Two days ago on the muddy tracks through the woods of Essen, Belgium, the Kerstperiode began. From now until January 1, cross races pepper the calendar with unheard of frequency, a gift from the cycling gods to those of us at home for the holidays or dealing with the throes of last-minute Christmas shoppers (sorry, Jens...). Today's stop on the advent calendar of crossmas was the World Cup event held at Namur, whose steep climbs and even steeper drop-offs are often coated in deep, rutted mud. Next up is the World Cup at Heusdon-Zolder on Thursday. Following that, we return to Diegem (Superprestige) on the 28th, Azencross Loenhout (BPost Bank) on the 30th, and finally slow down a touch late on New Year's Day after the GP Sven Nys (BPost Bank) finishes. If you're counting, that's six races in 13 days.
Every one of these races is great in it's own way - the mud of Namur, the sandy drop-offs of Zolder, the night race at Diegem, a course tailor made for Old Man Cyclocross himself on New Year's... But this year is shaping up to be a thriller of a Kerstperiode for other reasons as well.
Sven Nys' lack of form in the past month has been the topic of many discussions of late. Right now, the greatest cross racer of his generation is not leading any of the three major series, a rare thing indeed for a rider defined by his consistency more than anything else. The tussle to fill the void opened by Nys' low form is becoming particularly fierce. In Essen it was Wout Van Aert, the 20-year-old under the tutelage of Niels Albert and splitting his time between the U23 and Elite ranks, who won. As he crossed the line, Van Aert notched his fourth win of the season in the Elite ranks, and his third in the BPost Bank series, taking the overall lead from Nys. The youngster's year is ever more impressive considering he has not raced a full elite schedule. Neither has Mathieu Van der Poel, the 19-year-old phenom who has won two Elite races this year. But, Van Aert's real competition looks to come from Kevin Pauwels.
At 30, Pauwels is far more experienced than his young competitors and it has shown in recent races. In Zonhoven, he trailed Nys on the final lap but stayed within himself and rode the last corner more cleanly, setting up a sprint victory. At the World Cup in Milton Keynes, Pauwels sat at the back of the lead group until the final two laps, only then playing his cards. Today's World Cup in Namur played out in the same fashion as youngster Lars van der Haar pried out a lead upwards of ten seconds in the final laps only to see Pauwels slowly close it down before capitalizing on a mistake on van der Haar's part inside the final lap. Though at times Pauwels seems to lack the outright power of Van Aert, his experience will continue to create opportunities in the next two weeks.
Below Pauwels and Van Aert, there is much competition for the podium. Tom Meeusen has looked good in recent races and Klaas Vantornout will be hard to shake on any course heavy with mud. But, with an unusually dry cross season so far, just how heavy the next four races will be is questionable. Recent trajectories in form point to a battle between Pauwels and Van Aert, which is doubly exciting because we have seen few outright fights between the duo this year. This is in part due to their different racing styles - Van Aert tends to be aggressive in the early laps, carving out a lead early and then trying to pad it. Pauwels lurks behind, and the closest to a battle between the two we have seen happened at the World Cup in Koksijde where Van Aert went on the offensive early and Pauwels methodically worked his way up to second. Look for van der Poel to play interloper, especially on the fast course of Zolder.
In the Elite women's fields, arguably the fastest three women in the sport are finally, rarely, in the same field. Sanne Cant has had a field day this season, winning 12 of the last 14 races. But, Cant's dominance has come in the notable absence of three names - Katie Compton, Marianne Vos, and Katarina Nash. Compton's pedigree is unquestionable with over 100 UCI victories and she has been racing recently, but at the same time she has been struggling with allergies and asthma attacks in recent months, holding her back from full power. But even then, Compton came out on top of Cant in Namur today, showing signs of her old self.
Joining Compton on the podium was Marianne Vos, in her first cyclocross race since earning her seventh world championship title last February. Vos takes an annual break in the first half of the season to recover and recharge from a long road season before racing sparingly in the lead into the World Championships. Though she will not do every race in the upcoming two weeks, her second place today - due to a mistake in the final laps - shows she has lost none of the magic she draws on to win most cross races she starts. But, coming out on top today was Katarina Nash, the Czech mountain biker and cross racer who dialed back her race days last year and this fall, primarily doing select races in the United States. Though she is almost undefeated as of late, Nash's competition is a step below that present in the motherland of cyclocross and her pedigree was a bit of an unknown. That, of course, has changed now with a win in her second race on European soil this year and her eighth this entire cross season. When she is on form, Nash is one of the best, particularly on a course like Zolder. Seeing how Cant deals with this uncommonly strong competition will be one of the major stories this Kerstperiode.