The cyclocross season reaches its crescendo this weekend as Mathieu van der Poel and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado look to defend their world titles in the deep sand and soaring bridges of Ostende, Belgium.
After a winter of full-throttle racing, Wout van Aert has emerged neck-and-neck with longtime rival van der Poel, and likewise in the women’s season, Lucinda Brand has shared the honors with her young compatriot Alvarado. Will the cyclocross world championships this weekend come down to a pair of two-horse races? Or could the likes of Tom Pidcock, Eli Iserbyt, Denise Betsema, or U.S. national champ Clara Honsinger pull off a surprise?
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- Are Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel crippling ‘cross?
Racing this weekend may be going behind closed doors to mitigate COVID threats, but with a beachy course set to throw the favorites off their stride and the potential for rain and snow, the show will be spectacular nonetheless.
The UCI has thrown out a curveball with its course selection for this year’s worlds.
After a winter of riding on grass, tarmac, and gravel through wooded or man-made circuits, this weekend’s racing plays out on a course marked by some 600 meters of deep sandy sections alongside the North Sea, and a huge bridge that packs gnarly 21 percent ramps either side.
Riders’ ability to slog through the sand – whether by bike or by foot – will likely prove decisive in the battle for the rainbow bands, and the absence of any sandy circuits through the season to date throws a fascinating wrinkle into the pre-event hype. Van Aert and Betsema have a history of being the best on the beachy surfaces, but having seen no racing in long stretches of sand some two years, the seaside circuit levels the playing field as riders prepare for the unknown.
Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel … and the rest?
As has been the script for the past six seasons, it’s all about Wout and Mathieu in the men’s race.
Van der Poel and van Aert have been almost inseparable through the winter, and their rivalry shows no signs of abating. Though the defending Dutchman tops the board in head-to-head wins with eight victories to van Aert’s five this season, he said the unusual course will set the counter back to zero when the pair line up Sunday.
“We start a clean sheet again for the worlds,” van der Poel said in a video interview this week. “When it comes to the specific course, we haven’t had a sand race yet so I think it’s difficult to compare a [previous] race to the worlds.”
Van der Poel has had an extra one percent on his Belgian foe through the winter, however, van Aert goes into the race with the wind at his back having scored a morale-boosting victory and the World Cup title last weekend. However, like van der Poel, van Aert said that his technically faultless win in the muddy hills of Overijse will mean little at the world championships.
“It’s great to go with this mental victory ahead of the worlds, but it’s a completely different course at Ostende next weekend, so this wasn’t a true test,” he said Sunday.
“Me and Mathieu have been the favorites for every track this season and that will be the same next week. It’s good to have this victory and it gives me something mentally extra, but Mathieu has shown in previous weeks he’s the favorite.”
Was van Aert playing mind games in hyping his rival’s chances? He’s also recently savored the prospect of the sandy course, saying that the circuit “suits me 100 percent” having won the Belgian nationals at the same venue in 2017. Nonetheless, van der Poel has the rainbow stripes on his back and has been the man to beat so far this season. He has it all to lose.
Pidcock, Iserbyt, Michael Vanthourenhout, and Toon Aerts will be scrapping alongside – or more likely, a half-wheel behind – the dominant duo Sunday. The quartet has challenged throughout the winter, with Pidcock typically at the head of the chasing pack behind van der Poel and van Aert. There’s no ruling out one of them taking an against-the-odds victory this weekend, but don’t go mortgaging your house on it.
It won’t only be Van Aert and van der Poel battling for their fourth rainbow jersey on the Ostende beach. Czech veteran Zdenek Štybar has rolled back the years in a FOMO late-entry to the worlds, and though he’s not raced since January 4, he’s got three world titles in his palmarès. You can never ignore a guy with a record like that.
Alvarado has the mojo and the momentum
There has been little to separate the Dutch duo of Alvarado and Brand so far this season. Brand leads the count of head-to-head wins against the young defending champ, but the 22-year-old is coming off the back of three wins in four races and has the momentum under her tires.
“I think I have a big chance to extend my world champs title,” Alvarado said this week. “It will be a difficult race because there are other riders who are strong, but I wouldn’t say that I don’t have a chance. I’m feeling good and I’m feeling confident.”
Like the men’s racers, the women’s field has little recent experience on a circuit dominated by sand, but Alvarado has the mountain bike chops and the confidence to defend her title.
“It’s a funny course, it’s got a lot of different things, the sand, the walking, the grass … I think I like it,” she said.
Alvarado won’t have it easy Saturday however. Brand dominated the early part of the season and last weekend won the World Cup overall. Having landed on the worlds’ podium three times in the last three years, Brand says she’s better than ever and has nothing to lose.
“I have many more ‘crosses in my legs, I have trained a lot in the forest and my technique has improved. That makes the difference with other years,” she told Sporza on Wednesday. “Of course I really want to win the world championships, but my season won’t fail if that does not happen – I’ve already won 11 times and took the final classification in the World Cup.”
Betsema will lead the pack behind the two standouts. With a reputation of being the sand specialist of women’s ‘cross, the 28-year-old had enjoyed regular trips to the podium in recent races and has a course tailormade for her. The Dutchwoman lives on the island municipality of Texel and has had the luxury of finding the ideal training ground at her front gate.
“Here on the island, you can train very well in the sand. It’s something I have already done so much and where I have also shown in competitions that sand suits me,” she told Wielerflits on Thursday. “You can smell your chance on such a course. ”
The U.S challenge
Madigan Munro, 19, and Honsinger, 23, are the two U.S. riders to put at the top of your watchlist this weekend.
Munro has stepped into a full European season of racing this winter, scoring four elite top-2os among a field with years of experience over her. The Boulder native will be racing in the U23s and has strong podium potential behind favorites Blanka Vas and Mannon Bakker.
Honsinger is one of a select group of riders likely to be battling for bronze behind Alvarado and Brand in the elites women’s race. Explaining to VeloNews last month that the aggression and full-throttle starts of European racing took her some adapting to, the Portlander has since found her stride to twice land on World Cup podiums and has been a regular in the elbows and mud-spray of the front pack.
Katie Compton, the most successful U.S. ‘cross rider in worlds competition, will be hoping to pull some magic out of her hat after a largely quiet season so far. And spare a thought for Curtis White, the only U.S. rider in the men’s field. The 25-year-old took 18th in last year’s worlds and is showing the form to go better this weekend.
- U23 Women: Madigan Munro (Boulder, Colo.)
- Elite Women: Katie Compton (Colorado Springs), Rebecca Fahringer (Concord, N.H.), Clara Honsinger (Portland, Ore.), Kaitie Keough (Colorado Springs)
- Elite Men: Curtis White (Delanson, N.Y.)
How to watch:
- USA and Canada: Flo Bikes
- UK and Europe: GCN Race Pass, Eurosport
- U23 Men’s: Saturday 30, 13:30 CET / 07:30 EST
- Elite Women’s: Saturday 30, 15:00 CET / 09:00 EST
- U23 Women’s: Sunday 31, 13:30 CET / 07:30 EST
- Elite Men’s: Sunday 31, 1500 CET / 09:00 EST
N.B. There are no junior races this year