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Photo Essay: 2016 UCI cyclocross world championships

HEUSDEN-ZOLDER, Belgium (VN) — Cyclocross doesn’t have the Olympics — at least, not yet. It doesn’t have the Tour de France. It doesn’t have a Super Bowl. Instead, it has the worlds.

The 2016 world championships, on the former Formula One Circuit Zolder, in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium, already seemed destined to be the stuff of legend. Five races over two days, a weekend packed with abysmal weather — cyclocross weather! — that may have changed the sport forever, in ways both good and bad.

’Cross worlds begin long before the racing starts. There is training on the circuit, press conferences, and a dozen other events. On Friday a group of school children came to the Belgian elite men’s team presentation to support for the local boys with a song they wrote called “Leve de Cyclocross” or “Long Live Cyclocross.”

But Saturday dawned gloomy and wet, a storm with winds gusting to 50 miles per hour and heavy rain moving across Belgium. Turnout, expected to be in the tens of thousands, was severely depressed, but the die-hard fans who did turn out got to witness a great show.

American Spencer Petrov went straight to the front of the juniors race, the first race of the day, the young men kicking up a storm of spray from the tarmac behind them as they raced down the track and toward the first turn into the mud.

American Gage Hecht, a pre-race favorite, was unlucky at the start and quickly found himself mired deep in the field. He moved up consistently during the race, finishing 12th, but could not reconnect the front of the race, could not repeat his near medal performance from Tabor, Czech Republic, a year ago.

Eventually, the race went to the Netherlands’ Jens Dekker, flanked by French riders Mikael Crispin and Thomas Bonnet.

It was wet for the junior men, but a deluge for the race that came next. Water cascaded from the roof of the grandstand, flowing like a stream down the pavement of the start-finish straightaway. It pooled on the course, obliterated good lines and soaked fans who clamored for space under shelters where they could still see the race. Still, it did not dampen the spirits of the women who came next, the women of the first-ever under-23 cyclocross world championship.

In spite of the weather, they charged onto the course, nearly blinded by the heavy rain at times. It was, in fact, a race of firsts. Great Britain’s Evie Richards — riding in her first-ever international cyclocross race — won the UK’s first gold medal at cyclocross worlds since a young Roger Hammond won the junior men’s race in 1992.

American Ellen Noble, meanwhile, delivered the United States’ best result of the weekend, with a sixth-place finish in the under-23 women’s race. Though some considered her a pre-race favorite, arguably the best American prospect for a medal, she could not quite connect with the group at the front.

The rain let up for the elite women, but the damage was done. Zolder, rich with sandy soil, usually drains well — truly muddy races are rare here. But the ground was saturated, and the water that had poured down had nowhere to go. It turned the venue into a sea of slippery, sloppy mud, changing the dynamics of the race from drag race to a battle of steady attrition.

Among the women who made it to the lead group was the Netherlands’ Sophie de Boer, a skilled mud rider and winner of a heavy, sloppy race at the World Cup finale just a week ago.

American champion Katie Compton, meanwhile, could not recover from a poor start. Just a month after a second-place finish on the very same course at the Zolder World Cup stop, she was never in contention during the world championships. She said the race was a good one in spite of her own troubles.

“It was good,” she said later. “It was really tricky. It was different than it pre-rode earlier, like it was just more slippery. And I got my tire pressure wrong, so I was frustrated with that, and then I just kept making mistakes.”

Meanwhile, British champion Nikki Harris and Belgian champion Sanne Cant were in the hunt. Though Harris faded late in the race, Cant managed to keep contact with the leaders for nearly the whole race, attacking with just a lap to go.

But the attack came too soon, and she found herself distanced in the race’s final moments, settling for a bitter third place in a race she had been favored to win.

“[I attacked] too early, I know that,” said Cant. “But I had to choose between the first or the last place in the group, so I chose the first one. But she passed me and she rode away. So she was the strongest.”

And while the rain continued to fall and fans looked for a bit of shelter — feeling the effects a full day of racing, a full day in the elements — there were bright spots. Kaitie Antonneau’s eighth-place finish was a ray of sunshine for the American team.

