Make no mistake, Zdenek Stybar is an incredible cyclocross racer. He won worlds twice in the U-23 ranks and then twice again - on back to back years - in the elite ranks. This is the same guy, after all, who has won at Zonhoven, Koksijde, Namur, and who pried the Superprestige overall from Sven Nys' clutching fingers in 2010. And so when Stybar was dueling at the front of the race past the midway point, we were not surprised.
But, when the final lap concluded with Stybar riding across the finish line first - solo - many of us were incredulous. Did we really just see that happen? A promising rider for the cobbled classics on the road won a cyclocross World Championship, when he was two months from top form? Weren't Sven and Kevin and Klaas and Lars supposed to be at the peak of their form? And skilled as he was, shouldn't Stybar's self-professed technical rustiness have cost him the energy he needed to win?
Video recap of Stybar's win:
The weekend of racing saw more surprises than just this, though Stybar's triumph was perhaps the most shocking of them all. As the women lined up on Saturday, all eyes were on Marianne Vos and Katie Compton, the six time world champion and the four time podium finisher and only true challenger to the brilliant Dutchwoman. As the race started Compton had trouble finding her pedal and was immediately caught in traffic, even moreso after an early tangle with a Czech rider that left them struggling to disentangle their bikes as the entirety of the field came around them. From that point on, the odds against any real battle emerging were slim as Italian mountain biker Eva Lechner bravely rode in front of Vos for half a lap before getting inevitably gapped near the finish. Compton fought to claw her way back up the race and while she gained positions, she was nonetheless still losing time on Vos every lap. As the final lap started it became clear the 10-time United States national champion's asthma was rearing its head again after putting Compton out of the final World Cup round in Nommay the prior weekend. On the final lap she dropped from fifth place to 9th.
Video recap of Elite Women:
But reducing the women's race to the dominance of Vos, who tore through the course's technical sections in a way unlike any of her competitors, and the absence of Compton would be a mistake. Between the two favorites there was an enthralling battle for the remaining podium spots. Lechner began to visibly fade and pay for her early efforts as the battle between Sanne Cant and Helen Wyman heated up behind. Though Lechner would hold on for second, it would be by a mere 10 seconds, crossing the finishing line after Wyman charged onto the finishing straight in third after dispatching Cant in the final half lap with a combination of power and technical precision on the muddy, off-camber climbs.
By the next day the course had dried out some, making it tackier on some of the climbs but keeping the deep mud ruts that characterized portions of the field. The U-23 Men's race saw an uncharacteristic overthrow of the king of this year's races, Mathieu van der Poel. Two weeks after being disqualified from the Belgian national championships for an early start, Wout Van Aert was out for blood and attacked on the first lap, instantly getting a gap and never having company for the remainder of the race. Behind, the hometown kid could only muster 3rd, getting beat by perennial podium placer Michael Vanthourenhout.
U-23 Men's Race:
More than results
More than simply races, the past weekend raised questions about the future of the sport in the next few years. For the women, the death grip of Marianne Vos seems steadfast as ever, though if you look past the front runner the sport appears much healthier and livelier. Not that Vos' dominance is not earned or is any less fascinating to watch, but competition and question marks that hang in the air before every race are one of the things that draw viewers back weekend after weekend, year after year.
As exciting as the U-23 race was with promises of many battles between Van Aert and van der Poel to come in the future years, it is overshadowed in part by van der Poel's hints that he may turn his attention every more towards the road a la Stybar in the next years. In some respects we should not be too surprised, especially after the 19 year old Dutch wonder won the U-23 World Championships on the road a mere four months ago. But letting go of one of the sport's biggest budding talents is hard. We can only wonder if Van Aert and Vanthourenhout will stay in the sport and become the Nys and Alberts of their age. The sting is sharper with the Elite Men's race being won by a full fledged road racer, making fans - and especially outsiders - wonder just how high the calibre of the sport is. Does cyclocross stand alone as its own pillar in the cycling world, or is it a sideshow in a muddy arena til road starts again? Is it possible to be a bit of both?