I’m cross-posting (pun accidental but delightful) this from my newsletter, partly as I know not everyone wants to make that kind of a commitment (we all have a lot going on in our inboxes, am I right?) and partly for posterity, as my longer form pieces is what this site is all about, and my newsletter has tended to absorb so much of my energy the past few months that there’s not much left for long-form writing.
Anyway, here, for anyone who’d like a record of it, is a chronological review of the 2022/2023 kerstperiode – the European festive cyclocross racing block that this year featured 10 races over a two-week period. This year’s was particularly memorable, so here for your reminiscing pleasure, are 2000-odd words about it.
The kerstperiode ushered in the return of all kinds of riders – Marianne Vos, Zdenyk Stybar, Clement Venturini and Quinten Hermans to name but a few who returned to the field to join the mass participations of the heart of the cyclocross season.
The unique Zilvermeercross at Mol (23rd Dec) in Belgium kicked off proceedings. Taking place in the dark, just two days after the winter solstice, the race combined sand sections with a long straight along the ‘Zilvermeer’ (silver lake) which offered repeat chances to attack, opportunities that Shirin van Anrooij didn’t need as she put on a show of dominance in the absence of her two young compatriots, Pieterse and Van Empel, with team mate Lucinda Brand a distant second. For the men, Mol served as chapter 1 of the blockbuster thriller that would unfold over the Christmas period featuring the three contemporary protagonists of the sport: Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock. The two old rivals used the straight section to attack the rest, then each other, pulling clear before Van Aert dropped the hammer, recording a blistering fastest lap to storm to victory. 1-0 Belgium.
Chapter 2 was the World Cup in Gavere (26th Dec), a brilliant, undulating parcours with the requisite mud lending itself to a thrilling race. Van Anrooij continued her fine form, churning out the power in the heavy conditions, Puck Pieterse unable to match her, suffering a mechanical and with the conditions. Young Brit Zoe Backstedt chalked up a second 4th place in as many races, this one her most significant elite result to date. Pidcock and Van der Poel traded attacks and shared the lead with Van Aert under pressure in third, but the Dutchman pulled clear on lap 5 of 6 to level the score at 1-1. (Props to Cameron Mason who worked his way through the field to an impressive 9th).
The ups, downs and thick mud of Gavere were forgotten the following day in Heusden-Zolder (27th Dec), the first of two consecutive races in the Superprestige series. Another natural course but with sharp descents and fast sections, it was a total contrast with yesterday’s slogfest, the riders flying round the course at breakneck speed. With the top 3 women absent, Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado, Lucinda Brand and Inge van der Heijden were the key players, Alvarado edging a close contest that had us guessing right to the line.
The men’s race (Chapter 3) was a straight punch-up between Wout and Mathieu, a true revival of the old rivalry that was missing last season. The final sprint that we were waiting for didn’t quite materialise, Van der Poel unclipping in the finishing strait to take the sting out of his final push for the line, following a mistake on the final climb. There was excitement too in the chasing group, Van der Haar with astonishing speed in the later laps chasing on like a rocket, eventually beating Pidcock into 3rd.
The return to the calendar of Diegem (28th Dec) was yet another contrast – another evening race, on a more urban course – essentially a mucky romp round a town park. Think Glastonbury with bikes. With Van Empel still absent, it was Puck v Shirin round 2, Pieterse with the edge in the early stages, Van Anrooij grinding alone to claw back much of the time but in the end unable to close the gap. Puck put in an injection of pace to pull away again on the final lap, and celebrate a hard-fought win.
Where the top 3 were spread out in Heusden-Zolder, they were packed together at Diegem, engaged in a breathless battle to the line that had me on the edge of my seat. Seriously, it was one of the best sporting events I’ve seen in some time. It marked the midpoint of the story – the action twisting and turning, the outcome impossible to predict. They wasted no time, quickly to the front. They were evenly matched, Van der Poel majestic through the sand, taking a gap, then Van Aert in the ascendancy. Pidcock stayed with him though, and after dropping Van der Poel the two traded blows all the way to the line, the final few turns ridden to perfection by Pidcock, who made a big statement, taking second for the first time in a race featuring all three of them.
Rounding out 2022 was the Azencross at Loenhout (30th Dec), as the Exact Cross series continued. On a flat mucky course and in quite disgusting conditions it was a walkover for Van Anrooij in a field lacking in depth. She was smiley across the line, her victory uncontested, but the battle of the young riders behind drew interest, with the rapidly improving Marie Schreiber clear in second and Kristyna Zemanova fighting for a podium spot. Manon Bakker the oldest of the front bunch at the ripe old age of 23, with impressive junior Lauren Molengraf in 4th and 19-year-old Line Burquier filling out the top 5.
The final battle of 2022 proved to be the final chapter in the ‘big 3’ narrative. In heavy mud that isn’t his forte, Pidcock hung on to his more senior rivals, his efforts like a concertina each lap as he closed the gap, then fell back again, seeming to lose touch completely on lap 6 before improbably working his way back by lap 7 immediately attacking. Van der Poel launched repeated attacks on the final lap but the long awaited, yearned-for sprint out involving all three finally manifested, Van Aert proving the most powerful fast man to take his 4th win in a row.