“I’m super, super happy,” said Antonneau. “I’m proud to finish off the season on a good note. I finally got my top-10 world championship in Europe, and that’s my best place. So I’m super happy. I couldn’t have asked for more.”

But it was the Netherlands’s Thalilta de Jong and France’s Caroline Mani who had the most to smile about. De Jong won her first world title with a show of impressive force at the end of the race. De Jong broke away from Cant and Mani, in the race’s final lap.

“I caught the front group back that [last] lap, and I thought I had to take the lead on the heaviest part, with the wind in front of us,” she said. “And then I saw that the others couldn’t pass me anymore, so I pushed, pushed, pushed on my pedals. And I had a gap. So I thought, ‘Go, go, go to the finish line.’ And I didn’t see anyone anymore.”

Mani seemed nonetheless pleased with her silver medal.

“It’s just sports, you know?,” she said, smiling. “Some years are better than others. It’s been pretty good this year, I’m pretty happy. [Thalita] was the strongest, so I have no regrets about being second. I never won a medal, so it’s pretty good today. And hopefully I can do even better the next couple of years.”

But on a day when outstanding, thrilling racing cut through the gloomy weather like a spotlight, there was another dark moment.

Belgian Femke van den Driessche, who dropped out of the race after a mechanical, was discovered by UCI officials to have hidden a motor in her bike. Though the circumstances remained unclear, it seemed like a crushing blow to the spirit of her Belgian team, and a damper on what should have been a day of great excitement for the sport of cyclocross.

In a Sunday morning press conference, UCI president Brian Cookson said he believed the UCI had sent a powerful message to would-be cheaters with the discovery. But he admonished the press and the public for missing out on the bigger picture in the face of the day’s bad news.

“It was wonderful to see the first under-23 women’s race,” he said. “There were great rides, and great performances, and I think that’s what we all want to focus on. … I think it’s clear there’s technology now, the testing is working, and we are catching people. It gives out a very strong message. There were plenty of people who laughed at the idea people might be using electric motors in bike races, now we see there is a possibility, and people might well have been doing it. But I think this is a major step forward in our efforts to protect the integrity of our sport. And the clear message is, whoever you are, whatever level you’re competing at, if you’re going to cheat in this way, we now have the means to catch you and you will be sanctioned.”

In spite of the dark beginning, the day lightened quickly. The weather broke — it still rained lightly, but not nearly hard enough to depress the spirits of the fans or the racers — and the under-23 men lined up.

American Logan Owen could not manage his best race, although his 13th-place finish was among the best American results of the weekend. And it was a rare day when 13th may have been preferable to second. The Czech Republic’s Adam Toupalik, confused during the race, celebrated a victory that had not yet arrived, throwing his arms up in triumph with a lap to go.

The mistake may have cost him a victory, and sent him sprinting after Belgium’s Quinten Hermans (who would eventually finish third) and Eli Iserbyt.

Toupalik regained the front group, but he had burned a match too many, and could not match Iserbyt in the final sprint.

After Cant’s failed bid for the women’s world title, and the dark news about Van den Driessche, the victory was a bit of redemption for the home team, and set the fans alight.

Iserbyt himself had missed out on a world junior title only a year before, after a boneheaded mistake of his own. In Tabor, Czech Republic, in 2015, Iserbyt started the race on the wrong tires, losing ground until a mechanic could run back to the team truck to retrieve a tire with better traction while the race was unfolding. To win, at home, just a year later, seemed a major catharsis both for him and his supporters.

“In the beginning, I didn’t have the best feeling, and I didn’t know why. Normally I just give it all, and today I was limited,” he said. “But in the last two laps I think it was like, I just couldn’t follow the pace of the others. But in the hardest seconds I saw that the other guys were a little bit less than me, and I could ride to Quinten and Adam in the front and I started believing again.”

Toupalik, obviously distressed, seemed to nonetheless accept his mistake and his silver medal, philosophically, especially after hugs and jokes with friends around the venue.

