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It will take more than a raging pandemic and the loss of two of the sport’s biggest stars to stop the Fayetteville cyclocross worlds.
Organizers of this month’s ‘cross worlds are plowing on in the face of spiking COVID cases in the state of Arkansas and concerns over budgets and travel restrictions among leading European teams.
Race host Experience Fayetteville is currently putting the final preparations on the first ‘cross worlds in the U.S. since 2013 and isn’t fazed by the difficulties engulfing its big weekend of racing later this month.
“We are ready to welcome every athlete that comes to Fayetteville,” Hazel Hernandez of Experience Fayetteville told VeloNews. “Based on the success of the October World Cup event and the positive feedback we heard from athletes about the course, we expect great competition across the board.”
January 2022 isn’t the easiest of times to organize a multi-national event.
Arkansas has seen a 550 percent spike of coronavirus cases in the past two weeks, and a slew of flights from Europe have been canceled. Defending champion van der Poel is out injured and three-time winner van Aert is bypassing the race to focus on the coming road season
Many leading male racers, including top favorite Tom Pidcock, see their chance without van Aert and van der Poel on the start list. They also recognize that worlds won’t be the same without the prestige of the two aces that boast seven world titles between them.
Experience Fayetteville sees it as a chance to welcome a fresh face into the rainbow jersey.
“While we are certainly sad that they won’t be racing, we don’t see it as a problem in any way,” Hernandez said this week. “First of all, their absence only affects one of six rainbow jersey races. Secondly, we anticipate a fiercely competitive men’s elite race that will crown a new world champion for the first time in seven years which is very exciting.”
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Although there is a risk of the elite men’s race losing its luster and being shrouded in “what-ifs” without the two cross-discipline dominators, the women’s field is stacked. Top athletes like Lucinda Brand, Marianne Vos, and home star Clara Honsinger will fill out a full elite women’s field.
“We see this as an opportunity to promote the overall competition, including the amazing female competitors who will be competing for the same podium spots and rainbow jerseys as the men,” Hernandez said of the van der Poel-van Aert vacuum.
Hernandez added that the duo’s decision to pull out hasn’t impacted perceived interest in the races January 29-30, or the way the event is being sold.
“We have never focused our marketing on specific competitors, but rather on the competition,” Hernandez said.
COVID questions come to the surface
Experience Fayetteville was able to test the ruts when it hosted a round of the World Cup last fall. While top European nations Belgium and the Netherlands were well-represented last October, the case will be different at the end of January.
The Dutch squad will take a bare-bones contingent across the Atlantic due to health fears and the financial and logistical burdens of what it told Wielerflits was an “almost impossible journey” after a series of flight cancelations. The Belgian crew brings similar budget pressures and growing concerns about COVID.
“We have to see how it evolves over the next two weeks. If corona explodes worldwide again – as it now looks like – it will be a difficult story, also to come back home,” Dutch coach Gerben de Knegt told Wielerflits. “What I’m afraid of is if you have one corona case in your selection, there will be more. It is not convenient that the world championship is in America.”
Despite the COVID spikes, racing is set to take place with spectators and the full complement of carnival. Experience Fayetteville says ticket sales and engagement is hot three weeks out from the race.
Hernandez said that both the local organizers and UCI will be imposing safety measures to contain any COVID threats.
“We are working closely with the medical community, state and local authorities, and UCI to hold a successful event during these unique times and are committed to providing a safe environment for the spectators, media, athletes, teams, and officials,” she said. “Masks will be required for everyone at the venue, including spectators, expo, vendors, and staff.”
Worries over COVID sure aren’t stopping the home team.
USA Cycling this week revealed its 38-rider selection for the six worlds races. National champions Honsinger and Eric Brunner are joined by the likes of Rebecca Fahringer, Curtis White, and Gage Hecht in what is the largest U.S. delegation to ever go to ‘cross worlds.
“Having a world championships in the USA is always a major honor, and we are proud to be fielding a full team of dedicated, skilled athletes who will compete at Fayetteville 2022,” said USA Cycling cyclocross director Jesse Anthony.
Like national chief Anthony, Experience Fayetteville is looking beyond the barriers. This month’s race gives the U.S. the opportunity to put itself back on the global ‘cross map after seeing its World Cup races canceled in an American schedule turned upside down by coronavirus in 2020-21.
“We view this as an opportunity for the worldwide cyclocross community to see that the U.S. has the facilities, the desire, the professionalism, and the hospitality to be a great place for future events,” Hernandez said.
‘Cross worlds won’t be getting bogged down in the ruts, no matter how deep, this winter.