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Cyclocross

Are Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel crippling ‘cross?

Are the discipline's two biggest stars too dominant in both the racing and the reporting of cyclocross?

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Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert are set to clash for their first ‘cross battle of the season in the heavy mud of Namur this weekend. For armchair fans and keyboard hype-spinners like me, it’s a mouth-watering prospect.

It’s not so tasty a proposition for the likes of Eli Iserbyt, Michael Vanthourenhout, and Toon Aerts however – and not just because Van Aert and van der Poel are cluttering up the list of favorites.

For the ‘other guys’ of cyclocross, the Belgian and Dutchmen relatively unknown to all but hardy ‘cross fans and home followers, this weekend represents another weekend of being cast into the shadows.

Laurens Sweeck? Quinten Hermans? Corné van who? Forget those guys.

All the headlines, all the reactions, and all the hot takes both before and after Namur will be focussed squarely on the pair of triple world champions. Meanwhile, Iserbyt et al’s prospects and performances are likely to be buried deep down the copy of every piece of content churned out in the next 72 hours. And indeed, it’s likely to be that way in most cyclocross reporting for the next six weeks until the ‘cross season wraps up.

Is there a risk that Van Aert and van der Poel and their years-long rivalry is becoming too big for the sport?

Maybe.

In a panel discussion between stakeholders from the cyclocross scene hosted by Wielierflits this week, Belgian contender Eli Iserbyt bewailed that “we are seen as fringe animation.”

The diminutive 23-year-old has raced 15 times this ‘cross season and landed on the podium in all but two of them. He’s rockin’.

Meanwhile, van Aert and van der Poel both started their seasons later, and Wout hasn’t even won yet. Nevertheless, a scan of the headlines from global CX reporting for the past few months is loaded with more ‘vans’ than your local branch of Hertz.

“With every performance, we read [in the press]: ‘yes, but Mathieu and Wout were not there,'” Iserbyt pointed out. “Of course, Wout and Mathieu are very important for cyclocross – I realize that. But why not approach our performance in a positive way? Why that negative mindset?”

Iserbyt has a point – is the world of cyclocross now defined by what Wout and Mathieu do or don’t do?

Wout van Aert … oh, and Eli Iserbyt. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Hands up.

Mea Culpa.

Like nearly every non-Belgian or Dutch hack, I’ve been more than guilty of framing cyclocross reporting around the presence or absence of the sport’s two biggest stars, and I think many other journos would similarly accept the charge.

But the problem is, that’s what people want to know about. Van Aert and van der Poel have been doing battle since 2015 when a 20-year-old Mathieu beat 21-year-old Wout to take his first rainbow jersey. Since then, one of the two of them taken the title of world champ every time, all the while scoring headlines for peerless performances on the road.

With the ‘other guys’ in cyclocross’ top-tier such as Iserbyt, Aerts, and Vanthourenhout racing on conti Belgian squads that get next to no invites to top road races, they’re unknown names outside of ‘cross-mad Low Countries. To the majority of an American, British, [insert more countries here] audience, ‘Vanthourenhout’ is just a nonsensical scramble of letters.

What’s the solution?

Who knows.

The rise of multi-discipline maestro Tom Pidock is likely to add a third name to the media hype list (again, something I’m more than guilty of), leaving Iserbyt and Co. one paragraph further down the drafts of journos across the globe.

One sport is rarely so dominated by just two key players for such a long time, and the relatively niche world of cyclocross accentuates this, especially when its two stars are also dominant in other disciplines. For the likes of Iserbyt and Aerts, unfortunately, the only solution seems to be: Get really good really fast, and stay that way for a long time.

Meanwhile, cycling correspondents have to walk the tightrope of driving traffic and generating storylines around rockstar racers while dishing out credit where credits are rightly due.

My favorite race of the ‘cross calendar beckons in the deep bogs and steep hills of Namur on Sunday. May the best man win – and may he be adequately recognized for his ride.