Crossland Q&A: How secure is European cyclocross?

Our man in the Belgian mud answers a question about making room in the elites for the young riders and signs off for the season

Photo: watson

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Editor’s note: Dan Seaton has been literally crawling through the Belgian mud covering European cyclocross since 2008. Each week this season he’ll look ahead to the weekend’s races and answer your questions about ’cross on the other side of the Atlantic. Got a question for your favorite Euro star? Want to know the inside story about the legendary Flemish fields? Send your questions to Emails to this address were being bounced earlier this fall, so if you tried to email and didn’t hear back, please do try again.

BRUSSELS (VN) — This week’s column is a milestone: it’s the 20th edition of Crossland, marking nearly five months of answering your Euro ’cross questions.

With the world championships behind us and only two weekends of serious racing left, even most Belgian cycling fans are thinking ahead to Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the annual kickoff of the road season in the low countries, scheduled the day before the finale of the bpost Bank Trofee cyclocross series in Oostmalle.

And to be honest, there’s not much suspense left, despite the handful of races still to be run. Most prominent are next weekend’s season finale in Oostmalle and Saturday’s Hansgrohe Superprestige finale in Middelkerke. Sven Nys (Crelan-Euphony) holds a nearly insurmountable 10-point lead in the Superprestige; only a finish outside of the top 10 would leave him even remotely vulnerable to runner-up Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus). So, regardless of what happens out on the Belgian coast in Middelkerke, Nys’ 12th Superprestige title — and the €72,500 prize for the overall victory — are likely secure.

Meanwhile, Albert leads the Trofee series, which is decided on overall race time, by 5:12 over Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Napoleon Games). Since the maximum allowed loss due to a single race result is five minutes, Albert is nearly invincible. There is a pathway for Pauwels to steal the overall, but only if he can win the intermediate sprint, which comes with a 15-second bonus and win the race, finishing at least five minutes ahead of Albert. Not a likely scenario. Albert should be on course for his first career victory in one of the two major European series next weekend.

Now to one of your questions. It’s a big one, and an important one for the future of cyclocross.

The future of Euro cyclocross

Dear Dan,
Aurelien Duval says he’s retiring from cyclocross because he can’t find a team for next year. Jonathan Page, the American national champion and a one-time worlds medalist, has been riding this season without a main sponsor. With a big influx of young talent to the elite level, a lot of top riders like Niels Albert, Rob Peeters, and Tom Meeusen with the potential to keep going strong for another decade, and no really big new teams on the horizon, where can all these young riders go? How sustainable is elite European cyclocross?
—Horacio in Madison

Let’s leave Duval aside for the moment since his struggles are a bit of a special case. He served a two-year suspension after testing positive for the banned stimulant norfenfluramine in 2009, which might have played a role in teams’ lack of interest in him.

Page, who signed a bike deal with Fuji in January, continues to search for a sponsor, but hasn’t walked away from the sport. He’s a guy who, in my opinion, deserves better: a dedicated father, hard worker, and a tough-as-nails racer who is warm and generous off the bike. But Page also, since he splits his time on two continents, is a bit of a special case. Page raced one year in the Sunweb colors, but found team management unsupportive of goals that included races in the States and a mid-season trip for the national championships, which, at the time, were held in early December. I have no doubt that the national champion will not race next year without a title sponsor, but, for better or worse, he’ll chart a course outside of the established European powers.

So let’s also put him on the shelf and consider the heart of your question, which I think is a valid one.

The recent history of Belgian cyclocross has been ruled by a handful of teams. The teams, currently called Crelan-Euphony, Sunweb-Napoleon Games, Telenet-Fidea, and BKCP-Powerplus, have hosted every major contender and won nearly every podium place in Europe in recent years. On top of that, Crelan’s management has suggested that, absent a new team leader, the organization may fold once its superstar, Sven Nys, retires at the end of next season. The market for cyclocross, at least in Belgium’s northern region of Flanders, is pretty well saturated, so how can the sport grow?

