Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
The mud is just starting to settle after a festive block of 10 cyclocross races, and the likes of Mathieu van der Poel, Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado, and Wout van Aert will be looking forward to a well-earned session or two on the sofa.
After the jam-packed holiday race schedule, ‘cross season takes a breather for some three weeks before restarting with a fierce kick at Flandriencross on January 23. From there, it’s just one week until the Oostende world championships on January 31.
- What we learned from the opening ‘cross clash between Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, Tom Pidcock
- Clara Honsinger: Flying the Stars and Stripes over the European ‘cross season
- Mathieu van der Poel will race Tour de France ‘for sponsors’
So what did we take away from a furious festive block of racing ahead of the world championships later this month? Will van der Poel run riot once again? Could Lucinda Brand take her first rainbow jersey?
Here are five things we learned in the past few weeks of racing:
Mathieu van der Poel is a bike-length ahead of the bunch
The stats speak for themselves. Van der Poel has won three races in three days starting January 1. He’s raced eleven crosses this season and won 8 of them. The three other times, he was second. Yep, the world champ is on a tear right now.
Van der Poel closed out his festive block of racing by not just winning but dominating.
Though he was pushed hard when taking the win at GP Sven Nys, this weekend’s action at Gullegem and Hulst seemed to be a case of MvdP just picking his moment to drop the field at will. It was as though once he became bored of toying with his rivals, van der Poel just pressed “go” on the afterburners to start the show and begin his victory march.
Van Aert, Tom Pidcock, and the rest of the field need to keep van der Poel on a tight leash in Oostende, because once he gets a gap and gets rockin’ there’s no bringing him back, as he twice proved this past weekend.
Pidcock and van Aert have both acknowledged that controlling van der Poel is like putting the brakes on a raging bull.
“When I saw Van der Poel go, I knew I had to forget first place,” Pidcock said of van der Poel’s 90-second win in Hulst. “I knew was racing for second place so I had to refocus on that.”
Don’t wait for Mathieu, coz once he’s gone, he won’t be waiting for you.
There’s not much to separate Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado and Lucinda Brand
Before Christmas, women’s cyclocross racing was all Lucinda Brand. It started and ended there as the Baloise rider tore through the early season.
Since Alvarado kicked back to win in the muck of Herentals on December 23, Brand has still been the winningest rider of the women’s peloton, but there are tiny glimmers that her reign is at threat. Brand left it too late to bring back Denise Betsema in Hulst on Sunday. She had to gamble on the sprint in World Cup Zolder on Boxing Day. Alvarado had the initiative and power to shake Brand with a well-timed attack to win GP Sven Nys on Friday. Brand is no longer on a roaring boil, maybe just a steady simmer.
If Brand’s crown as top-favorite for worlds is at threat, it’s Alvarado that’s the most likely usurper. The reigning champ’s form and confidence is on the rise after a string of mojo-boosting wins through the holidays.
“I knew my form was getting better and better in recent weeks and that I was getting closer and closer to the form of Lucinda [Brand],” Alvarado said after winning in Baal on New Year’s Day. “Today confirmed to me that I am on the right track.”
The two have very different skillsets – Brand has the massive motor from road racing, Alvarado has the technical touch from a background on the mountain bike. The Oostende course is dominated by sand and man-made features that could tilt the scales toward the heft of big-watts Brand. But if Alvarado keeps progressing, the world champ is perfectly poised to defend her title.
Wout van Aert or Tom Pidcock could take the rainbow bands – if they have their day
Mathieu is the man right now. But every man has his off-day, even the world champion. Van Aert left him floundering in the mud in Dendermonde as he rode to a three-minute victory. Pidcock has the guts and aggression to play van der Poel at his own game, as he showed when he punched away from MvdP to win in Gavere.
However, there’s a prevailing sense that for Van Aert or Pidcock to take the victory, they need to be at their best, and van der Poel needs to be just a bit less awesome.
Van Aert thrived in Dendermonde as the swampy circuit made running and big-gear plowing the only way to race. Wout was in his element. Van der Poel admitted battling bad legs and a faster runner when Pidcock won in Gavere.
Though Van Aert is best-placed to take the rainbow jersey from van der Poel’s back, Pidcock is the brash and bolshy wildcard that could catch van der Poel off-guard at the worlds – as he said after coming off second-best in Gullegem, “I’m not going to ride for second all my career.”
If Wout and Tom need to pull something special out of the hat to beat van der Poel, the long sandy section on the world championship circuit could be the launchpad. The Oostende beach is likely to require a lot of running, and if van der Poel has any weakness, that’s it. He could be swapping his cleats for sneakers in the coming few weeks as he looks to speed up his feet.
The men’s event is a three-horse race
Michael Vanthourenhout, Toon Aerts, and Eli Iserbyt have all been oh-so-close to the three bosses of ‘cross this season, but there has rarely been a time when they seemed to pose a legitimate threat.
Iserbyt was formerly the most dangerous of the trio, but the diminutive Belgian may not even make it to Oostende if the elbow he injured is Zolder on Boxing Day and aggravated further at the weekend doesn’t heal up. Vanthourenhout is always offensive but never quite pulls it off. Aerts seems destined to be the nearly-man of the current cyclocross crop, a permanent fixture in the top-5 but rarely landing on the top step of the podium.
If Van Aert and Pidcock are a wheel behind van der Poel, Aerts and Co. are another wheel behind them.
The women’s field is still wide open
In contrast to the two-speed field in the men’s race, the battle for the women’s world title still seems an open book.
Sure, Alvarado and Brand are the standouts. But the notion of the likes of Betsema, Annemarie Worst, Blanka Vas, or Clara Honsinger staging a surprise doesn’t seem as far a leap of the imagination as does the idea of say, Quinten Hermans winning the men’s.
Betsema and Vas have both been enjoying strong legs and winner’s trophies over Christmas. Worst and Honsinger are never far off. Even celebrated stalwarts Marianne Vos and Sanne Cant are far from finished. If the men’s race is between three legitimate contenders, the women’s could reasonably come down to eight or more.