Now, I know that the rainbow jersey is coveted in every cycling discipline, but in cyclocross it glows especially brightly. In cyclocross there are national champions, continental champions, and world champions. There are no other symbols of success, such as the yellow jersey in road racing. The world championship is the climax of every season. All roads lead to the worlds. Every rider is there. Every rider aims to be at their peak for this one race.
The atmosphere at the cyclocross world championships is always one of high tension. All eyes are on the athletes we’ve watched throughout the winter. Every weekend, we’ve witnessed their triumphs and failures, the ebb and flow of their form, the emotion, the rigour of the way they apply themselves to their sport. And then, it all comes down to one battle.
This year’s event will take place in Dubendorf, Switzerland. A nation with a long tradition of cyclocross racing, Switzerland will host its eighth world championships. In 1988, one of the muddiest races in living memory at Hagendorf, to the west of Zurich, saw home favourite Pascal Richard beat Adrie Van Der Poel to the gold medal. Thirty-two years later, would anyone bet against Mathieu Van Der Poel taking revenge for his father?
Van der Poel’s dominance this season has been total, and while fans would always like to see closer racing, just watching Van der Poel ride away is breath-taking. The only chink in his armour has been revealed on very heavy and hilly courses, such as Namur and Ronse, where Toon Aerts has been able to stay with the flying Dutchman. But, being on an airfield, Dubendorf has virtually no elevation, and the race is likely to run similarly to the European Championships in Italy, when a phalanx of Belgian riders tried unsuccessfully to outwit Van der Poel. So perhaps the most interesting question for the elite men’s race is who will win silver and bronze? Eli Iserbyt’s win in Nommay points to a resurgence of form, and Toon Aerts’ enforced break due to the fractured ribs he sustained during the apocalyptic Namur World Cup just before Christmas may have been a blessing in disguise. By the first weekend in February many riders are beginning to get stale. Aerts still looks hungry. Laurens Sweeck, Tom Pidcock, and Tim Merlier will also be in with a chance of a medal. Wout van Aert is playing down his chances, but he is coming into the race fresh, with his form rising towards the cobbled classics, and there is every chance he could sneak into a medal-winning position.
If the elite men’s racing this season has been pretty dull, the women’s racing has more than compensated. It would be wrong to call Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado a revelation, because her talent has been clear since the 2017-18 season. Her growth as a rider has been impressive, and seems to be mental as much as physical. It’s an old cliché that winning races teaches you how to win races, but it seems to apply here. She is calm under pressure, absorbs mistakes with maturity, measures her effort perfectly. The disastrous crash at Hoogerheide which cost Alvarado the overall World Cup will surely light the fire in her belly. As in Hoogerheide the most serious threats to her chance of winning an elite rainbow jersey on her first attempt are her compatriots Annemarie Worst and Lucinda Brand. Worst has the strongest sprint, Brand has a roadie’s power. Each will have to play their cards carefully.
Defending champion Sanne Cant missed the Nommay World Cup, preferring a training camp in sunnier climes. Her season has been disappointing by her own high standards, for no obvious reason. Perhaps the hunger that pushed her towards her three rainbow jerseys has gone. Who could blame her? The more worrying aspect is the lack of an obvious successor in Belgium. Compared to the strength in depth of Dutch women’s racing, Belgium has a serious problem. And with the phenomenal growth of interest in women’s racing, one can’t help feeling they’ve missed a trick. Why aren’t there more strong Belgian women coming through the ranks? Whereas The Netherlands have an egalitarian and participatory approach to cycling, in Belgium cyclocross is still the reserve of men. The system is designed around men, and that means it excludes women. Unless some progressive voices start to change things soon, Belgian women’s cyclocross will take a long time to catch up.
The world championships are not only a set of races. They are a gathering of the clan, an opportunity for gossip and business deals, and a time to impart news. This year we will learn the shape of next year’s World Cup, following the contentious decision by the UCI to tender their flagship series to Flanders Classics. Based on the rumours dripping out of Belgium it seems likely there will be a total of 14 rounds, with seven in Belgium. Of the remaining seven, two will be in The Netherlands, one in France and one in the Czech Republic. It remains to be seen if the U.S. events at Waterloo and Iowa have made the cut, or whether there will be any new territories.
If one of the objectives of tendering out the World Cup was to globalise the sport (it’s hard to tell what the objectives were, so poor was the communication), this is a failure. Next season’s series will look much like this season’s, only with more Belgian races. At its base, the problem is a lack of innovation. The World Cup might expand to take almost every Sunday on the calendar, but in itself that is not a step-change. As yet there are no major new sponsors, no new television deals, no new formats to drive engagement with new audiences. The commercial arrangements of the events haven’t changed much, other than a higher fee to be paid by the local organiser.
The biggest challenge is how to make events outside Belgium and The Netherlands financially sustainable. In cities such as London, the job is so much harder because one has to explain what cyclocross is, before trying to persuade sponsors and government to get involved, even before you persuade the public to come and watch. To truly globalise the sport, a more creative approach is required, and that means bursting out of that Belgian bubble.
But there’s plenty of time to worry about the geopolitics of cyclocross. For now, let’s focus on Ceylin, Mathieu, Sanne et al. What better advertisement is there for our beloved sport than a furious heads-down, elbows-out battle for a rainbow jersey?
Cover photo: Cor Vos