Before I start, I'll just explain the sport really quickly* for anyone who's never watched it. For the sake of simplicity and conciseness, I'll focus mainly on the men's side of things, though the women's version is just as good!
Cyclocross is a form of cycling held on grass, sand, snow, mud, and other sorts of difficult terrain, usually in Belgium and the Netherlands. It is held on a short course, about four kilometres, and laps are ridden, usually between six and ten. There are occasionally other obstacles such as stairs and barriers. Riders will ride their bikes along the surface, but when they cannot, they will dismount and run. When there is a barrier, some riders (like Van der Poel, Nys and Meeusen especially) will bunnyhop them, which is exciting and downright cool. Races take usually around an hour.
There are several cyclocross races, over a season from October to February, and they are split into three competitions, or series. The Superprestige series contains eight races: Gieten, Zonhoven, Ruddervoorde, Asper-Gavere, Francorchamps, Diegem, Hoogstraten and Middelkerke, and the winner of each race gets fifteen points, second place gets fourteen, third place gets thirteen and so forth, and the winner is determined by who gets the most points at the end of the season. The Superprestige series often has the closest result. The biggest and most prestigious Superprestige races (Superprestiges) to win are Zonhoven and Asper-Gavere. Wout Van Aert leads it after winning Gieten, the first race. Mathieu Van der Poel is the defending champion. Superprestiges are shown on Belgian pay-TV channel Telenet, which pleases absolutely nobody, as you actually cannot watch them if you don't live in Belgium without a stream. The next race, Zonhoven is on October 25th.
The BPost Bank Trophy Series also contains eight races: Ronse, Koppenbergcross (yes, from the Tour of Flanders), Hamme-Zogge, Essen, Scheldecross, Loenhout, Baal and St. Niklaas. The winner of this is worked out quite differently. It's a bit like a stage race, spread over a few months. Everyone's time in every race is added up, and bonus seconds for winning and taking the intermediate sprints are taken away, until the winner is determined by who has taken the least time to complete all eight races. If a rider doesn't start a race, five minutes is added to his time, so theoretically, a rider can miss a race and still win. The biggest races in the series are Ronse and Koppenbergcross. Wout Van Aert is the defending champion, and leads this year's standings by four seconds after winning Ronse. All races are shown live on Belgian channel sporza, who usually don't geo-restrict for CX. The next race is Koppenbergcross, on November 1st, as always.
The third and (technically) most important series is the World Cup. This is comprised of seven races, but unlike the Superprestige and BPost, which are entirely in Belgium and the Netherlands, the World Cup has races in France and America. The races are: CrossVegas, Valkenburg, Koksijde (cock-say-duh, it's pronounced. Giggling is acceptable), Namur, Heusden-Zolder (the host of the 2016 world championships), Lignieres-en-Berry and Hoogerheide. The system is similar to the Superprestige system, but with different amounts of points. It's here, in the unlikely event of someone being interested. The biggest world cups are Koksijde and Namur. The World Cups are shown live very nearly everywhere, in English, on the UCI youtube channel. The next race is Valkenburg, on Sunday.
There are some big races that are not in a series, like Overijse, the national championships (which are taken far more seriously in CX than in road cycling) and of course worlds. Worlds are held on a different course every year, usually a well-known one, though not always. Mathieu Van der Poel is the current world champion, and the rainbow jersey is just like the road one, except with a blue circle with a rider carrying a bike inside the arc-en-ciel.
* not particularly quickly at all.
Hope you're not confused. If you are, sorry. I did my best. Wikipedia's better than me.
