It started a few weeks ago, really. The inexorable slide into road season, that is. A stalwart for watching cyclocross races while riding indoors, even I started queueing editions of Paris-Roubaix and Liége-Bastogne-Liége to watch instead as the snow fell outside instead of Sven Nys dicing his way around a muddy track. Our live threads had less gusto, our cyclocross posts got fewer and further between. †
Cross season always seems to end with a whimper, not a bang. It is hard to escape the sport in the fall and the holiday Kerstperiode. Even as the road season "starts" in Argentina and Australia, we look forward to worlds. But, far fewer people know the season ended in Oostmalle, Belgium, yesterday on a twisty and sandy track. The World Championships, no matter how thrilling, are followed by three more weeks of racing that lack pizzaz. Road season does the same, but Lombardia provides a hallowed race to anticipate at least. But cross has no Koppenbergcross or Zonhoven in mid February, so we are left with episodes that drag out past the climax instead of a culminating season finale that leaves one aching for the next fall.
Losing oneself in thoughts of warmer spring days when you can ride outside (!) with narrow tires (!!) frequently is easy, and I do it as much as the more purebred road enthusiasts. I come not to judge, but to help remember the season that was.
A Coronation, or Changing of the Guard?
When Sven Nys won the World Championships in Louisville a little over a year ago, it was a relief of sorts. The best cyclocross racer of his generation, seemingly the next, and perhaps ever, finally received his due with a second set of rainbow stripes. Surely there could be no greater wearer of the stripes for none seem to have the season-long tenacity and steadfast winningness of Nys. This is the man who has won 13 Superprestige titles, 9 BPost Bank / GVA titles, and 6 World Cup overalls over the course of his career.
In short, we expected a good showing. We got precisely that.
Even more than usual, Nys dominated all season long. He ran away with the BPost Bank series early on with a victory in Ronse and held the lead the remainder of the season, winning five of the eight series races along the way. Mr. Superprestige, as he is often known, almost lost his chance at winning "his" series as a broken derailleur in Gieten left him many places behind Niels Albert. That mishap made his Superprestige run - where he won four of the eight races and podiumed in three other occasions - seem far less dominant than it was. The World Cups were not to Sven's liking this year, but that is overshadowed by his victory tally of 15 races, compared to 10 for Niels Albert, 6 for Lars van der Haar, 5 for Tom Meeusen, 2 for Klaas Vantornout, and none for Kevin Pauwels. It was a fitting coronation for a king of the sport.
But with Nys entering next season at 38 years old, it is hard not to wonder if this amounted to his last hurrah of this sort. His main rivals struggled all year, magnifying the apparent gap between them. Niels Albert won ten races in a disappointing season, Kevin Pauwels never materialized, and Klaas Vantornout suffered with mechanicals and bad luck and sickness. The question of whether we saw an unstoppable Nys or a momentarily weakened field will linger as next season starts.
The opposition for Nys is younger and multiplying. Albert, his biggest threat, is a mere 27 years of age, while Pauwels is 29. The threat these two pose has always been clear, and should they return at full strength next year Nys will have his hands full. But half of the threat comes from the relative youngsters in the crowd. Tom Meuusen struggled with sickness in the middle of the season yet still took five victories. That he won races is no surprise, for he has won several races a year in the past, but it was the manner of his racing, the lack of fade in the final twenty minutes of racing that was most impressive and signals a turning point for the 25 year old Belgian.
The bigger question mark may be whether Lars van der Haar, winner of the World Cup at only 22 years of age, stays in the sport or turns his focus more towards the road. Despite protestations to the contrary, he seems likely to be drawn towards the Zdeneck Stybar model, especially after signing for the Giant-Shimano development team. Just how much of a changing of the guard we see over the next year depends in large part on what van der Haar does, and that concerns more than just the question of his disciplinary orientation. This year, the young Dutchman raced about two thirds as much as his competitors, picking and choosing races in the Superprestige and BPost Bank series to do instead of committing to a full schedule. If he races a more complete season next year rather than focusing more on the World Cups, his added maturity and broader focus will drastically change the balance of power at the top level of the sport.
The Perpetual Battle for Second
On the surface, little seems different this year from last season on both sides of the gender line, but the women's side of the sport seems to offer fewer chances for changing next year. Depending on which part of the season you focus on, most races seem like a constant battle for second, either behind the always strong Katie Compton or the Marianne Vos who is unstoppable in the World Championships. Few head to head battles occurred when either was in the race, and sadly we were deprived of a chance to see this in the World Championships when Compton crashed early on the first lap and then had an asthma attack in the concluding laps.
Instead, the most exciting races were often the ones outside the World Cup rounds Compton and Vos frequented. There, we saw victories by Helen Wyman, Sanne Cant, and Nikki Harris. In the World Cups and at the World Championships, the more compelling story was usually this group's battle for the remaining positions in the top five.
Take, for example, the final two races of the BPost Bank series. Helen Wyman led Sanne Cant by over a minute in the general classification going into the penultimate race at Lille, but she struggled and lost major time there and in the final race in Oostmalle, leaving Cant to take the overall win by a healthy margin of over one and half minutes. But these battles were easy to overlook with the series putting the women's racing early in the day and with the dominance of Compton and Vos in the bigger races taking the spotlight. As we head towards the next season, little seems poised to change, both in the schedules of Compton and Vos as well as the coverage the women get. But, there are glimmers of hope, especially with the BPost Bank series' Koppenbergcross offering equal prize money for men and women - a first for high level racing in Europe.