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With youth movement at hand, cyclocross’ future looks bright

20-year-old Mathieu van der Poel's ’cross worlds win means more than simply pulling on the rainbow stripes, writes Dan Seaton

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TABOR, Czech Republic (VN) — In December, Sven Nys, 38, the biggest star in the history of cyclocross, walked off a muddy hillside in Overijse, laid down his bike, and told his fans he didn’t know when he would pedal again. He returned, weeks later, a shadow of the man who has so dominated cyclocross for more than a decade.

Just under a year earlier, two-time world champion Niels Albert announced his surprise retirement. Diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition, racing was out of the question.

Bart Wellens, 36, a two-time world champion and a former star of his own cyclocross-themed reality show in Belgium, cracked the top 10 in a major series race just three times this season, and never reached the podium anywhere.

2014 world champion Zdenek Stybar raced twice. He finished eighth in an October race in Ronse, crashed heavily a few days later in Ardooie, and hung up his bike. He chose not to defend his title this weekend here in his home country, focused instead on a return to form on the road, chasing glory in the classics this spring.

Francis Mourey, 34, one of the most successful non-Belgian riders in the sport, could not defend the French title he has held nearly every year for the better part of a decade. In races in Belgium and in the World Cup, he has cracked the top 10 twice.

Klaas Vantornout and Kevin Pauwels, the Belgian and World Cup champions, and two of the most successful racers in the sport, are 32 and 30.

Have you been worried about the future of cyclocross lately? Haven’t we all?

We shouldn’t have been.

On Sunday, at the world championships in Tabor, the future looked awfully bright.

In the elite men’s race, the Netherlands’ Mathieu van der Poel, who turned 20 just days ago, soared through the slip-and-slide slop and into rainbow stripes, making it look easy the whole time. Behind him, Belgian Wout Van Aert, van der Poel’s biggest rival all season, rallied from a 50-second deficit into the silver slot, just slipping past van der Poel’s countryman Lars van der Haar in the race’s final lap. Van der Haar, who finished third, was the old man on the podium at 23.

In the under-23 race earlier in the day, Michael Vanthourenhout racked up lap after lap at a pace some 30 seconds faster than many of the laps the elite men turned in. Runner-up Laurens Sweeck matched him nearly pedal stroke for pedal stroke for most of the race. The course was firmer and faster in the cold morning sun than it was three hours later for the elites, but still.

The youth movement started in early October, when Van der Poel, then 19, crashed the gates at the Superprestige kickoff in Gieten, stealing what looked like certain victory out from under the wheels of van der Haar. In the power vacuum that formed in the wake of Stybar and Albert’s absence, and Nys’ retreat from the spotlight, it grew to a fever pitch. Van Aert and van der Poel raked in victories and podium places from November to January.

Two weeks ago, the pair declared they would forego the remainder of their U23 eligibility and race, finally, as the elites everyone already knew they were. The subject of much hand-wringing in the Belgian and Dutch press — and surely in their own camps as well — Sunday’s race showed the decision was prescient.

Tabor confirmed it — as if there was any real doubt: the sport’s future rests with the young.

“It’s a bit strange,” said the newly crowned champion van der Poel. “Wout and I made the decision at the last moment. Normally we would participate in the under-23 category. I think today we showed we made right decision to participate in the elite category.”

Van der Poel credited the battles the group of young riders waged in the developmental categories over the past two or three years. Packed with riders now enjoying success at the sport’s highest levels — van der Poel himself, Van Aert, Sweeck, and Vanthourenhout, alongside riders like Gianni Vermeersch and Tim Merlier, who made the jump to elites at the beginning of the year — the rising class of young riders is perhaps the most talent-rich group the sport has seen in decades.

“Now we are with a few strong riders, young riders,” he said. “I think it has a lot to do [with the fact] that in the under-23 category we always made races very hard with a few of us. Now we can see the results in the elite category.”

Van Aert, who could be van der Poel’s biggest rival for a decade to come, agreed. He, too, had wondered about the sport’s future.

“There are champions like Sven Nys and Bart Wellens who are almost quitting,” he said. “I think the sport needs new guys who can fight for the first places. I think with me and Mathieu there are two guys who are ready to do that.”

But the past several weeks, he added, had been something of a turning point for the sport.

“This season was really the takeover of the young guys I think,” said Van Aert. “On one side it’s beautiful that we are in front with two young guys who didn’t really plan to ride here in the pro category. It’s good for the sport that there are new champions to come I think.”

Still, while the two youngest men in the elite race were looking ahead, van der Haar, who already had a worlds medal in his pocket before Sunday’s race, cautioned that the older generation had likely not yet written their final chapter.

“I think every year is different,” he said. “Last year, Sven Nys was still one of the best for the whole year. This year, young guys are showing more. But also Kevin Pauwels won a lot of races. So I don’t think [the older guys] should worry yet.”

In fact, it was Van der Haar who was the young star on a meteoric rise just two years ago. In recent years, his early promise has turned into a veteran’s consistency. This year’s World Cup title could easily have been his, if not for a fever that cost him a start in Koksijde. But he lost the Dutch championship to van der Poel three weeks ago. Likewise with the rainbow jersey on Sunday.

Van der Haar said as the older generation moves on and even more young talent pours into the elite ranks, the middle generation of riders — Pauwels, Vantornout, and Tom Meeusen — had better take notice.

“Maybe next year there are new changes coming, with the Laurens [Sweeck] coming over, and Michael [Vanthourenhout],” Van der Haar said. “Maybe the guys in between will have more worries than the top riders.”

Cyclocross fans, meanwhile, can revel in a sport that is apparently roaring back toward a new zenith. With spectacular women’s racing on Saturday, a legitimate American gold-medal contender in the juniors, two North American World Cups and a new women’s youth category debuting at the 2016 world championships where, organizers said on Friday, they will aim for an attendance of 80,000, the future is indeed bright.

With the talent headed for the elite men’s ranks in the year ahead, it seems positively brilliant.

It’s 2015 — welcome to the future, kids. Cyclocross is bigger and healthier than ever.

Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.