Words by William Fotheringham | Photo by CorVos/SWpix.com
Confession time. For a good deal of my cycling life, I was never that much into cyclo-cross. It didn’t help that I was a few years too young to see the De Vlaeminck brothers in their prime, and it didn’t help that if the Tour de France seemed pretty remote in my formative bike racing years, the 1980s, cross felt light years away in comparison.
The first cross World’s I went to was in 1991, but seeing loads of Dutch and Belgian fans with cowbells and accordeons on a freezing course in a wood near Gieten didn’t bring it any closer to home. 1992 in Leeds was different, and so was watching Roger Hammond win the junior race, but the lack of television coverage meant it was still remote. Hammond went on to a stellar professional career, but somehow even that didn’t truly convert me on to his side of the sport.
That’s changed in the last few years. Marianne Vos and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot began the process for me, ramming home the De Vlaeminck (and Hammond) message that there can be a serious connection between cross and road. The arrival of Wout Van Aert at the Classics in 2018 made the point again, so did Tom Pidcock’s meteoric progress, and then, of course, along came Matthew Van der Poel. It also helped that I had to support a couple of first year juniors who had ridden at a good national level at cross and were making the leap to road racing themselves: it’s one thing to hear about why cross is good for young riders, another to see the evidence in front of you.
The old cross constants have always been there: the courses vary wonderfully (although mud seems to be a constant factor this winter), the technical skills are, at times, a wonder to behold, and physically it’s intense. But this winter it has an added draw: the soap opera story of Van Aert and Van der Poel at the end of a year that was up-ended by Covid, and the beginning of another where the virus will be a dominant factor. It helps that GCN have been putting the races on its excellent RacePass app, but it’s all much more immediate than in a normal year; the Classic season has not been overtaken by the Tour de France and the world road championships.
Having watched the “spring” Classics in autumn means that when you see the Belgian and the Dutchman kicking seven bells out of each other at Namur or Baal you are taken back only a couple of months, to the roads that led to Wevelgem and to Oudenaarde. It’s a muddy path that will take the pair (and Pidcock) to the World Cup in Hulst on Sunday, the world champs in Ostend, and then, hopefully, on to the Classics.
Cross, finally – and perhaps uniquely – is completely part of the narrative, thanks mainly to the way Van Aert and Van der Poel both raced during the second half of 2020: Van Aert’s win at San Remo followed by the way he rode in the Tour; Van der Poel’s epic win on the final day of the Binckbank Tour, followed by Flanders. It’s good to see them pushed by the winter warriors: Toon Aerts, Michael Vanthourenhout and Quinten Hermans; cross needs that connection to the wider world of bike racing so that it broadens its appeal outside its base of aficionados.
It helps that both Van Aert and Van der Poel ride road and cross in the same way, with their ability to turn on the afterburners and produce something extra at the chosen moment making every outing worth the viewing. Pidcock isn’t quite at their level yet, but given his “mad dog” way of racing, it can only be a matter of time. As with other races in 2020, the lack of spectators doesn’t detract as much as you might think; the organizers miss the beer tent cash, the fans miss the day out, but on television, when stripped down and behind closed-doors, sport becomes only about the players.
It’s given fresh savor by other factors. Watching a rider of the stature of Vos, one of the greatest champions of the last 10 years, make her return to the muddy tracks is one, another reminder of her supreme versatility. Another is the emerging duel between Lucinda Brand – the dominant force this winter – and the world champion Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado, whose final lap attack to outwit Brand at Baal on Friday was a glorious piece of instinctive riding. In terms of competitive demands and support on the ground, the case for cross to be an Olympic sport is a strong one.
There are issues, of course. The pandemic means this winter most of the races are in Belgium. The constant calls on social media for the women’s races to be longer are well founded: it was ridiculous on Friday at Baal, with the riders lapping at around 10min, to call time after just four laps with a race time for Alvarado of just over 40min. Gullegem on Saturday was 45min for the winner Blanka Kata Vas. There is no good reason that I can see why men and women shouldn’t race the same length events.
And even by the standards of a sport which as a whole lacks coherence, cyclocross is all over the place. There’s the World Cup, the Superprestige and weirdest of all, the X20 Badkamers trophy – of which the GP Sven Nijs was a part – which is decided on cumulative time. It’s a mess, but at least we know who the best riders are, so you can sit back and enjoy the gladiatorial spectacle. And hope we see those stars – Van der Poel, Van Aert, Brand, maybe Alvarado if we are lucky – strutting their stuff on the road to Roubaix and Oudenaarde come spring and with a fair wind, all the way to Tokyo.
If you’ve enjoyed this, why not try La Course en Tête’s review of the 2020 season,
Racing in the Time of Covid, which is on sale here.