Mud. So much of it.
Cyclocross is all about mud, really. We ridicule places like Las Vegas, which is not known for ever producing mud, and we call the course a shameful grassy crit (which it is). So we can hardly complain when the Cyclocross World Championships are subjected to the ironic torture of having all the mud in the world, right?
Personally I spent much of yesterday complaining about just that. It was a sticky, slippery mess of a weekend in Valkenburg, with very little in the way of fluid riding, just grind, grind, grind. A true modder. The kind of race where, for us recreationalists, everyone finishes with some version of a smile on their face.
So what does it mean? I write this knowing that I am a huge, and therefore disappointed, fan of Mathieu van der Poel, who saw his dominant season sink like it was in quicksand in Sunday. I know I am biased and should love a good slopfest as part of the true nature of ‘Cross. It’s riding outdoors in February, they’re lucky not to be racing over six inches of snow and ice.
But in the end it was a bit much. Races didn’t have much rhythm as riders got on and off their bikes constantly. The pits were an eternity, where you’d see riders running, then hopping on, then hopping back off, all in the pits, before grabbing a new bike. It changed the races to something different from what we expected.
For Wout Van Aert, this was the equivalent of drawing an inside straight. All season long he had been hammered by van der Poel, week after week, and then in the single biggest race, the World Championships, he puts two minutes into the guy? That’s the mud. Van der Poel likes staying on his bike. He hops barriers and would very gladly stay in the saddle, tap out a rhythm, and seal his fluid victory on lap three. That was utterly impossible here, as riders dismounted to run through the slop on, what? Five times per lap? Ten times? More?
Van Aert is a true professional cyclocross grinder in the classic Belgian fashion, built over the years to be undeterred by this sort of adversity. Where van der Poel can go into a crisis and never come out, Van Aert never wavers. This was the third consecutive one of those days at a world championship. It doesn’t matter whose dad designs the course, Van Aert will be ready to clean up if van der Poel makes a mess of things.
And that is what the mud did, it turned the steadiest, most unflappable grinders into world champions, and everyone else into a pit of misery. Tom Pidcock saw his day go in a similar direction as van der Poel’s, as Eli Iserbyt bested him and Joris Nieuwenhuis by grinding it out, while the young Englishman slumped badly to 15th place. On Saturday Sanne Cant — the biggest grinder of them all — took Katie Compton’s full measure and was one lap better to seal her second consecutive win. See a pattern here?
The Belgian cyclocrossers are... a bunch of individuals and hardly merit much in the way of generalizations, but if you had to offer one, it might be that they have their eye a bit more keenly on the prize here. Van der Poel and Pidcock and lots of others work in their ‘Cross season around other cycling disciplines, because outside of Belgium just focusing on CX is a tough way to make a living. These wonderful athletes can parlay that riding they do into ‘Cross success, even against the dedicated grinders in the field, but this was a day for the latter and the former paid the price.
The race of the weekend was definitely the Elite Women, as Compton threatened to write a truly dramatic script at age 39, holding the lead over Cant in the penultimate lap of the World Championships. But Compton was one of the riders who seemed to lose time in the pits, and Cant closed a small gap to the American, then engaged in a one-on-one duel for another half a lap before finally pulling away. Cant is the most ruthless rider in the peloton. Van Aert, van der Poel and the rest of those guys are lucky she fell on the other side of the gender ledger, or she’d be eating their lunches instead. Nobody has a stronger mind. Van Aert is close though.
Two last notes... American Gage Hecht took an impressive ninth place in the U23 race, a couple weeks before he even turns 20. This is a great result, and could give Hecht the foundation on which to build himself into a true international crosser, in the sense of a guy who competes for the wins in Europe. 3.04 back on this sort of course is a great result.
And will the Netherlands ever schedule another world championships in Valkenburg? Maybe, it’s a beautiful place they say, and that always plays a role in giving the stage to a corner of the country where they can make a good international impression. But the road worlds were here in 2012 and a Belgian won then too (Philippe Gilbert). Also Quick Step in the TTT and a long list of non-Dutch riders in the rest of the events, save for peak Marianne Vos, who won the road race. At least one rider held serve back then. This time... nothing. For the first time since 2004 no Dutch rider took home a rainbow jersey from the CX worlds. When you’ve foot the bill for the enterprise, this is more or less your worst Dutch nightmare:
Add in the Amstel Gold Race, which no Dutchman has taken since 2001, and I think it’s time to stop holding marquee events on the Cauberg. Why is it even part of Holland, it’s not even flat? The karma is all wrong, the race course is misaligned for feng shui purposes, and nothing good can ever happen to Dutch riders there. Shut it down!