Let’s start with the young guys. To be sure, there are a few clear talents among the juniors and U23s. Dutch junior Mathieu van der Poel seems destined for greatness, American Logan Owen has shown impressive skill and savvy, and Belgian Wietse Bosmans and Dutch U23 world champion Mike Teunissen have shown promise. And Lars van der Haar, racing as an elite at 21, is a bona fide star already.

But the truth is, the path from the developmental ranks to professional success is not an easy one to navigate. Many promising riders abandon cyclocross for more lucrative careers on the road or mountain bike. Some simply fail to make the transition smoothly or find other interests as adults. Those who are already on course for success are mostly already affiliated with teams that will help them make that transition. In fact, of the riders I’ve listed, Owen is the only one not signec with one of the four major Belgian players or the Dutch Rabobank squad. My sense is that the sport is welcoming the next generation pretty warmly.

What of the established riders? At 36, Sven Nys plans to retire next year. Gerben De Knegt is 37, Page is 36, Bart Wellens is 34, Francis Mourey is 32 — even Belgian champ Klaas Vantornout and Bart Aernouts are 30. And not all of them will have the near-superhuman career longevity that Nys has enjoyed. The role of experience, skill, and maturity in producing champion cyclocross riders keeps the equation balanced for older riders longer than it might be in other sports, but eventually everybody starts to feel the gravity of age, the lure of a life of normalcy, of being able to just go ahead and drink a beer with your feet up out on the terrace on a sunny October afternoon. Soon enough these guys will all make way for the new stars of the sport.

And the teams? The situation isn’t quite as bleak as it seems. It’s true, the big four teams win a lot, but Jan Denuwelaere took a big win for his Style & Concept team in Essen in December and Bart Aernouts and Thijs van Amerongen posted solid results for AA this season. Meanwhile, Kwadro-Stannah, a new squad and an offshoot of BKCP-Powerplus, intended as a supportive home for non-Belgian riders, has gotten nothing but top-10 results out of Radomir Simunek since its inception in January. Even Rabobank continues to support solid young riders like van der Haar and women like Marianne Vos, even as it abandons its WorldTour road team.

Belgium, in particular, is a market where sponsoring a top cyclocrosser can earn a brand real, serious exposure. The Sunweb and BKCP logos are as familiar to ’cross fans as the massive John Hancock logo atop the scoreboard at Fenway Park to Red Sox fans. At least as long as Belgians continue to dominate the sport, it seems likely sponsors will continue to flood Belgian cyclocross with money.

And then what? The sport, as it has done more than once in the past, will find a new center of gravity — Switzerland, the Czech Republic, maybe even the United States.

Is its future nothing but roses and daffodils? Probably not. Cyclocross may yet have to face its own doping ghosts, of the past or a still hidden present. Good riders will struggle to find support. Old stars will retire. Popular and historic races will fail financially and disappear from the calendar. But the sport will find new heroes — van der Haars and Owens and van der Poels — to take their places. New and dramatic races will become the stuff of legend, just as Ronse and Namur and Louisville, Kentucky, have done in the past few years.

Cyclocross, a sport with more than a century of history, has seen times of abundance and times of privation. It endured two world wars. It has embraced new technology even as it holds fast to its roots. In the past decade it has entered a new era of global appeal, one emphatically capped by the successful world championships in Louisville not two weeks ago.

My prediction: cyclocross, in all its muddy glory, is here to stay.

Crossland, on the other hand, is closing up shop (and maybe headed for a little vacation in the Swiss Alps). VeloNews will still bring you all the race action as the two big series wrap up, but this is the final edition of my column for the 2012-13 season. Before I go, allow me to say two big thank yous. First, thank you to all my loyal readers, especially those who sent in questions for me to answer this season. And, second, thank you to editor Brian Holcombe, for giving me this platform to talk about ‘cross. Launching this column was his idea, and it’s been both incredibly fun and incredibly gratifying for me to write.

Thanks everybody. See you out there in the mud!

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