“Somebody told me, ‘Last lap, last lap!’ so I was pushing, pushing. I was not focused on the numbers,” he said later. “So I just saw the finish line and I thought I was on the last lap. But then I saw Quinten and Eli go in front of me and realized there was something wrong. Then I pushed again, I came back to the Belgian guys. I attacked again, but I didn’t have enough energy in the last lap anymore.”

There is a break, a long one, between the races on Sunday at the world championships. At an ordinary worlds it might be a chance for supporters and friends to mingle with the riders, share a word of encouragement before the final race of the day. Not on Sunday — at least, not in the Belgian camp.

All was quiet, total focus, the whole area fenced off for privacy. Only an image of Kevin Pauwels gazed out from behind the metal fencing that protected the Belgian team area.

Meanwhile, event staff dished out thousands of burgers and fries and sausages and beers, packing the detritus of the race into a vast sea of trash cans. As the rain tapered off, fans began to emerge from cover, from canopies and tents and garages, to gather on course for the day’s marquee event.

On the start line, Wout Van Aert, free of the pressure of being race favorite — that title was bestowed on his young Dutch rival, defending champion Mathieu van der Poel — looked relaxed and focused.

But so did van der Poel, even as he joked and smiled with Sven Nys, a legend of the sport nearly twice the barely 21-year-old van der Poel’s age, about to ride his final championship race.

The men ripped through the course, a pitched battle waged at the front of the race by Belgians, like Kevin Pauwels, and Dutch like van der Poel and his older brother, David.

As the racers began to settle down a couple of laps in, it appeared the race might turn into a three-way fight between van der Poel, Van Aert, and Lars van der Haar — essentially a rematch of the 2015 world championships.

But Sven Nys found his way to the front, roaring away on his own, powered, it appeared, by pure emotion — his and that of the crowd that desperately hoped their hero would deliver one final victory. Nys surged down steep, muddy descents with flair no other rider in the race — perhaps no other rider in the history of the sport — could muster.

Meanwhile, farther back, racers who had missed an early opportunity struggled for position. American Jeremy Powers, who, with a front-row start, had hoped for a chance at a top-10 finish, was slowly climbing toward a 34th-place finish.

In front, Van Aert and van der Poel tangled in a tight corner, and van der Poel’s foot snagged his Belgian rival’s wheel. The two worked, hastily, at first, then more calmly, to separate themselves. But a gap, perhaps 15 seconds, had formed.

“It was stupid for both of us, but afterward I kept my head cool, and I was really quickly into a good rhythm,” said Van Aert. “To be honest, I have to thank Mathieu because afterwards, I came into my really good rhythm, and I just went full gas after this incident. And maybe it was something I needed to become world champion.”

While Van Aert went forward, van der Poel went backward, fading from relevance and out of medal position.

Van der Haar and Van Aert met each other with a lap to go, but Van Aert, focused intently on the victory now, was the stronger man. He punched it on the climb and roared to victory as the Belgian crowd roared behind him.

Nys, meanwhile, rolled across the line in fourth place, waving jubilantly to the crowd, still riding the euphoria of that final solo attack.

There would be plenty for the Belgians — for fans of cyclocross everywhere, really — to celebrate, in the end. A dramatic race and a worthy champion in Van Aert, perhaps the beginning of a career that in 20 years time may rival his countryman Nys’s.

But it is too soon to think about all that. It was time to savor a victory so long in the making.

“I’m really happy,” said Van Aert. “It was a crazy day, and I worked hard for this championship the last few weeks. To be honest, all season. For the moment I really can’t believe it.”

The bitter points remain. The bike with the motor. The Belgian, drunk on beer and nationalistic pride, who threw beers at van der Haar — a rival, but a man who will no doubt be, in time, a respected champion himself. Toupalik and his ‘what-could-have-been’ mistake.

Cyclocross won out. It always does, for its true believers. With so much drama and the passion distilled into a single hour of furious racing, how could it not? The thrill of seeing a great champion on the attack one more time. The show of force and willpower, just to battle through the pelting rain that fell on Saturday’s races to any place at all, let alone to a victory. The joy on the face of an athlete who never expected to win anything, instead a world champion in the first race of its kind.

That’s the world championships. You watch and you wait and you hope and endure and, then, when you’re lucky, you catch a glimpse of something great.