Sometimes I start off knowing how to answer the basic question of my post. Other times I don’t, and am more just tossing something out there for you guys to chew on. This one is the latter.
Lately the term “unicorns” has been flying around the ball sports world, and I thought it’d be fun to co-opt here. Basically it means something that does not exist, so when you call someone a sports unicorn, you are saying they are so great that you don’t really believe they exist, even though they do. There can be various reasons why someone gets called a unicorn: super-awesomeness, unfathomable array of qualities, or just generally being something we don’t think we’ve ever seen before.
[Unicorns aren’t literally either nonexistent or unprecedented. It’s more accurate to say that they don’t come along very often, so for at least a portion of the viewing audience who don’t remember the last unicorn, it’s like we’ve never seen this before.]
Obviously I’m talking about Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert. Cyclocross’s two top stars are so young, so strong, so technically proficient, so aggressive and smart... that it’s hard to imagine a time when we were so lucky to be watching the sport as we are now. Yes, we’ve seen great ‘crossers, most notably Sven Nys whose Merckxian career just wrapped up a year ago, and in general the sport has featured one or a few top stars who dominate the results.
Now we have two stars. Serious, all-round stars, whose presence on the startlist make practically every race a battle for third before the gun goes off. Both of them won world championships before their 22nd birthday. And not because there was a giant pileup that took out all the established veteran stars. No, because they have taken turns the last couple seasons just kicking everyone’s asses.
I’m fairly sure we have had unicorns in Cyclocross before. My question is, have we ever seen two at the same time? Let’s try to find some and see who was around when.
Niels Albert (2007-12): Was Albert a unicorn? I don’t think he was. He finished his U23 career on time by winning a world title at age 22, and an elite one a year later, with a second one at age 26 and lots of race victories in between. He had days on which he dominated, when he was firing on all cylinders, and covered himself in glory at some of the biggest events. But the only unicorn qualifier he meets is an early world title, and that was on an ultra-fast, frozen course, which begs the question what would have happened on a heavier circuit. He was great, a star, and it was a bummer when his career was cut short by a heart issue. But I don’t think he was something we feel like we haven’t seen before.
Zdenek Stybar (2001-2014): Stybar’s CX career seems to be pretty nominal at this point, but he makes a pretty good case for unicorn-hood by winning three world titles, including one in a season where he barely raced ‘Cross, because he was too busy piling up road races. But if this unicorn definition thing is to indicate something that’s hard to believe exists, I don’t know if I’d go quite that far with Stybar. Like Albert, his star burned brightly when it was lit up at all, but not beyond all reason.
Lars Boom (2001-2012): Now things get a bit more interesting. Boom is also still going, but as a hobby/training gimmick. But when he was on the rise... I think he might have been a unicorn. Boom was a junior world champion at 17, a U23 champion at 21 and an elite world champion at 22. He won the Dutch nats every year at whatever his level was from 2001 to 2012. Basically, every year he really raced. Along with his world title in ‘08 he was also the champion of the Netherlands in ‘cross, road racing and time trialling. Again, when he was 22. At age 20 he beat Sven Nys in the GP Sven Nys. He didn’t pile up a lot of wins, but that had more to do with his road ambitions, which were always encroaching on his CX exploits. He won often enough anyway, against Nys, Groenendaal, Albert and Wellens. The Vlij-man might have been the biggest thing of the last decade of ‘Cross, but that’s a question we’ll never get answered.
Sven Nys (1998-2016): Total unicorn. In a herd of unicorns, the most amazing one gets nicknamed “Sven Nys.” Seriously though, Peak Sven was pretty dominant, just good at everything and hulking up whenever the going got tough. But Longevity Sven is probably what the record books will remember most vividly. The sport that so many champions have casually walked away from was like a religion to Sven. Along the way he lost a lot of races to great riders, but won way more than anyone else, and was the last man standing from his generation.
