Following a thrilling 2021/2022 cyclocross winter, the season culminates this weekend for the ultimate showdown: the World Championships. The competition will be held outside of Europe for the first time since 2013 in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and whilst recent headlines have focused largely on who won’t be there, the array of talent making the trip across the Atlantic is quite frankly top class across the board, and with many riders in peak form, the competition should be electric and is difficult to predict in almost every category.
It’s understandable that fans of the sport are disappointed at the lack of Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert at the biggest contest of the year. The two miss the race due a back injury, and an incompatible schedule respectively. There are no shortage of hopefuls relishing their absence, however, as the upshot of it is that the rainbow stripes will be worn by someone other than the sport’s dominant pairing for the first time in 8 years: expect sparks to fly as this rare opportunity promises a fierce battle.
What we learned: Hamme and Hoogerheide edition
With Pidcock failing to take a win at either of the two races before the biggest test of the season, fans have been quick to assume weakness. There are a few caveats to bear in mind here: Pidcock came to the weekend straight from road training camp with INEOS in Mallorca, and apparently rode a three-hour training ride on the morning of Hamme. He seemed to start sluggishly, either suffering a technical issue or just taking a while to get into his rhythm, but when he chose to put in efforts, he was impressive, and would have been away were it not for the mistakes that plagued him in the final lap. Similarly at Hoogerheide, Pidcock’s attacks were incisive, but ultimately he was let down by fatigue and a rampaging Eli Iserbyt.
Is it a sign of weakness? Or a calculated attempt to test himself in two final training rides where ultimately, the results were unimportant when compared with the big goal – the rainbow jersey. I expect that he will come good on the day.
We learned too that attention is shifting to Lars van der Haar, and for good reason. The Dutchman rode brilliantly at Hoogerheide, recovering from two crashes and putting in a tenacious ride. Van der Haar is a real mood rider, and when he is on a good day he can put up a stern challenge.
Eli Iserbyt has managed to uphold his form this season where in previous years he has faded by the time the World Championships rolls around. He has declared his intention to race as sole leader for Belgium; a troublesome conundrum as the Belgians once again battle with internal politics. They have one less name on the team-sheet to worry about as Quinten Hermans, the winner in Fayetteville at the World Cup event in October sadly scratches due to a positive covid test. Toon Aerts may be reluctant to lead out Iserbyt, a especially in a rivalry where no love has been lost this season, or in previous. However, despite a strong start, Aerts has struggled in the latter part of the season, succumbing to a number of accidents and making mistakes more frequently. He rides from the front but more often than not is picked off later in races. Laurens Sweeck and Michael Vantourenhout may be team mates of Iserbyt but with Sweeck winning at Hamme, it’s unlikely Iserbyt is going to have things all his own way within his own national team, let alone in the race as a whole.
Pidcock has proven to be somewhat error-prone in recent weeks, however, he has a winning mentality and has shown his ability to pull out big results. He came second to Mathieu van der Poel in 2020 and with the chance to be the first ever British world champion, and with his sights set on all three world titles in three different disciplines, he will not let this one get away.
Podium: (1) Pidcock (2) Iserbyt (3) van der Haar
The undisputed queen of cross this season is Lucinda Brand. The Dutch Baloise Trek rider won in Fayetteville in October, and despite a period of losing form following the trip, has taken six of a possible thirteen World Cup wins in a highly competitive field. However, she faces the biggest test to her dominance in the shape of Marianne Vos who has limited her calendar this year and as a result, comes into the race as perhaps the less fancied of the two, in terms of odds.
The weekend’s racing was fierce but with the under-23’s giving the elite women a major headache, as they have all season, the dynamics among the elite women’s category alone are perhaps more difficult to gauge. Brand was predictably victorious at Hamme on Saturday, pushed closest by Shirin van Anrooij, but Sunday was a different proposition, the return of Marianne Vos to the field right before Worlds striking a psychological blow to the current World Champion, especially given the performance she put in. Vos lay in wait for almost the entire race, riding within herself and looking ominous, and when she struck, it was fatal – her burst of acceleration to take the lead in the final lap was devastating and may give Brand a few sleepless nights ahead of Saturday’s challenge.
Annemarie Worst* has performed consistently this season and could pose a threat on a good day. Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado by contrast has had a rollercoaster season, with more bad days than good, but she will be keen to make an impression. Denise Betsema* is perhaps the best rider who can confidently be stated as having no chance, should the top riders stay upright. She has performed with staggering consistency across the season, but has never found a way past Brand or Vos, and third place looks to be the best she could hope to achieve.
Hungarian Kata Blanka Vas opts to ride up at elite level and may prove problematic if she is feeling good; she won in Overijse, came second at the European championships and third at Flamanville, so is a decent outside bet for a podium spot, or potential upset.
The North American contingent will be keen to make an impression, but with Klara Honsinger struggling to find form, Canadian Maghalie Rochette is probably the most likely of the non-European riders to cause an upset.
Marianne Vos is not called the Greatest of All Time for nothing. She has timed her form to perfection and despite what will undoubtedly be an epic battle, I see her holding off Brand to take the win.