It's surprisingly difficult to get a picture of a lot of cyclocross racers together. Few photographers wait at the start line, as there's only one shot available there, and the race splits up almost immediately, so I've needed to get a couple of photos for this. The first is from the 2015 Hotondcross Ronse:
1. Sven Nys:
Sven gets #1 because he's Sven. Where to start? Sven Nys has won everything there is to win in CX, all three series, the world cup six times, the BPost or Gazet van Antwerpen, as it used to be called, nine times and the Superprestige 13 times along with two world championships, nine Belgian Championships and 143 individual series race wins. Probably the best crosser ever, and you could make an argument for him being one of the best all-round cyclists ever, if you take his five Belgian MTB titles into account, along with a top-40 finish at Paris-Roubaix. Recently, he had a below-his-high-standards year last year, winning only one big race and losing his Belgian championships jersey. However, things are looking up for De Kannibaal van Baal, with good rides in the early part of the season. What can he do this season? Well, if he gets up to anything like the levels we have seen from him, anything is possible, but it's just unlikely - he is 39, and this is his last season in the sport. I expect some performances quite like Ronse - sticking with the leaders, and managing high places, with a few wins. I'd say his target for the year is one last Belgian championship, which I would love to see happen.
2. Wout Van Aert
Wout Van Aert burst onto the scene in 2014, first winning the under-23 world championship, and then proceeding to win several pro races at the age of only 20, starting with the huge Koppenbergcross, in controversial circumstances that I won't go into. He won the BPost Bank Trophy, Koksijde, Hamme-Zogge, Essen,Loenhout and Baal, along with countless under-23 races, and would have possibly won worlds if not for two mechanical failures, but he still took the silver medal. What am I forgetting...oh, and he's won every single race he's ridden so far this year, five out of five, against tough opposition. If you hear something that sounds like "vafe op vafe" during the next race, they're talking about him. He rides for the relatively small Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace outfit, his main team mates being Rob Peeters, Tim Merlier and Jens Adams. Oh, and by the way, team mates aren't as dedicated in CX! Sure, in some races they'll help someone in their jersey, but only if they don't stand a chance of winning themselves, or maybe if there's two of them in a three-man group. Wout's got a big rivalry with another young talent of the sport, Mathieu Van der Poel. You'll find me cheering for Wout, and some others around here for Van der Poel. What can he do this season? Well, the sky's the limit. Van der Poel was the only one who could stick with him last year, and he's injured, and will be till at least November, plus the time it takes him to get back up to speed. Van Aert's good on all terrain, and I mean ALL terrain. He's a good runner, a good sprinter, a great power rider who goes through mud like it's not even there, and he can even bunnyhop. He's also after the Belgian championship, but also worlds, and basically everything else. Only Van der Poel's recovery might stop him achieving his aims.
3. Kevin Pauwels
Kevin Pauwels has been around for a good few years, but he had his one of his best years last season, winning the World Cup, Namur and a few other races such as Hasselt and Milton Keynes (which has been unceremoniously kicked off the calendar for rugby). He's fairly good at most challenges given him, he won one of the sandiest races, and one of the most technically difficult races last year, and you need to be fairly versatile to win the World Cup. He says "yoah" every three seconds, and is referred to as "Yoah," a lot of the time. He rides for Sunweb, with some young riders, like Michael Vanthourenhout (spelled correctly) and Gianni Vermeersch, and an older one, the Belgian champion Klaas Vantornout (spelled correctly. Improbable I know). This year he can probably aim to stick with Van Aert, and try to nab the odd win. It's unlikely he can retain his World Cup title - very few of his wins came when fighting Van der Poel or Van Aert.
4. Lars van der Haar
Yes that's a Giant-Alpecin kit. Lars van der Haar is the only rider in the upper echelons of the sport to ride for a top road team, and this year as a neo-pro with Giant rode 32 race days, including Scheldeprijs, with a best result of second in a stage of the Tour of Luxembourg. However, he is totally focused on his 'cross career, and has been very successful so far, at only 24 he has won the World Cup at the age of only 22, the under-23 world championships, and big races such as Zolder and Valkenburg. He specialises in the World Cups, and events in the Netherlands. He was regarded as a huge young talent until Van Aert and Van der Poel arrived, spoiled his party, and made everyone forget he's as young as he is. He had worn the Dutch national kit for the last couple of seasons before losing it to Van der Poel last year, so he's likely out to get it back, and come on, it's not like Van der Poel needs it, right? He really seems to enjoy "making the race" and you'll often see him on the front. Also, he turns running up steps into an art form, which has spawned the only hashtag worth using, (#larsvanderhaarrunningupsteps).
