’s race, to be held in France at the end of October.
With British riders now dominating the road and the track, ‘cross remains one of the few disciplines to be captured. Field, for so long a solo campaigner on the big stage will remain in the British vanguard, returning week after week to the most revered venues of this unrelenting discipline to give his best against the best, improving and earning respect all the time.