Last Sunday the cyclocross season kicked off under a cloud of relatively significant uncertainty, for a sport that has been a two- or three-man battle for quite some time. Niels Albert, one of those two (or three), was freshly retired due to heart trouble and was busy either coaching a team or filming an extremely goofy promo segment where he's trapped in a small camper with a beautiful woman. Sven Nys is... well, he's Sven, but at some point he'll get old, right? I mean, nobody defeats Death in the end. If someone were to, it could be Sven, but Death is very fast in the sand. Also, if you're into omens, there's this. And it's not promising.
Lars van der Haar began the year coming off a triumphant season in which he won the World Cup, but little else, suggesting that he's a World Cup type of rider, which is not a compliment. Kevin Pauwels, the third wheel in the above construct, became the wheel that fell off the wagon last year, as he battled issues with health and form until late in the season, at which time he resumed his customary third step on the World Championships podium. Speaking of third wheels, Zdenek Stybar would be one of those wheels, and then some, if cyclocross were still his day job. Stybs dabbled enough in CX on the side to enable him to win his third world title, which thrilled fans to no end until, seconds after Stybs pulled on the rainbow jersey, they began wondering if they'd ever see the jersey in action again. [Answer: they will, on occasion.]
All of which suggests an unusual vacuum in the upper echelon of the sport -- and guess what? There are plenty of bodies to fill it. Tom Meeusen, winner of the 2013 Koppenbergcross and five other events, and slated to lead Telnet-Fidea this year, is only 25. For the purposes of this discussion, let's call him "grandpa." [Which makes Philipp Walsleben great-grandpa, and don't even ask about Klaas Vantornhout, who is gaining a few extra results but is literally old enough to be some of these riders' dad.] Wout Van Aert, who just turned 20, rang up a second place behind Nys last year in a rare elite race, before scurrying back to the U23 level in time for a world championship. And there, he typically does battle with one Mathieu van der Poel.
Only 19, the Dutch sensation has a junior world road title to his name along with the 2012-13 junior world cyclocross title. Oddly, van der Poel slipped to third last year in the U23 race, after dominating the promises all season with ten victories plus the World Cup and Superprestige series wins. Just an off-day, though Van Aert's performances all season long left him a worthy successor. Still, as good as Van Aert is, he's never done what van der Poel just did: beat Nys and everyone else in an elite CX race. Last weekend, the teenager hung with the lead all day, surviving until the last lap with van der Haar, and dropping him in a tight sandy corner to win the Gieten event alone.
So now he's the Number 1 in the world? Ah, not quite. Despite the sand, Gieten isn't the toughest circuit, and early October is a long way from Kerstperiode (Christmas Week). Van der Poel will see a stronger Nys and others, and will face less favorable courses. Van Aert, for one, is coming off a collarbone injury from road season and has just resumed racing in Gieten (and winning the U23 race). Everyone else, with the possible exception of van der Haar, has their focus on what happens from here forward, not Crossvegas and what have you. It's early.
Still, it's hard not to hear the respectful comments of Nys, van der Haar and others when discussing van der Poel. What he is doing is almost unprecedented, though with very little digging I offer you the case of one Lars Antonius Johannes Boom (such a great name). At age 19, Boom was winning a small handful of elite CX races, including Overijse (which was awarded to him when Bart Wellens was disqualified for kicking a spectator -- I couldn't resist mentioning this). By age 20, he was a bona fide star in the discipline, beating Sven Nys in the GP Sven Nys. By age 22, he was the #1 crosser and world champion, which signaled the end of his exploits off the road. Boom sealed his fate by winning the Dutch road race championships as well as the Dutch time trial title. If you're going to win everything, you might as well concentrate on the ones where you get paid the most.
Van der Poel, a world champion as a junior and 10th in this year's U23 race (in the bunch sprint for second, essentially), is building up an impressive road profile which, if such things can be predicted, will someday evolve into an elite pro's profile. Such things are not terribly predictable, but it's pretty easy to see he'll have some sort of road career, and with his decorated junior years he'll get paid on the upper end of stagiare's wages from day 1. Which means he will have to drop 'Cross before too long.
In the meantime it will be fun to see how high he can rise in his two or three seasons of elite racing. Presumably he has some lessons to learn this year -- being able to hang with Nys is not the same as being able to out-smart him. He will deal with peaks, altered by the planning for his road season. Hopefully van der Poel will be at the Worlds once more. I'm guessing that if there's any give-and-take with road, the elite world title will be a top target until it happens.
All that is pretty vague. Really, it'll suffice to say that something interesting is happening, and we should enjoy it while it lasts.
This Weekend: Styby at Ronse!
Time for the opener of the BPost Bank series, the GP Mario De Clerq! This is a hilly, grassy race, taking place atop the Hotondberg, the highest point in Flanders. It's pretty fast and frankly looks like fun. Well, most of the time:
If you don't enjoy this video, then you just don't like watching people fall down. Stybar will be here and in Ardooie, riding off the fumes of his road form, before taking a break, so enjoy him and his fancy jersey while you can!