Bart Wellens (1998-2015): Here’s the part where I can only talk to you about quantities, not qualities. Why exactly Wellens was able to knock Sven Nys around for the better part of a season (2003-4) is beyond me. It is safe to say that for a brief moment in time it looked like the sort of two-man competition we have now, with one of them being Sven Nys, so logically it should follow that the existence of another big winner means that we had a double-unicorn-type situation happening there. But Wellens couldn’t make it stick. Through illness, injury, and who knows what else (possibly the very depressing death of Tim Pauwels, his teammate and Kevin’s older brother) Wellens was never quite the same after his big 21-win season. Two U23 world titles and two more at the Elite level suggest he was a unicorn. I’d say he was a borderline case, and the lack of longevity makes me wonder what went wrong.
Bunch of 1990s Guys: Toss names like Richard Groenendaal, Mario De Clerq and Erwin Vervecken into the logical Cuisinart here, just for fun, but I personally don’t think the outcome will be edible. First of all, let’s not pretend that ‘cross was magically walled off from the complete corruption that had taken over road cycling, so from the start it’s hard to say anything truly definitive about these guys.
Groenendaal might have the best case, with his first silver medal at worlds at age 22, but Vervecken was third at the same age, and went on to win five prestigious races at 23, and would claim three world titles before it was all said and done (versus one for Groenendaal). De Clerq didn’t seem to race the sport until his late 20s, when his exploits took off and landed him three rainbow jerseys after his 30th birthday. Maybe that’s a sign that he could have been a true great. But he also went on trial for various PEDs, so I don’t know what to do with him.
Bottom line, none of these guys took the world by storm as soon as they began racing, the way our current pair of unicorns has. So I think it’s a no to all three, even before we start applying the ethical criteria.
Adri van der Poel (1981-2000): Mathieu’s dad doesn’t have much of a case for unicornity, but completely ignoring him here seemed unnecessarily rude to me. Right now his case is that he won a fair amount (albeit later in life than the present kids), he was a world champion, he married one of Poulidor’s kids and he helped bring about Mathieu. Does taking part in the creation of a unicorn make *you* a unicorn too? Perhaps, but that doesn’t clarify Adri’s case, since it’s just as likely that his wife could be the family’s genetic gold mine.
Roland Liboton (1979-1992): If the numbers make the unicorn, then start carving a nice spiraly horn for Liboton. At age 22 he won the Belgian national championships, a title he would not relinquish for an entire decade. Remember, Belgium is the country where all the best ‘crossers come from, and let that sink in. Oh, and that same year he won the world championship, which he would give back the following year (1981, edged by Hennie Stamsnijder) before getting a stranglehold on the rainbow jersey for three more years. He won a total of 156 races in his career. [Nys won 164 events from the three major competitions and a total of 300, for context.]
Albert Zweifel (1973-86): I’m getting deep in the weeds here, like if this were wikipedia there would be a “stub” warning. All I can tell you is that Zweifel won four consecutive world titles from 1976-79, and nine Swiss national championships.
Eric De Vlaeminck (1962-80): Roger’s brother was Mr. Cyclocross Worlds, taking seven victories starting from age 21, which basically makes him a first-ballot unicorn. He racked up 192 victories in the dirt, all while maintaining a presence on the road. Yes, doping scandals shadowed him throughout, so there’s always that. But I don’t think we can summarily strip away his otherwise rather overwhelming credentials.
With the caveat that I don’t actually know much of anything about riders before Lars Boom, I’ll posit that our double-unicorn present reality is pretty much unique in the history of cyclocross. We have had single unicorns most years, though not necessarily at the height of their magical powers, but only now is it clear we have two of them, alive and very, very well.
Even if something statistically similar happened in the past, as in riders racking up lots of splashy wins, it was at a time when the sport was small enough to maybe not get so excited about it. As the sport became a bigger deal internationally in the last couple decades, we have had brushes with multiple unicorn gatherings, or maybe we even saw them happen for a brief spell. A field with Boom, Nys, Albert, Stybar and Wellens, all at or close to their peak powers, was probably more exciting than the current two-man duel. But only Nys was a clear unicorn and Boom flirted with the status before walking away. So that depth, while impressive, might not have been quite at the peak performance we see unfolding before us.
OK, I’ve thrown enough spaghetti at the wall (figuratively speaking — I don’t actually test my pasta like a caged primate). What say ye?