Cyclo-cross is a pretty muddy affair at times.
Cyclo-cross is a pretty muddy affair at times. Swiss National Museum / ASL

Mud-wrestling on wheels

A scramble through the history of cyclo-cross. A sport that produced Swiss stars in the 1970s and 1980s, then sank almost completely into oblivion and is now experiencing a modest revival.

Nils Widmer

Nils Widmer

Nils Widmer is a historian and a research associate at Swiss Sports History, and is doing his doctorate at the University of Lucerne.

Cyclo-cross originated in southern France as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. In winter, road racers turned up for pre-season preparation on the sunny Côte d’Azur, where they covered quite a few kilometres not only on the road but also up hill and down dale, shouldering their bikes if necessary, or tackling a steep slope at a run. The first races in this newly created sport were held in 1902. The principle of the sport has remained more or less unchanged to this day. Riders complete a specified number of laps of a marked-out route. Depending on the category, the races last a total of 20 to 60 minutes. The courses usually run over grass, as well as woodland trails and dirt roads. In bad weather, rain or snow, the track turns into a mudbath. Generally the course tends to be flat, but there are always some steep climbs or even steps as obstacles, where riders have to carry their bikes. The bikes look very similar to road racing bikes and have the characteristic curved handlebars, but they are more sturdily built and the tyres have a deeper tread.

Wheels, races, glory. Swiss cycling

15.07.2022 16.10.2022 / National Museum Zurich
On the road, in the arena or across country: the exhibition presents the world of Swiss cycling in all its facets. Photographs tell the stories of mountain ascents, cycling acrobatics both highly skilled and unintentional, duels in the arena and out on the roads, and the good old military bicycle.
Switzerland held its first cyclo-cross championship in 1912. The event was organised by the Romande association of racing cyclists, the Union Cycliste Suisse. Four years later, the Schweizerische Radfahrer-Bund, the Swiss Cycling Federation, forerunner of today’s organisation Swiss Cycling, also established its own championship. From 1924 onwards, the two associations co-hosted the Swiss cyclo-cross championships. In the early years it was the Romands who called the tune, but from the end of the 1920s the Zurich Oberlanders hung onto the Swiss cyclo-cross crown for a lengthy period.
Ferdy Kübler competing in a cyclo-cross race in 1940.
Ferdy Kübler competing in a cyclo-cross race in 1940. Swiss National Museum / ASL
The first few championships were won by actual road racers, but as time went by there came to be more and more specialists who devoted themselves almost exclusively to cyclo-cross. The cyclists still kept themselves flexible, though. In 1945 Ferdy Kübler, who went on to be Switzerland’s first Tour de France winner, won the Swiss championship title in cyclo-cross racing. Albert Zweifel, Switzerland’s most successful cyclo-cross athlete, has also competed in the Tour de Suisse 16 times – a record. More than anyone else, Zweifel represents the heyday of cyclo-cross in Switzerland between the 1970s and 1990s. During his professional career (1973-1989) Zweifel, a qualified motor mechanic from Rüti (Zurich), won a total of five world championship titles, five further world championship medals, a number of Swiss championship titles and more than 300 races in total. One of his biggest adversaries was another Swiss: but Peter Frischknecht often had to settle for second place. As in the duel that was fought on the roads between Ferdy Kübler und Hugo Koblet in the 1950s, the public split into two camps, supporting either Zweifel or Frischknecht.
Albert Zweifel competing in a road race, 1976.
Albert Zweifel competing in a road race, 1976. Swiss National Museum / ASL
Same year, same team, same rider, but different discipline: cyclo-cross race in December 1976.
Same year, same team, same rider, but different discipline: cyclo-cross race in December 1976. Swiss National Museum / ASL
In the 1970s and 1980s, Swiss television routinely broadcast footage of cyclo-cross eventing to this audience on Sunday evenings, which undoubtedly fuelled the popularity of the sport at the time. The reason for the comprehensive coverage wasn’t just the success of the Swiss athletes; it was also the fact that the Sunday cyclo-cross races ended in the afternoon and mostly took place in the Zurich Oberland region – so the journalists could simply take the films to the studio in Leutschenbach and they could then be developed in time for the Sunday evening broadcast of Sport am Wochenende.
Cyclo-Cross Woldchampionships 1968 in Luxembourg. YouTube / British Pathé
Interest in cyclo-cross waned in the 1990s, despite further Swiss world championship titles in 1988 and 1995. Cyclo-cross faced stiff competition from mountain biking, which was devised in the USA in the 1970s and quickly took hold in Switzerland as well. At the very first world championships in 1990, held in Durango (USA), Thomas Frischknecht won the silver medal. He was also active in cyclo-cross in the 1990s and 2000s, and was Swiss champion on two occasions. While mountain biking as a sport has grown in popularity in Switzerland since then, cyclo-cross has almost completely dropped off the country’s sporting radar. The Swiss dominance in international mountain bike races undoubtedly favours this trend.
The rise of mountain biking also had another, very different effect. Right from the beginning, mountain biking offered competitions for men and women, such as the first Swiss championships in 1994. In cyclo-cross, on the other hand, there was no Swiss championship competition for women until 2000 – 88 years after the men. It was long considered that the tough cyclo-cross sport was too demanding for women, and that they weren’t strong enough to handle it. Arguments that were trotted out again and again in so many sporting disciplines well into the 20th and 21st centuries. But after the women had shown their mettle on the mountain bikes, this argument could no longer be maintained. Last but not least, the late acceptance of women into the cyclo-cross fold probably has roots in the connection between cycling and the military and military sports. For the Swiss Army’s bicycle troops, the ability to cope with rough terrain while cycling or carrying a bicycle across one’s shoulder was just as important as it is in cyclo-cross. The bicycle troops were disbanded in 2003, but military cyclo-cross races are still held.
Bicycle soldiers in action, c. 1935.
Bicycle soldiers in action, c. 1935. Swiss National Museum / ASL
But getting back to civilian life: cyclo-cross has experienced something of an upswing in recent years. Since 2018, the Cyclo-cross World Cup has made another appearance in Switzerland, and in 2020 Dübendorf was the venue for the World Championships. These days, the Swiss are playing catch-up behind the world elites; the dominant nations are Belgium and the Netherlands. But at amateur sports level too, cyclo-cross is experiencing a resurgence. So-called gravel bikes are inspired by cyclo-cross bikes, with the same sturdy frame and wider tyres with deeper tread, compared to racing cycles. Since 2020, stockists in Switzerland have been selling significantly more of these gravel bikes. This upswing probably owes a lot to the general bicycle boom that has been seen since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

Swiss Sports History

This text was produced in collaboration with Swiss Sports History, the portal for the history of sports in Switzerland. The portal focuses on education in schools and information for the media, researchers and the general public. Find out more at sportshistory.ch

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