Podium: (1) Vos (2) Brand (3) Vas
Yet another category that’s hard to call, each of the main contenders in the men’s under-23 has shone at some point this season. Last year’s champion Pim Ronhaar has taken three wins in U23 races and has made the elite podium, with his best result a 3rd place at Besancon. European champion Ryan Kamp has claimed a couple of second places at World Cup U23 races. Scot Cameron Mason won in Dendermonde and has racked up three further second place finishes. Belgian darling Thibau Nys will always be a threat, despite his propensity to hit the deck; he did so in fact the last time he visited the USA, in Waterloo in October. He has won a few of the X2O Trofee events but sustained an injury to his collarbone once again at the Belgian National Championships, so may not be in his best form.
Ones to Watch
Where do we begin?
Full disclosure, I’d never really heard of Joran Wyseure prior to his second place in the (admittedly under-represented) elite race in Gullegem two weekends prior. It seems he’s not just flown under the radar for many cross fans, so much as not registered on it at all. All that changed this past weekend though, as in the under-23 race at Hoogerheide Wyseure took victory, and ensured the rest of the field, if not the cycling media, would remember his name.
The field is stacked with riders capable of performing on their day; both Emiel Verstrynge and Niels Vandeputte are having strong seasons, and it could perhaps be down to team work to bring about victory. Unlike at the elite level where it’s all about Belgium, both the Belgians and the Dutch have strength in numbers at U23 level, and the Dutch will be out to ruin the Belgian party with Mees Hendrikx to add to the challenge from Kamp and Ronhaar.
This one is really hard to call. If you go with form, Wyseure is the man to beat. Mason had a bad day at Hoogerheide, but will be fired up to make good at Worlds. The verdict? Pim Ronhaar has been up there with the best at times this season; he will rise to the occasion to take the victory.
Podium: (1) Ronhaar (2) Mason (3) Wyseure
If you haven’t been gripped by the talent in this category across the course of this season, you might want to check your pulse. With very few under-23 events, those who will contend for the rainbow bands on Sunday have been mixing it with the elites all season, and they’ve pushed them close week after week, and outridden them in many cases.
The future of cyclocross is in safe hands with the likes of Puck Pieterse, Fem van Empel and Shirin van Anrooij. These explosive, fearless young riders have been tearing up courses and giving the elite women plenty to think about. Fem van Empel’s poise as Marianne Vos crashed right in front of her in the snow of Val di Sole, only to calmly overtake her for the win, will live long in the memory as one of the coolest moments of the season. Puck Pieterse has been redefining women’s cross, bunnyhopping her way to an amazing 7 podiums in elite events across the course of the season and riding with such tenacity it’s impossible not to love her. And Shirin van Anrooij won the European Championships and pushed Lucinda Brand close at Hamme at the weekend so will arrive in Fayetteville confident in her form.
I predict this will be the most exciting race of the weekend. Fireworks will detonate, angels will sing, and amazing young women will absolute crush the course at Fayetteville. I think Pieterse will edge out the others for the victory.
Podium: (1) Pieterse (2) van Empel (3) van Anrooij
Like the women’s elite, the men’s junior category is another where there has been a dominant force winning everything in sight all season, and that force goes by the name of David Haverdings.
Can anyone beat him?
Much was made of the rivalry between Haverdings and his Belgian rival Aaron Dockx early in the season, with murmurings of a future rivalry on the level of van Aert/van der Poel. However following an injury mid-season, Dockx hasn’t quite found his way back to his earlier form, and in recent weeks Haverdings has been pushed closer by Dockx’s countryman, Yordi Corsus. It’s unclear who will be the team leader for the race, if there is a leader at all, but the Belgians may have to unite in order to try and find a way around the Dutchman. Outside of the low countries, Britain’s Nathan Smith has had a good season and could challenge.
It’s impossible to see past Haverdings in rainbow stripes after the weekend.
Podium: (1) Haverdings (2) Corsus (3) Smith
The World Cup has been a close-run thing this season in terms of the overall result, with Britain’s Zoe Backstedt and Leonie Bentveld from the Netherlands the two stand-out performers across the season. Bentveld took the overall victory as a result of Backstedt missing the final event after contracting covid-19. Backstedt is the clear favourite however, winning every junior race she has entered this season and achieving comparatively strong results at elite level, given her age.
Backstedt v Bentveld v…?
The two leaders are likely to take first and second spot on the podium but like David Haverdings in the men’s junior category, Backstedt is racing at a level that far exceeds her competition. Leonie Bentveld hasn’t found her way past the British rider once this season and that trend looks set to continue bar incident or accident. Backstedt missed out on her opportunity to ride for the British national jersey during her isolation, however from the weekend’s evidence it doesn’t seem to have harmed her fitness as she scored an impressive 13th place in the elite field at Hoogerheide.
In terms of their closest competition, Italy’s Valentina Corvi has pushed Bentveld close on a couple of occasions but has been ruled out due to a close contact with covid-19. The Czech pair of Katerina Hladíková and Julia Kopecky, and British junior champion Ella Maclean-Howell may all be in with a chance of a podium spot, but the fight will be among themselves for the third step.
The young Brit will make up for missing the national championship and will wear rainbows in 2022.
Podium: (1) Backstedt (2) Bentveld (3) Hladíková
Overall, assuming covid doesn’t take out any more riders, we are in for one hell of a championship weekend. With the timezone difference, for those of us in Europe who are used to watching lunchtime racing it’s the perfect opportunity to grab a beverage of your choice and enjoy an evening of thrilling competition. Don’t miss it!
*riders who have been ruled out through sickness/covid-19