After the disruption and anxiety of last season in which many races were canceled — and the biggest events went ahead “behind closed doors” — the cyclocross community is relishing a return to normality over the coming months.
The impact of the pandemic meant that the UCI’s updated calendar, in which the World Cup expands to 16 rounds, got off to a false start in 2020-21. This season, however, will see a full quota of World Cup races, kicking off in the USA with rounds in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Arkansas.
The latter also doubles up as a test run for the UCI World Cyclocross Championships on the Fayetteville course, in late January. Any European riders who make the trip in October will gain valuable knowledge about the course.
The traveling cyclocross circus won’t have long to get over their jet lag. On returning to Europe, the battle will recommence in the infamous sand-pit at Zonhoven, before further rounds in the Czech Republic, France, the Netherlands, and, of course, Belgium. In mid-December, a new race joins the World Cup series at the ski resort of Val di Sole in Italy — a venue better known for hosting mountain bike racing.
The promise of snowy ‘cross racing has excited fans and photographers who haven’t seen many top-flight European races in the white stuff for several years.
Christmas is all about the Kerstperiode, an intense block of racing based in Flanders with a lot of UCI points and prize money available. Assuming travel restrictions allow, expect a large contingent of American riders to make the trip to Belgium in December.
On New Year’s Day, it is traditional to nurse your hangover at the GP Sven Nys, based at the ‘cross legend’s cycling center near Antwerp. Then come the final few weeks of the season, running up to the World Championships in Arkansas.
The elite men’s racing is likely to be dominated by the ongoing duel between Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert. Tom Pidcock — who was the joker in the deck last season — will skip the U.S. World Cup stops in hopes of healing a nagging knee injury. The big question is: When will we see this trio return to the mud?
Van Aert has had a long, punishing — and highly successful — road season, while van der Poel and Pidcock are trying to recover from injuries. It is likely that these ‘cross stars will rest during October and November and return to ‘cross in December.
That means an opportunity in the early season for the group of riders who usually have to follow the superstars – Toon Aerts and Pim Ronhaar from Baloise Trek Lions, and Eli Iserbyt, Laurens Sweeck, and Michael Vanthourenhout from Pauwels Sauzen – Bingoal.
Other than Pidcock, it’s difficult to see many riders from outside Belgium and the Netherlands breaking into the top ten of the major races, but Felipe Orts of Spain showed his promise last season, and young Briton Thomas Mein will be looking to continue his upwards career trajectory.
TV audiences for women’s cyclocross racing have grown enormously in recent years, in part due to the close and intense racing we’ve seen between a group of talented riders.
In 2020–21 we saw Lucinda Brand mature into a complete cyclocross rider capable of performing when it matters; she finished last season as the UCI top-ranked rider and world champion. But behind Brand the competition is fierce.
The Netherlands has three other riders, Annemarie Worst, Denise Betsema, and Ceylin Del Carmen Alvarado capable of challenging Brand for the top step of the podium, and there are also the English-speaking wildcards of Evie Richards, Clara Honsinger, and Maghalie Rochette. For American riders, the world championships being in their home country will add extra incentive to bring their form to a peak in January.
The cyclocross season is short, intense, and always full of drama. Bring it on!