I've been pondering this piece for weeks, but watching last Sunday's Belgian national cyclocross championships solidified the need to write it. As the penultimate lap of a long, muddy, tractor pull of a race in Erpe-Mere, Tom Meeusen grabbed the lead out of a select group of six and the pace he brought put Sven Nys under pressure. Though Klaas Vantornout proved stronger as he pulled away with half a lap remaining, Meeusen fought to stay close behind and occasionally brought back a second here and there as he rode up the muddy rises with more speed and fluidity than Klaas, eventually crossing the finish line in second place only eleven seconds behind one of the best mud riders in his generation.
The second place was a huge result for Meeusen, who excels much more on dry, fast courses. One of his first truly notable wins was last year's Koppenbergcross, one of the storied parcours where Sven Nys so rarely loses. But last year, the weather gods allowed fairer weather and a faster track than prior years prevail. As the unusually large lead group hit the last lap, Meeusen bided his time. Six minutes later, he would win the sprint. His good form brought him again to the podium in some later races, including a third at Gieten and a second at Diegem. Then, late in the season in the last World Cup, the bunny hopping Belgian out-rode Francis Mourey, Philipp Walsleben, and World Cup overall winner Lars van der Haar on a slow, sloppy, and treacherous course. Maybe then we should have seen the writing on the wall that Tommeke (the other Tommeke, that is) was maturing.
Now, some eleven months later, Meeusen is the second best elite rider behind a resurgent Kevin Pauwels, several rungs up the ladder from where most would have placed him last year. But, despite his improvement, few are talking about him. The culprit? The up-and-coming U-23 riders who have been racing in the Elite ranks for most of the season. Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert, a scarcely believable 19 and 20 years old respectively, have caught the attention of fansand headlines everywhere. This week all the talk was about the two young riders' decisions to participate in the Elite ranks at the World Championships in a few weeks time, permanently forfeiting their ability to ride any subsequent U-23 races. While Klaas Vantornout's win in the Belgian national championships drew attention - the lanky mud specialist was sick and had lackluster results all the way through the Kerstperiode and a last lap mixup forcing Wout Van Aert and Rob Peeters off their bikes drew some ire - most talk surrounded the two newcomers to the elite ranks.
If you take van der Poel and Van Aert out of the picture, Meeusen's podium ride at nationals becomes a lot more interesting. The result came at the end of a long string of podium places in the second part of the season, a string that kicked off when he won Ruddervoorde in November. After that, he notched third places at Spa-Francorchamps and in the GP Hasselt before winning the hilly and often muddy Vlaamse Druivenveldrit in early December. Then, a true tear began. Though he had back issues during some of the Kerstperiode races, finishing well off his usual pace in both Namur and Zolder, Meeusen notched podiums in Scheldecross, Mol, Essen, Diegem, Azencross Loenhout, and Leuven in a wide range of conditions. More notably, the only three riders to beat Meeusen in this period were Wout Van Aert, Mathieu Van der Poel, and fellow U-23 rider Laurens Sweeck. Of the "old guard," Meeusen has consistently been the best, if only out shadowed by his younger counterparts.
To be a star at the highest level of this sport, you can't be a narrow specialist. Klaas Vantornout, for all his power and running speed, rarely wins because courses that are not tough, hilly, muddy slogs with lots of running offer few opportunities to him. While Sven Vanthorenhout excels on fast, dry courses - see this year's Flandriencross Hamme for a great example - he drifts back in mud and on hard, hilly courses. Instead, it's riders like Sven Nys, Kevin Pauwels, and recently van der Poel and Van Aert, who can win in all circumstances who we remember once their generation is gone. And, races like Druivenveldrit and the Belgian National Championships are evidence that Meeusen is moving towards that model. Meeusen's consistency across the November and December months has been notable in itself, but also because he has performed across a wide range of conditions.
Some things are slower to change, like his proclivity to place out of sprints rather than by riding away from competitors, but at 26 Meeusen is only going to improve. Had a new glut of talent not arrived in the Elite ranks this year, we would no doubt be talking about Meeusen a lot more. But, with another year of maturation, we could see him winning even more next year.