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Cyclocross

Star ‘crossed: International cyclocross preview

Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel battle on the course, while retirees Sven Nys, Bart Wellens, and Niels Albert resume their rivalry.

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Cyclocross fans have long speculated what the sport would look like after Sven Nys retired. This year, we’ll find out.

Nys, arguably the sport’s biggest-ever star, has 292 professional wins and rode his final race at the beginning of 2016. His popularity and advocacy for the sport made him its center of gravity, even as his dominance began to fade. Without him, where would the sport go? Would Belgian fans still turn out by the thousands to watch a Nys-less race?

Have no doubt. There are plenty of storylines to follow on cyclocross’s international circuit this year. There’s the emerging rivalry between Belgium’s reigning world champion Wout Van Aert and last year’s world champ Mathieu van der Poel of the Netherlands. There’s the complete dominance on the women’s side by Belgian Sanne Cant. There’s also Nys’s return to the fold as a team manager. Get ready.

[pullquote align=”right” attrib=”Wout Van Aert”]“I want to honor the rainbow jersey as much as possible by winning a few classics and scoring in the championships. But I also hope I can give the fans some really nice duels with Mathieu van der Poel.”[/pullquote]

The biggest change to the season calendar, of course, was the addition of a second World Cup stop in the U.S., in Iowa City, just a few days after CrossVegas, which again served as the World Cup’s kickoff.

Back in Belgium, the sport is still growing too. A new entry on the calendar, the Brico Cross Geraardsbergen debuted on the legendary Muur van Geraardsbergen in early September. Races come and go all the time in Belgium, but few seem so poised to become instant classics.

One more new stop on the calendar — arguably the most important of all — will be Bieles, Luxembourg, which will make its cyclocross debut with the world championships at the end of January. It’s a venue that bears considerable similarities to previous championship courses in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, and Sankt Wendel, Germany.

It’ll be a long ride from the season’s first big races in Las Vegas and Iowa City to its climax in Luxembourg. With so much intrigue before the season even kicks off, it’s hard to imagine it will be anything but exciting.

LAST SEASON, EUROPEAN CYCLOCROSS started — and ended — with one name: Wout Van Aert. Van Aert won 14 out of his first 20 races and he didn’t finish worse than second until after Christmas. He finished the season by winning both the Belgian and world championships.

In late August, Van Aert told Belgian outlet Veldritkrant he hoped for more of the same next season.

“Actually, I have a dual objective,” he says. “On the one hand, I want to honor the rainbow jersey as much as possible by winning a few classics and scoring in the championships. But I also hope I can give the fans some really nice duels with Mathieu van der Poel.”

Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com (File).
Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com (File).

Questions still loom over van der Poel, who has struggled with the same knee problems that ruined much of the fall of 2015 for him. He had another surgery at the end of July and announced in late August he will miss the early-season World Cup races in the United States. He hopes to make his return in time for the Superprestige kickoff in Gieten, at home in the Netherlands, on the first weekend in October.

“Not riding in Vegas or Iowa wasn’t really a hard decision, it was just the right decision,” Van der Poel says. “I’ll give myself a few weeks to train, and I won’t suffer from the long flight and jetlag.”

Van Aert, for his part, says he wishes his biggest rival a speedy recovery. “I hope from the bottom of my heart the knee problems don’t become a recurring story,” he says. “Cyclocross needs Mathieu van der Poel. The fans are looking forward to big duels. And, to be honest, I need him too.”

Van Aert may have to wait for van der Poel, but there are other emerging rivals. Young Belgian Laurens Sweeck is growing “slowly but steadily,” according to Van Aert. Former Dutch champion and 2015 worlds runner-up Lars van der Haar is always a threat. The Dutchman stole three wins from Van Aert last season, and has long been on the cusp of a dominant season, but has never delivered. Perhaps that year is now, as he’ll race this season under the tutelage of Sven Nys (more on that in a moment).

The veterans will want their say as well. Belgian Kevin Pauwels has a slew of big race wins and medals from both Belgian and world championships, but has never fully delivered as an elite. He won just three races last season. Pauwels’s Marlux – Napoleon Games teammate Klass Vantornout, a two-time Belgian champion and multiple worlds medalist, battled illness and injury all last season and landed on the podium only once. Countryman Tom Meeusen managed four wins but only one in a major series race. Both will look to be bigger factors this year. Meanwhile, 18-year-old Belgian Eli Iserbyt, the reigning under-23 world champion, will line up against the elites in several races for the first time this season as he looks to establish himself in the sport’s highest ranks.

Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com (File).
Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com (File).

ON THE WOMEN’S SIDE, the story will be about old stars and new challengers trying to figure out Belgian Sanne Cant, who won 20 races and all three of the major series last season. The 25-year-old is also the seven-time defending national champion. With her dominance, she has attracted a new audience to the women’s side of the sport, which has long been marginalized, particularly in her home country.

A few years ago, UCI rules forced promoters to move women’s races to more favorable timeslots, but Belgian crowds often viewed these races as a chance to visit the course-side concessions. Likewise, Sporza, the Belgian sports network that was regularly drawing millions of TV viewers to some ’cross races, carried only brief summary rebroadcasts of women’s races. That has quickly improved, and today more and more fans are lining up to cheer the women course-side. Sporza has begun broadcasting complete women’s races just ahead of the men. The network reported nearly 600,000 viewers for the women’s race in Overijse last December, more than 50 percent of all Flemish viewers at the time.

