Cyclocross’s changing of the guard

Young talent, unpredictable action, and more — expect excitement as Euro 'cross kicks into high gear with Sunday's Superprestige opener.

Photo: TDW

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the October issue of Velo magazine.

European cyclocross headed into the 2014–15 season in flux, with many of the sport’s long-established protagonists either absent or vulnerable. And while its young rising stars showed promise, none had yet been seriously vetted among the elite ranks.

Two-time world champion Niels Albert had just retired due to a life-threatening heart condition diagnosed that spring. Reigning men’s world champion Zdenek Stybar, barely back from an ugly crash at the Eneco Tour a month earlier, remained focused on his burgeoning road career and planned to race only a handful of cyclocross races. Sven Nys, by far the most popular and successful cyclocrosser of the modern era — and one of the oldest too — faced a challenge from two undeniably gifted but unproven young riders: Wout Van Aert, reigning under-23 world champion, and Mathieu van der Poel, the 2013 junior world champion in both cyclocross and road. Could these two young riders match a legend and fill the void left by Albert and Stybar?

Meanwhile, perennial women’s champion Marianne Vos was absent from the sport entirely, opting to race an abbreviated late-season schedule after a poor showing at the road world championships in Ponferrada, Spain. American Katie Compton, Vos’ longtime rival, had battled allergies and asthma for much of the 2013-14 season and was hoping for a return to both form and health.

Another question: Would Vos’ absence and Compton’s struggles open the door for young women, just as Stybar and Albert’s departures might for the men? Belgian Sanne Cant and Dutchwoman Sophie de Boer, both 24 at the time, figured to be the prime candidates.

It was not long before the young guard delivered answers. De Boer took major wins at Ronse and Koppenbergcross and briefly held the World Cup lead. Cant had a breakout season that included 26 wins and her first World Cup title; she was runner-up at the world championships, second to another young rider, 2014 road world champion pauline Ferrand-Prévot.

For the men, too, the season belonged to the young riders. Van der Poel and Van Aert, who would go one-two at worlds after opting to forego their under-23 eligibility and race among the elites, dominated the racing and the conversation, especially after Nys’ season collapsed. Thanks to that young duo, the average age of the men on the elite podium at worlds in 2015 was 21 years, 120 days, nearly 50 days younger than the average age of the under-23 podium.

Can there be any doubt that a youth movement is in full flower in international cyclocross?

In bloom

the 2015-16 season promises an even more youthful look. Two more Belgian retirements — two-time world champion Bart Wellens and former junior world champion Bart Aernouts — should open up more opportunities for new elite riders like 2015 under-23 world champion Michael Vanthourenhout (Sunweb-Napoleon Games) and U23 Belgian champ Laurens Sweeck (Corendon-Kwardo), just cleared to race after a long, contested doping investigation. Both men already rank in the top 10 in the world.

Van Aert (Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace) and van der Poel (BKCP-Corendon) look poised to continue the rivalry that began last year. The former is mentored by Niels Albert, now a sport director for his squad, and has flourished under his tutelage. But Van Aert’s style is less like that of the impetuous Albert, who won races with speed and power, and more like Nys, who dominates with a combination of finesse, constancy, and racing savvy. Van Aert won the World Cup opener, CrossVegas, in early September. His Dutch rival, van der Poel, is fast off the line and very clever, a tough combination to beat on a fast, technical track.

Neither raced a full schedule among the elites last season, and how well each adapts to a heavier load this season remains to be seen. assuming the two successfully navigate the transition to full-time elite professional racing, they’ll continue to own the headlines and podiums in 2015–16.

They will meet resistance from established racers, none of whom will be pleased to cede hard-earned ground to the young upstarts. Belgian Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Napoleon Games), who won his second World Cup title last season, and Dutchman Lars van der Haar (Giant-Alpecin), who finished third behind the pair at the 2015 world championship, will likely lead the resistance. But Belgians Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea) and Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Napoleon Games), German Philipp Walsleben (BKCP-Corendon), and Dutch rider Corné Van Kessel (Telenet-Fidea) will be chasing opportunities for wins.

And of course there is Nys (Crelan-AA Drink), entering his final season as a professional. Will he return to the legendary form that has earned him more than 300 career victories? “I definitely want something more,” Nys says. “For me it’s important I can race every race [in the] top five. I know that I can’t win every race anymore. I’m 39 years of age and there are a few guys who are 20, 21, really talented, explosive, and riding really well for the moment. So we’ll see. But my level is strong enough to stand a lot of times on the podium and [get] results in the top five.”

Nys may claim to be satisfied with top-five finishes, but it’s hard to imagine he won’t want to leave his legions of Belgian fans with a more definitive final statement.

