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Cyclocross

Look, Ma, no barriers!

Belgians might be passionate about cyclo-cross, but Zolder proved that their love of the sport doesn’t keep them mired in tradition. While ’cross usually conjures up visions of slop-covered racers sliding through mud and hurdling obstacles with almost ballet-like grace, this year’s world-championship course left the barriers, the log-strewn run-ups and the mud for the history books. Instead, with dry weather, no hurdles and temperatures in the 60s, the emphasis was on speed and a touch of teamwork. If Dutchman Richard Groenendaal benefited from a muddy, home-field advantage the weekend

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Zolder world’s course may be Belgian, but it sure ain’t traditional

On this course, the start counted for everything.(All photos from Friday practice)

On this course, the start counted for everything.(All photos from Friday practice)

Photo: Charles Pelkey

Belgians might be passionate about cyclo-cross, but Zolder proved that their love of the sport doesn’t keep them mired in tradition. While ’cross usually conjures up visions of slop-covered racers sliding through mud and hurdling obstacles with almost ballet-like grace, this year’s world-championship course left the barriers, the log-strewn run-ups and the mud for the history books. Instead, with dry weather, no hurdles and temperatures in the 60s, the emphasis was on speed and a touch of teamwork.

If Dutchman Richard Groenendaal benefited from a muddy, home-field advantage the weekend before during the World Cup finale in the Netherlands, Belgium’s world’s planners raised nationalistic course design to a fine art. At times, the newly cooperative Belgian team looked as though it was riding a team time trial rather than struggling through the intricacies of a ’cross course.

“It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen,” said U.S. elite-team manager Bruce Fina. “There’s not a single barrier anywhere, and the surface is really fast. Even if it rains, it’s sand, so it’ll just pack up tighter. I’m not necessarily complaining. I mean, Americans spend a lot of time racing criteriums, and this would almost qualify as one. But cyclo-cross?”

Added U.S. champion Alison Dunlap, a day before her race: “You know, I really thought the rules said there had to be a certain number of barriers. I guess that number is a maximum, ’cause if there is a minimum, it sure doesn’t meet that here, does it?”

... because once on dirt, things narrowed quickly

… because once on dirt, things narrowed quickly

Photo: Charles Pelkey

Indeed, 1996 world champion Adri Van der Poel, now the UCI’s technical director for cyclo-cross, inspected the course the week before and declared it in compliance with international rules.

“It will be very technical,” Van der Poel said. “No barriers, but there are places that will have the same result.”

The circuit did have its technical features. Its turns often funneled down to narrow stretches, little wider than two riders standing shoulder to shoulder. And the frequent climbs often forced riders to dismount and run … though that was a choice not always necessary for those in the lead.

But the single pit, which the course ran past twice, saw little action during the weekend; it was in stark contrast to the once-every-half-lap bike exchanges that took place the week before in Heerlen.

Like any good criterium, the world’s course put a premium on a good start.

Racers lined up on the Zolder speedway faced a 200-meter stretch of pavement, with grandstands on one side and a long, three-story control center on the other. Going into the first turn, the course took a 270-degree turn back onto itself and swung up a steep, sandy grade that benefited only those who reached it first.

No barriers, but this hill forced most to run

No barriers, but this hill forced most to run

Photo: Charles Pelkey

Lengthened slightly from its originally planned 2.6km to just over 3km, the looping circuit rose up and down through the heavily wooded area surrounding the speedway, periodically returning to the pavement.

But while the dirt sections softened over the weekend, presenting some bike-handling problems, they never seriously affected the outcome. As Fina had predicted, the packed sand encouraged riders to pound along almost as if they were riding on the road.

After twisting its way through crowd-lined corridors, the course took a momentary and very quiet sweep through the grounds of the Sacramentskirche, a forested and fenced-off Catholic sanctuary closed to spectators. A small climb that peaked atop a 180-degree turn allowed leaders to look back and see who might be closing in. It was a view that proved helpful on the final lap of the elite men’s race.

Finally, the course returned to the tarmac of the start-finish area on the speedway. The 300-meter road sprint sorted out the winners in two of the weekend’s four events.

Warm weather and sunshine, with neither mud nor barriers … it was almost enough to make you forget you were in Belgium in February.

For more photos of the world’s course, check our earlier PhotoGallery from Zolder.

Photo Gallery