Cant might not deserve all the credit — women’s cycling has a growing number of advocates in Belgium, including race promoters and UCI rider representatives like pro rider Helen Wyman — but her success has helped elevate the profile of women in cyclocross.

[pullquote align=”right”]On the women’s side, the story will be about old stars and new challengers trying to figure out Belgian Sanne Cant, who won 20 races and all three of the major series last season.[/pullquote]

Behind Cant, things become much less clear. Seven-time world champion Marianne Vos missed all of last season due to a series of nagging injuries, including a serious mountain bike crash in April 2015 that left her with fractured ribs. It ultimately led to a long struggle with overtraining syndrome. She had a solid road campaign this summer, and will continue on the road through the world championships in Doha in October.

“After having missed last season, I surely want to come back to competition, but I will only decide after my road season what I will do,” Vos says. “For sure I will take some rest first and start with a proper build-up, so it won’t be a full season.”

France’s Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, the 2015 world champion, also missed last season while recovering from a knee fracture. It’s possible she could miss this year as well. In a recent Facebook post she chronicled a season of setbacks, injuries, and frustrations in pursuit of an Olympic dream, which ultimately concluded with an abandonment in the Olympic mountain bike race. She did not know when she would return to the bike.

With Vos and Ferrand-Prévot out, Cant may leave everyone else fighting for scraps. But for all her success, she’s never won a world championship. Last year, in truly miserable conditions in Zolder, Belgium, she could match neither the power nor the finesse of Dutchwoman Thalita de Jong. She eventually faded to a bitterly disappointing third place.

De Jong, meanwhile, who will not turn 23 until November, was a surprise winner in Zolder, though rivals probably should have taken notice after her upset win at the Dutch national championship and a second-place finish at the World Cup finale in Hoogerheide, Netherlands. De Jong posted solid results on the road this summer and has said she intends to focus much more on cyclocross this season. Also in the mix will be Jolien Verschueren. Balancing a career as a schoolteacher with her racing, the diminutive Belgian broke through to the top ranks of the sport last season with wins on the challenging Koppenberg, in Overijse, and Mol, alongside impressive podium finishes and wins in a number of smaller races. Her Telenet – Fidea teammate Ellen Van Loy posted a handful of wins out of more than a dozen podium finishes — including two at World Cup races — and will likely be a factor as well.

Other wildcards include Britons Helen Wyman, a former European champion and worlds medalist, and Nikki Harris, coming off a road season that included a ride in the Olympic road race in support of Lizzie Armitstead. Their countrywoman, under-23 world champion Evie Richards, has been primarily focused on the mountain bike but could shake things up in the women’s field as well.

Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com (File).
Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com (File).

LAST SEASON WASN’T just the end of the Nys era. Hans Van Kasteren, founder and director of the powerhouse Belgian Telenet – Fidea team, also retired and put the team up for sale.

Van Kasteren’s may not be a household name, even among dedicated ’cross fans, but it’s impossible to overstate his influence on the sport. Telenet has been unmatched in scouting and developing cyclocross talent: The team was built around two-time world champion Bart Wellens in 2000, and three-time champion Erwin Vervecken joined in 2002. Three-time world champion Zdenek Stybar, reigning elite and under-23 world champions Van Aert and Iserbyt, and Pauwels and Vantornout are all among riders who spent time on its roster. Telenet was also the first major Belgian team to field a full women’s roster. Harris, Van Loy, Sophie de Boer, and the late Amy Dombroski all spent time in Telenet colors as well.

When Van Kasteren retired, there was a flurry of interest in the team. Then Nys announced in December he had purchased it and would take over as sport director in 2016.

Meanwhile, Wellens, one of Nys’s biggest rivals, made his own retirement official in a ceremony at the Ruddervoorde Superprestige stop last season. After a year of puttering and making occasional appearances in old-timers races, Wellens was tapped to lead the new Steylaerts Cycloteam, launched by Christoph and Philip Roodhooft, brothers who are also responsible for two other squads: the Beobank – Corendon team of van der Poel and Cant and the ERA – Murprotec team of Sweeck.

Wellens and Nys, now as team managers, will be reunited in rivalry with two-time world champion Niels Albert, who has managed the Crelan-Vastgoedservice team of Van Aert for the past two years. As a racer, Albert was one of Nys’s most tenacious rivals, and he has since become a savvy manager. Albert is widely credited with Van Aert’s development into an elite world champion and undisputed king of cyclocross last season.

Nys and Wellens, meanwhile, find themselves as rookies in their respective managerial roles after a combined three decades of success as racers. Whether the pair can nurture the talent in their charge to match Albert’s hugely successful protégé is likely to be a central storyline on Belgian sports pages all season long.

Nys wasted little time in signing a new headliner for Telenet, announcing this spring he would bring van der Haar from Giant – Alpecin to the squad in January 2017.

“I had a beautiful period with Giant – Alpecin and I’m grateful for the opportunities they gave me, but as the only cyclocrosser on a great road team, that hasn’t always been obvious,” Van der Haar told Het Nieuwsblad in May. “Now I choose a team where cyclocross comes first. That is a serious advance, and I think I can continue to grow here.”