So, what's up with cyclocross?

Patrick Verhoest

There has been a dearth of posts and articles at PodiumCafe about cyclocross this fall/winter, which is really sad – I am missing tgsgirl’s comments, reporting, and translations, and the insights various Café members provide about riding in the mud, sand, sleet (and beer). Some might say that the season has been boring, with the main excitement and controversy being about the question of whether Mathieu Van der Poel’s supremacy is killing cyclocross. But there’s actually been a lot going on. We are now entering the hiatus between the "Kerstperiod" races and the late season races; things don’t really start up again until mid-January, with the national championships weekend, so it seems like a good time to summarize what’s happened so far this season.

Mathieu Van der Poel has indeed been dominant, winning almost everything he enters, and often riding well off the front for much of the race. Some of this is due to the fact that Wout van Aert has not been his usual self, only winning one race this season (in Mathieu’s absence). To be fair, Wout is usually strongest in the late winter and early spring, when he has historically come out of Mathieu’s shadow and won the Worlds. It may still happen this year, but either Wout is not as strong at this stage of the season as in past years, or some other riders have made a step up. Take, for example, Toon Aerts has won four races this year (the two early World Cup races, the Koppenberg Cross, and Overijse) and is comfortably leading the World Cup standings over Wout Van Aert (Mathieu is mired in seventh despite winning all the World Cup races he entered – he skipped the first two). Toon is also a reasonably close second in the Superprestige series, with two second places and four third places (to Mathieu’s six wins). In the DVV Trofee series, Toon is 8 seconds behind Mathieu after Tuesday’s race (they have some kind of a crazy time system for the overall standings in this series, with bonus seconds in the middle of a race as well as time gaps at the finish entering into things). Michael Vanthourenhout has looked very strong at times, and has been on the podium of several races.

The real threat to Mathieu’s dominance so far has not been his fellow cyclocross riders but rather spectators, race stewards, and, sometimes, mud. He crashed into a barrier while avoiding a spectator who crossed the course at an inopportune time a couple of races back, and at Diegem he plowed into a course marshal who was dancing around in the middle of the course before moving to one side but still sticking his considerable embonpoint into the line riders traveled. Some accounts point out that Mathieu had his head down in a Froome-like position, but if you watch the video I think you’ll agree that the steward was the problem, not the rider. Mathieu had some other crashes as well, the kind that happen to many cyclocross riders, and has sometimes come back through the field after getting up from the crash (or after missing the start, as he did in Diegem). So, although he’s been dominant, Mathieu van der Poel’s reign during the first half of the season has been interesting because of some of the things he’s had to overcome and his mastery of the sport. He’s been amazing. He may not continue to dominate, but he’s been well worth watching – seeing someone at the peak of his powers is always inspiring.

The top ten generally includes some U23 riders who are moving up to the elite ranks (Eli Iserbyt, Tom Pidcock, and Joris Niewenhuis, who was third at Zolder ) more established riders who sometimes vie for the podium (Corne Van Kessel, Tim Merlier, and Laurens Sweeck) and familiar favorites (Tom Meeusen, Kevin Pauwels).

Speaking of younger riders, Thibau Nys, who is now 16, won the junior version of his father’s race (the GP Sven Nys, on New Year’s Day), and did so by riding up the stairs while others ran up. I’m not sure how much time he gained, but there is no doubt it is amazing to watch.