Meanwhile, American fans will see a changing landscape. Jonathan Page (Page-Fuji) sold his home in Belgium and moved to Utah. He will now focus on the domestic circuit. Simultaneously, Jeremy Powers (Aspire Racing), whose commitment to the World Cup series last season earned him a top-10 overall finish, will look to make progressive strides abroad.

The arc of the season itself is also likely to be seriously altered by the addition of the first World Cup stop outside Europe, with CrossVegas coming in mid-September.

“Certainly the first World Cup kicking off a full month earlier than traditionally changes the picture,” says Brook Watts, CrossVegas race director. “I’m hearing of some riders who are putting in some of their hardest, most dedicated training in years, recognizing that the level of fitness needs to be higher from the outset. Now, whether we see some riders getting flat after a couple of months of racing is the key question.”

Nys, for example, attributed his implosion in 2014 to early-season training overload. Nys started last year’s campaign on fire with a win at CrossVegas, but could not sustain his form through the season, despite taking time off to rest in early December. What strategy will a rider chasing the World Cup overall have to use to sustain good form from early September to late January? For his part, Nys finished second in Vegas earlier this September. The rider who solves the puzzle of the extended season could reap major rewards later on.

Women to the fore

Among the women, American Katie Compton (Trek Factory Racing) may be on track to do just that. Dogged by allergies, Compton has failed to deliver on the promise of her early season form for two years in a row. To deal with this and other health issues, she has adapted her program. She took time off during the summer and will spend less time in Europe and more at home in the clear, dry air of the Rocky Mountains this year.

“I have energy again,” she says. “I can breathe and my allergies are much better so that’s a huge positive. On the downside, I’m coming into the season with the least amount of riding I’ve ever had, so I plan on building for January and hope to have my best races later in the season.”

As Compton chases a world championship that has eluded her for the better part of a decade, she and her fellow women competitors should benefit from an increasingly positive climate for women’s racing in Europe. In 2014, Belgium’s Koppenbergcross became the first race to offer equal prize money to men and women, thanks to the leadership of British champion Helen Wyman (Kona), who lives nearby, and financial support from Baltimore-based Twenty20 Cycling.

Meanwhile, UCI’s Rule 5.1.048, which prohibits race promoters from running women’s races in unfavorable, morning time slots, should take full force this year. (Superprestige races received a waiver last season due to a conflict with their pre-existing TV rights licensing.) It will move women’s racing further to the fore in Europe, where it is already rapidly growing in popularity.

If regulations and prize money have helped accelerate those gains, the increasing number of authentic women’s stars have been the foundation. Belgians Sanne Cant (Enertherm-BKCP) and Ellen Van Loy (Telenet-Fidea) both enjoyed breakout 2014-15 seasons. Vos and Ferrand-Prévot (both Rabo-Liv), Compton, Wyman, and Czech champion Katerina Nash (Luna) are also among the women with dedicated and growing fanbases. All are likely to be protagonists this season.

Among them, Cant has taken the biggest step forward and will likely be an early favorite, assuming she is fully recovered from a collision with a tractor during training earlier this year. Cant had sharp words for the women she called “part-timers” in the press conference after worlds, where she was out-dueled by Ferrand-Prévot. Though Cant later walked back from those comments, it’s true that the influx of fresh racers late in the season compounds the difficulties for women chasing the world title.

Still, Cant was one of a number of beneficiaries from their absences early on. The women’s field will likely enjoy such a benefit again. Vos has been hampered by injury since early in the year. This summer she finally elected to abandon her racing efforts indefinitely and as of late August had yet to set a target date for her return. Ferrand-Prévot, meanwhile, will likely skip the early season again as she recovers from a busy summer of racing both on and off road.

In their absence, the biggest challenges may come from compatriots Van Loy and Jolien Verschueren (Telenet-Fidea), both of whom are coming off career-best seasons. Meanwhile, Wyman and countrywoman Nikki Harris (Telenet-Fidea) lead a strong and growing British contingent that could benefit from a power vacuum at the top of the sport.

And the youngest women, who have previously had no choice but to race alongside more seasoned veterans at the world championships, will benefit from the addition of a combined category for juniors and under-23 women at worlds.

Those championships, to be held on the final weekend in January, on the former Formula 1 track in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium, promise to be like nothing we have ever seen before. Organizers said they expect as many as 80,000 fans to pack the venue. If so, attendance would dwarf the record-setting crowd of more than 60,000 who turned out the last time worlds visited Belgium, in Koksijde in 2012.

But worlds remains months away. One thing cyclocross has always delivered is unpredictability — this season should be no different. Yet, in a sport brimming with young talent, new opportunities for women, and one of the most challenging race calendars in recent history, the ride, from Vegas to Zolder, September to January, will be predictably thrilling.

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