That's those four. Now for picture two, from the 2014 Druivencross Overijse:
5. Tom Meeusen
That's Tom Meeusen. He was regarded as a young talent until Van der Haar came along, and was regarded as a young talent till Van der Poel and Van Aert came along. For the purposes of this, I'll call the 26-year-old Meeusen Grandpa. He actually had a great year last year, often getting third places and second places behind a dominant winner, but still proving his strength, with his biggest achievements being a silver medal at his national championships and a win in the Superprestige Ruddervoorde. He rides for what is the biggest, if not the best team in the sport - Telenet-Fidea, a Belgian outfit containing no other really big stars. However, on the women's side, and the under-23 side, they do have some other talents such as Nikki Harris, Jolien Verscheuren and Eli Iserbyt, who came within two races of whitewashing the Junior races last year - but failed to become World Champion. This year he has moved to under-23s, and has started winning races there too. Meeusen's best qualities - unless you count his painfaces - are his sprint and his talent at bunnyhopping.
Tell me that isn't impressive. What? You can't? That's because it is IMPRESSIVE. (The bunnyhop, if not the video quality.)
6. Philipp Walsleben
If you said the name "Philipp Walsleben" to someone with a reasonable interest in cyclocross, they would probably respond with some answer like "Who? Oh, the German champion." This would be a reasonable response - the German kit almost became synonymous with Walsleben, he kept it in one form or another for six years. In the picture, he is wearing his national jersey, but in January he lost it to Marcel Meisen. Walsleben tends to stick around at the sharp end of a good few races, but has a habit of fading in the last lap or two.
7. Klaas Vantornout
The numbers picture is wrong - this is what Vantornout will look like this year, after winning the chaotic Belgian championships in the mud and rain of Erpe-Mere.
Part of the reason he won the driekleur after a particularly poor season was his power and running skills, and he (if you ask TGS) won his legs from a flamingo in a prenatal bet, so is pretty good at the old power sections and difficult hills. However, his main problem is the so-called "easy" courses, as he struggles in a sprint. He does best on difficult courses, preferably in the rain, and with lots of mud. Chances are, if you really enjoyed the race, Klaas will be up there. His best results - the Belgian championships, Asper-Gavere, Overijse and Milton Keynes all came on courses with off-camber sections and usually rain.
And last but by no means least -
8. Mathieu van der Poel
Our world champion, who dominated the closing weeks of the 2014-15 season, winning his nationals, Hoogerheide, Krawatencross, Hoogstraten, the Superprestige series and worlds in the last month, has had to sit out the first month or two of this season, and will not be back till late November after having knee surgery in Wout Van Aert's home town. He is a strong rider, and a good time-triallist, and when on form can literally blow away his opponents by simply attacking at the start of the race and riding faster than them.
His myriad talents are not merely combined to CX, winning the junior road race at the 2013 worlds, and several small underage stage races. He is also the nearest thing you get to cycling and cyclocross royalty, his father being Adrie van der Poel, cyclocross world champion and prolific road rider, who won't let him ride a full road season yet, until he, I don't know, graduates from cyclocross academy?
However, a knee injury sustained while overcompensating for another knee injury means that he shouldn't be back in the game until mid to late November, when everyone else is in the middle of their season and hitting a purple patch of form. Will this hinder Van der Poel? It remains to be seen.
Also remember to watch out for Laurens Sweeck, Michael Vanthourenhout, Julien Taramarcaz, Corné Van Kessel, Rob Peeters, Tim Merlier and Gianni Vermeersch, who don't appear in photos nearly as often as you think, and are great riders sure to feature this season.