Now for the really interesting stuff! The women’s cyclocross races have had all of the drama and tight finishes that have been lacking on the men’s side. There are many main players. Marianne Vos, still going strong at 31 though she seems to have been around forever, has entered 10 races, and has six wins plus three additional podium places, plus a comfortable lead in the World Cup series. Sanne Cant, the reigning World Champion, has raced pretty much every event (24 of them), with five wins and five additional podium places; she is usually near the front, even on an off day (her public persona seems a bit dour, but I’m appreciating her more and more). Sanne leads the women’s version of the DVV Trofee series by 2:34 over her cousin, Loes Sels, and also leads the Superprestige series – by one point – over Annemarie Worst, who is having a great year: two wins, 7 additional podium places, and in the top ten of all but one of the other five races she has entered. Lucinda Brand has also been impressive; she has only entered nine races, has won three of them, was second in another three, and also has a third place. She has seemed to be getting stronger as the season progresses, a bad sign for her rivals. The Italian women have been contenders; Eva Lechner wears the tricolore champion’s jersey and is usually in the top ten, and her compatriot Alice Maria Arzuffi won in Gavere and has frequently been on the podium. Denise Betsema won the Scheldecross and Maud Kaptheijns won in Essens.

The Anglophone contingent has been strong but not quite at the very top. Nikki Brammeier has been the most consistent, figuring near or at the front of almost every race she’s entered and earning four podium places in top-tier races. Katie Compton has been a bit up and down by her standards, but has taken the the US champion’s kit to the podium of three European races, including the Swiss World Cup event. Helen Wyman had a run of good form in November and early December. Both Elle Anderson and Kaitlin Keough have some top 10 results in Europe.

If you are getting the impression that there are many strong riders and lots of close races, you are right. I’ve left out a lot of names in this quick review.

Up and coming youngsters? Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado (18, Dutch with roots in the Dominican Republic) is a lot of fun to watch. Although she sometimes fades towards the end of a race, she was on the podium at Zonhoven and fourth at Zolder and Koksijde and it looks like she’ll just be getting better.

Currently the most interesting story in women’s cyclocross racing is Jolanda Neff, the 26-year-old who has been Swiss champion on the road and a three-time world champion in cross-country mountain biking. She has put nine cyclocross races on her calendar for the season, concentrating on World Cup races and building towards the world championships. Because she did not have a high UCI ranking in cyclocross, she has had to start well back in the field and work her way through a crowd of other racers to get near the front. Jolanda finished in 5th place in the Namur World Cup, and then got caught up in a crash at Zolder and finished in 26th. At the GP Sven Nys on January first, she raced neck and neck with Sanne Cant through the final two laps, getting away towards the end and winning the very muddy race (Jolanda’s mud-splattered finish photo makes it look like she lost a front tooth). She is also probably the only woman you’ll see bunny-hopping the barriers on the course; a while back only a few of the men did it, but nearly all of them seem to bunny-hop now.

The depth of the field in women’s cyclocross at the moment makes their racing a great deal of fun to watch, and it’s too little of a good thing. The length of the races is measured in laps; the men race a predetermined number of laps that gives an approximate winning time of 1 hour. The women race a predetermined number of laps that give an estimated winning time of 45 minutes. As Sanne Cant has pointed out, the organizers sometimes underestimate the women’s speed and end up with a race that finishes in under 40 minutes. The UCI says the races should be 40-50 minutes long; I would suggest that the women should be racing the number of laps that brings their winning time in at around one hour, the same length, in time, as the men’s races. Women’s races would still be shorter, measured in laps, than the men’s races, but having races approximately equivalent in terms of winning time makes them comparable events in terms of physiological demands. So, let’s get the UCI into the 1980s in terms of their view of women’s racing. If it’s too much of a shock to the systems of the men in Aigle to do it all at once, they could move the target winning time up gradually – to 45-55 minutes next year, and another five minutes a year until it gets up to about an hour. We need more of this great racing!


How to enjoy cyclocross: usually has links to live streams, some geo-restricted, some with languages I don’t understand. Trek streams the DVV series (ambient noise only). Cyclocross magazine tends to have its primary focus on US races, but provides good coverage and post-race video clips for the European scene as well (I don’t read or speak Dutch/Flemish, but I’m sure there are many media sources for those who do). To look up what your favorite racers have been doing, try (again, a US focus, so their "series" tab isn’t terribly useful).

The most up-to-date standings for the three main series that I was able to find are:

UCI world cup (towards the bottom, click on "results" for the last race listed)

DVV Trofee

Superprestige (look for the Klassement tab)