The cyclocross gods must believe in the twelve days of Christmas, for they decide every year to give us six races over the holiday period, starting in Essen on 22 December and running through New Years Day. Six days of racing over eleven days means lots of craziness, namely a race every other day as riders frantically try to recover and the rest of us can sit back and watch muddy race after muddy race. Kerstperiode is the name of this glorious time of year and it is the true Holy Week of cyclocross in timing and the reverence it gets from fans both in the motherland and otherwhere.
Kerstperiode started last Saturday with the bpost Bank series race in Essen, a slop fest as we have not seen this season. Riders were practically indistinguishable from each other with only their riding styles and square inch sized patches of clean kit giving clues as to who was riding where. Zdeneck Stybar, twice world champion now riding on the road for Omega Pharma - Quickstep, started his brief dally into cyclocross racing for the season and almost won the race, taking the sprint for first but taking Jan Denuwelaere into the barriers along the way and getting relegated to fourth. Sanne Cant won the women's race in dominating fashion ahead of a hard chasing Helen Wyman. The following day was the fifth stop of the World Cup, the Citadelcross in Namur - as iconic a venue as Koksijde or Zonhovan. I could tell you what happened, but you'd be better served by looking through the gallery of photos provided by Patrick Verhoest and narrated by Chris. Pictures, they are often worth well over a thousand words, especially when trying to describe Belgian mud.
But these are not words about the past, for you can read about that elsewhere, even on this very site. Instead, we celebrate the Kerstperiode and look forward to what is still left to come. What races are coming, what is there to look forward to?
Four races remain, all stalwarts of the European calendar: Heusden-Zolder, Azencross Loenhout, Diegem, and Baal. Four chances at mud or snow and glory or defeat. Four places where battle will be done and riders will strain against their pedals with snot falling onto their mud splattered thighs, wheels barely moving in the muck as they hope they can push their body an extra percent towards failure than rivals.
The cycling gods are not cruel and riders are treated to a day off on Christmas, but the following day while the rest of the world celebrates Boxing Day or attempts to shake off the drowsiness of Christmas feasting riders will instead be suiting up for the next round of the World Cup. The venue is the race track in Zolder and the racing was special last year.
Previous podium: Pauwels, Stybar, Nys
TV: Sporza, 15h
Merry Christmas! Or merry Boxing Day, which is when this race always takes place. Each country has it's own traditions, and this is one of ours. We don't get a day off, but at least we get a cx race to watch while pretending to work. If it's dry, the trick is to avoid all the roots and obstacles in the pine forest surrounding the race track this race is on. If it snows, the trick is to not fall down. I love snow races.
A day off and we go to Loenhout for a stop in the bpost Bank series. When GS says the washboard is cool, she means it - it is a pump track section where you should watch Stybar and Nys use their old BMX skills while others try to mimic them and sometimes flounder in their wake or fly into the next dip with their bike upside down over their heads.
Previous podium: Albert, Stybar, Nys
TV: Sporza, 15h
This race is a slugfest, where hard work is more important than pure technique. Lars Boom does well here (which doesn't mean that he doesn't have any technique, but man does that guy have a big engine). It's flat and on grass, though there's usually a lot a lot of mud as well. Crashes aren't unheard of either, last year Stybar did a rather unpleasant (or so I hear) nuts to the top tube manoeuvre, and Nys somersaulted in the mud. The coolest feature is the washboard section.
After another day off, we have a night party, to warm you up for your New Years Eve festivities the following evening. Break out the beers and get ready for a race with a little twist... Diegem, a stop on the Superprestige series.
Previous podium: Albert, Pauwels, Nys
TV: Vier, 17h30
This is one just for the Americans - with a start time two and a half hours later than normally. You're welcome guys. Diegem is special mostly because it's raced in the dark, under floodlights. That's the major obstacle, darkness. As for the course itself, it's pretty straightforward: forest, sand, gravel, hills, beams, grass... a little bit of everything, and all that in the dark.
Finally, there is the final day off of racing on New Years Eve... but no racer in Belgium will be staying up to watch the ball drop in Times Square or ringing in the New Year with glasses of champagne, for they must drive to Sven Nys' personal playground the following day. As a bonus, the race is one of the bpost Bank series stops, so everyone should be there for the party. Delving into the den of the cannibal is never a good idea, as Sven has made it his goal to prove for the past thirteen years the race has been in existence. With 11 Nys wins in 13 years, we would call it the GP Sven Nys even if it were not formally named as such. Last year was horrendously muddy, and with hope all the races will be this week for there is no snow nor freezing weather in the forecast, just chances of rain interspaced during the week for Belgium.
Besides the obvious - that six races in eleven days is heaven on earth - what makes Kerstperiode so exciting? Plenty of things, at least one of which should suit your fancy. Here are a few things to look for beyond the usual battles.
Zdeneck Stybar and Lars Boom make their annual forays into cross racing, creating pangs in the hearts of purer cross fans who die a little inside every time they see these talents on the road. They will not be at all the races this week, but both will be racing with an aim towards preparing to steal their respective national championships from the group of full-time cross racers in the Czech Republic and the Netherlands respectively.
- Marianne Vos is back after an extended and well-deserved break. She placed third yesterday in the Namur World Cup race and will only get faster from this point on.
- American kids at Euro Cross Camp. Baptism by fire is how USA Cycling tries to raise the upcoming waves of cyclocross racers, sending them over for two weeks, encompassing Kersterperiode, to race in the heartland of the sport. You won't see the kids on TV, but if you look carefully, you can look to see how riders like Drew Dillman, Josh Johnson, and Logan Owen - to name a few - are doing in the U-23 and Junior ranks in these races.