Starting this past weekend, Cyclocross roars into high gear with an annual tradition like no other: the week-plus around Christmas and New Year's Day, where the schedule is jammed full of really great racing.
Personally, this is a mixed bag for me. I have a little more time off, but the 6am start time doesn't pair well with the Scotch I may or may not have had the night before. I missed Namur for this very reason, and Scheldecross Saturday because of a sleepover involving five nine-year-olds. Let's just say that by Saturday night I needed that (very lovely Glenmo 18) Scotch, and by Sunday morning I needed sleep. But things are calming down at home, while in Belgium there is chaos under heaven... and the situation is excellent!
December 26: Zolder (World Cup)
Zolder is a quirky little course around the F1 track known mostly for... F1 and Mario Cipollini's being gifted a world road title. And CX, of course, where every Boxing Day huge crowds come out to kick off proper Kerstperiode activities. [Kerst means Christmas in Dutch.] Anyway, despite the mostly flat area they manage to find some sharp inclines and add in some sandy bullshit, plus lots of twists and turns, to make Zolder both a technically challenging affair and a fitness test as well. Video evidence is none too current, for some reason, but here's a trip down memory lane...
Rain would help, but it doesn't appear to be on the way, not in any significant quantity. But by race time the course should be a bit heavy regardless. Oh, and if you don't think this is an important course? Check where the World Championships are being held in a month. Yep, Zolder. This course. Am I being clear? Right, moving on...
December 27: Diegem (Superprestige)
If you could magically show up at one -- and only one -- of the races in this post, this is probably the choice. Diegem might not be the most precious real estate in Belgium, sandwiched between the nation's rail hub (I think) and Zaventem Airport, but it's a village in Belgium, which automatically means it's lovelier than 99% of American cities. And there's the CX at night thing. Contrary to what some might think, it wasn't invented by CrossVegas.
Unfortunately the course is lacking in distinguishing characteristics, besides a staircase and some very hoppable wooden barriers. With the continued mild weather it's hard to see our way past a sprint of some sort. But the wild card is the calendar -- usually Boxing Day isn't on the weekend, but since it is now, that puts the first two events back-to-back, with the World Cup event (Zolder) taking precedence. So perhaps we will see some varied form on Day 2. In any event, we will actually see it, because it's not happening at six in the goddam morning.
December 29: Azencross Loenhout (BPost Bank Trofee)
An even less technical event, Azencross benefited from some nasty weather last year to become a technical slopfest, but this year's forecast says otherwise... for now. Anyway, the course is flatter than the rest, known for bridges and staircases more than anything else. Oh, and this:
OK, so it's not all bad. The only downside is the continuing difficulty us non-Belgians have had in securing a TV feed for BPost events, so we'll see about ... whether we see it.
January 1: Baal -- GP Sven Nys (BPost)
Possibly the most aesthetically pleasing course of the week, with nicely flowing ups and downs, and side to side action, never overly violent or gimmicky... except for the giant staircase.
Of course, it's still Sven's race even if he doesn't win it anymore. And in fairness, he only now can be considered unlikely to win, having last taken the title in 2014. Should he pull it off, it'll shake hangover-victim-filled couches all across Belgium to their joints. Still a fine way to start the year, regardless.
The Whom To Watch side of this is mostly really interesting on the women's side. Among the Dudes, it's the Mathieu vs Wout Spy-vs-Spy era, where every race is framed in binary terms... except that Kevin Pauwels is lurking, honing his form, and probably thinking positively about these courses. So you never know. I won't be betting against the Dutch Legacy anytime soon, but van der Poel and Van Aert will be putting on a hell of a show all week.
On the ladies side, look for, well, everyone except injured stars Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, Marianne Vos and our Katie Compton (just not doing Europe) from the list of great Crossers of the last ten years. Sanne Cant, Sanne van Paassen, Helen Wyman, Nikki Harris, Sophie de Boer, Eva Lechner and so on, they'll all be turning out to see who can get the psychological advantage heading into Worlds. The U23 field is also full of Belgian and Dutch high-hopefuls, as well as American interlopers like Logan Owen and Curtis White. Basically, if you're not in Belgium this week, you're not all-in for the CX season.