Sven Nys’ self-titled race (like my poem?) in Baal (1st Jan) was up next, and we’ve finally crossed over into 2023 (happy new year!). Out with the old and in with the new, as teams traded riders, kit and gear like some kind of muddy bike-themed swap shop, with commentators and fans alike trying to spot the differences from just two days earlier. Quinten Hermans and Corne van Kessel either forgot, or chose to ignore, that both had switched teams that day, the former Tormans team mates riding together as they so often did before, despite belonging to Alpecin-Deceuninck and Deschacy-Hens-Maes respectively.
The return of Fem Van Empel, now an all-new member of Jumbo Visma, was bad news for the rest of the women’s field. With no Pieterse or Van Anrooij to spar with, the imperious young Dutchwoman was free to rampage to victory, a full two minutes clear of Lucinda Brand in second, Alvarado missing out after one too many mistakes. Two of the men’s top three chose to sit this one out too, Pidcock the only ‘big three’ member on the start line. With Vantourenhout on a better day than team mate Iserbyt, and Van der Haar working his way up the field, they looked to be fighting for second as the Yorkshireman carved out a lead, that was until the pump track saw him crash out, flipping his bike over the barriers, an unusual mistake for the mountain bike Olympic champion. Dazed and bruised, his lead evaporated, allowing his junior rival Eli Iserbyt to rise like a phoenix to victory, his first since October.
Herentals (3rd Jan) was another race to feature just one of the terrific trio, this time Puck Pieterse the lone representative of the 20-year-old Dutch trident, and the undulating, muddy course suited the mountain biker in her, leading to the expected win, by just under half a minute from Brand, with Annemarie Worst putting in a good performance to take 3rd. The men’s trio was one down, Pidcock sitting this one out after his crash, leaving Jens Adams to cast himself in the role of third wheel to the Two Big Vans. It was Van Aert’s home race – the Belgian has won both of the previous editions of the relatively youthful cross – and after dispatching Adams, the two big guns went to work, matching each other pedal stroke for pedal stroke, eyeing one another on the athletics track, and taking it right down to the wire… almost. A rear puncture suffered by Van Aert on the final pass through the pits denied us of the sprint once again, leaving Van Der Poel to take the spoils, bringing the series to 4-2 in favour of the Belgian.
Two infamous sand races were the bread in the sandwich that completed the New Year racing block. Koksijde (5th Jan) saw an exciting start to the women’s race, with only Pieterse missing from the big hitters, Van Anrooij and Alvarado making the best start and a chase group of five on the tail of Van Anrooij who led going into lap 2, including Fem Van Empel. Fem edged closer to her rival as the race progressed but van Anrooij’s command of the sand was superior and she notched up another victory to add to her steadily growing collection. After a few near misses, Van der Poel was in no mood to mess around, quick off the mark but not alone for long, with his old pal Wout on his wheel and sand specialist Laurens Sweeck taking his turn to mix it with the Vans. The lead riders were all guilty of small mistakes, but as the rain came down churning the sand into cement, Van Aert attacked and quickly opened up a gap, taking advantage of a change of tires to further increase his lead, flying over the sand and putting victory beyond doubt, as Van der Poel suffered a bad day at the office, later complaining of back pain.
The meat in the sandwich was Gullegem (7th Jan), and on a dull day the parcours was hard going, deeply rutted mud hampering the participants. Alvarado went out hard with EF’s Zoe Backstedt powering along in second, with Denise Betsema and Inge van der Heijden in pursuit. One too many mistakes for Backstedt saw her miss out on her first elite podium though, as Alvarado sealed another win in her excellent season. Despite being the lone representative of the big 3 in the men’s race, it wasn’t straightforward for Wout van Aert, who made numerous mistakes and only (!) won by 23 seconds.
The final race before nationals was the World Cup in Zonhoven (8th Jan), and it saw all three of the biggest names back in action for the women. The treacherous sand descents spelled trouble, Van Empel falling twice on first lap, along with Backstedt, and Pieterse coming unstuck on the second. Once again Van Anrooij was the steadiest on the sand, taking advantage of the errors of her compatriots to power to a third World Cup win of the season. Vos and Cant reprised their rivalry, putting on a display of power to sprint for 11th place. If autumn belonged to Van Empel, then arguably, the winter was Van Anrooij’s. It remains to be seen if the Baloise-Trek rider will opt to compete in the elite category at Hoogerheide – the race would be poorer without her.
Like so many others, the men’s race came down to who would make the least errors. Once again, Van Aert was able to use his consistency and his strong sand riding skills to gain the advantage over Van der Poel, who went all out in his usual guts-or-glory style, and suffered unforced errors as a consequence. The Belgian wins the winter, the Dutchman arguably the underdog in the battle for the rainbow stripes.
Which brings us up to date, bar the national championships which took place this weekend just gone – the British elites were the only ones available to view, and in truly horrific conditions in Cumbria, Zoe Backstedt and Cameron Mason ground out well-deserved wins to become new British champions – congratulations to them both.