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Crazy ’cross: The most memorable cyclocross world championships

The muddiest. The iciest. And, the most catastrophic (for the fans) — the year the beer ran dry by lunchtime...

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The world championships might be the pinnacle of accomplishment for elite cyclocross riders, but they are also devilishly complicated to organize. There are a multitude of details to get right, from the type of soil underfoot to the amount of beer to pump into the party tents.

One of the biggest risks is the weather. Northern Europe in late January can be brutal. Of course, ardent cyclocross fans long for atrocious weather. The more epic the event, the longer it will live on in the collective memory.

Here are some of the more memorable cyclocross world championships.

The coldest

The Belgian team previews the course in Poprad. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

When Mathieu van der Poel’s father Adrie lined up for the 1999 Worlds in Poprad, Slovakia it was 15 degrees below. No wonder he was shivering. A little earlier the start-finish straight had been covered in sheet ice. The Slovakians’ solution was to spray petrol across it and light a match. The race turned out to be a thriller. Van der Poel took an early lead but slid out on a corner, allowing Belgium’s Erwin Vervecken to take the lead. With one lap to go Vervecken, now organizer of the Namur World Cup for Golazo, looked certain to win. But team-mate Mario Declerq chased him down and sprinted past. Vervecken was furious, gesticulating and swearing at Declerq as the latter punched the air.

The muddiest

Probably the most significant category. Any truly dedicated ‘cross fan is also an expert on soil drainage. Exceptionally muddy races happen when ill-advised venue choices coincide with apocalyptic rain. Three races have gone down in ‘cross folklore as the muddiest ever. To be considered a true mudder, a race has to have more running than riding. If you see riders running downhill, that’s a good sign.

Saccolongo, Italy, 1979. The Italians had a strong chance in the amateur race with Vito Di Tano, but the course was too flat for Di Tano, who excelled at running. The solution of the organizers was simple – they snuck the local fire brigade into the venue at night and got them to water the course. The next day it rained heavily. Di Tano’s worlds turned out to be a running race with bikes that came in useful for the finishing straight. He repaid the organizer’s creativity with a rainbow jersey.

Lembeek, Belgium, 1986. During the professional race the weather included snow showers, rain and sunshine. The course was typically Belgian. The organizers were just unlucky (or lucky, depending on which way you look at it) in getting a huge dump of rain in the days preceding the races. Swiss mud-monster Albert Zweifel won the professional race (he also won in Saccolongo) and Vito Di Tano won the amateur race – without the help of the Saccolongo fire brigade.

Hagendorf, Switzerland, 1988. Criss-crossing cornfields, the course had been frozen in the run-up to the races. Then the temperature lifted, the ice melted and the fields turned to mud. In the amateur race German legend Mike Kluge was so disgusted with the whole affair that he stopped racing and walked half a lap carrying his bike upside down while the fans hurled abuse at him. Pascal Richard won the professional race, underlining the Swiss dominance of the 1980s.

The iciest

Sven Nys, always the technical master, came away with the win in St. Wendel, ahead of his Belgian compatriots Erwin Vervecken and Sven Vanthourenhout. (Photo: Thomas Lohnes/AFP via Getty Images)

Sankt Wendel, Germany, 2005. Snow and ice offer an altogether different kind of entertainment to heavy mud. Races on the white stuff are often unpredictable and always look good on television. In 2005 the Sankt Wendel course was so hard that the race looked more like a criterium, only on ice instead of tarmac. Belgian maestro Sven Nys escaped with Erwin Vervecken with two laps to go, opened up a gap by hurtling down a slippery descent and never looked back. In the women’s race Hanka Kupfernagel took the third of her four world championship wins.

The biggest crowd

Koksijde, Belgium, 1994. Data points on worlds’ crowd sizes are pretty sketchy, but legend has it that 70,000 fans made the trek to the sand dunes of Koksijde in February 1994. They were rewarded by a thrilling battle between Flandrian hero Paul Herygers and Dutchman Richard Groenendaal. Amid chaotic, frenzied scenes, Herygers escaped from Groenendaal on the last lap, performed a flamboyant victory celebration and forever secured himself a spot in the hearts of every Flandrian. There were a few fuzzy heads the next day in the workplaces of Antwerp and Ghent.

The deepest rut

Valkenburg, Netherlands, 2018. For many years, Valkenburg was a regular fixture on the World Cup, occupying a date in October. This meant that the course, based on the grounds of a casino, was usually dry. A world championship in early February is a very different affair. By the time the elite men rode on Sunday afternoon, the other races had cut up the soft ground. One descent was particularly treacherous and claimed many riders in the earlier races. The elite men, unconsciously acting together, all rode one line down the hill, carving a 30 metre rut into the ground. It was the safest way to get through the section. By the end of the race – which Wout Van Aert won in dominant style – even the deepest section carbon rims were disappearing into that rut.

The most flat tires

The 68th world championships was a messy affair, in many ways. (Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Bieles, Luxembourg, 2017. Taking place on a post-industrial wasteland site, the early races on the programme were spectacular because of the icy conditions. As the weekend went on, however, the ground began to thaw then get churned up by the racing. Just below the surface of the mud, it turned out, were thousands of tiny sharp stones, just waiting to gash a hole in a soft tire. Punctures ruined the chances of many favoured riders. The event will be remembered for more positive reasons, however, as Sanne Cant took her long-awaited world championship.

The fastest-selling-out of beer

This dubious award goes to Monopoli, Italy, 2003. By lunchtime on Saturday, the bars were dry. For a cyclocross world championships, this is truly something apocalyptic.