We’re about to enter the business end (well, middle) of the cyclocross season, and it’s a month since my last cyclocross piece so I felt it was time to draw a line under the autumn as hurtle towards winter, and all that entails: the jam-packed kerstperiode, with festive afternoons spent guzzling cheese and wine while watching Belgian fans guzzle frites and beer, the classic parcours of the likes of Namur, Gavere and Diegem, and the return of all of the headline acts in both the men’s and women’s elite fields for what will hopefully be another cracking Christmas of cross.
So, where are we now, heading into this lauded section of the season, and what are we on the look-out for over the coming weekends? Here are some bitesize takeaways from the past month’s racing.
Muddy, with a chance of – um – more mud
It’s been a rapid descent into the mudfest this season. A wetter than average autumn has seen most courses already sodden and conditions proving pretty disgusting and downright unrideable in many cases. Usually the riders have a little longer to build up to this kind of muck so they’ve had to prove their mettle and of course, cyclocrossers are a hardy bunch and mud is their bread and butter, but it has enabled certain types of rider to come to the fore – the likes of Pim Ronhaar, Lucinda Brand, Joris Nieuwenhuis and Zoe Backstedt are all powerful riders, confident in the unpleasant conditions, and have performed well. Those with a penchant for more specialised courses have faced a wait, but they are soon to be rewarded for their patience, as the tricky climbs and descents of Namur, the long sand sections of Antwerp and Zonhoven, and the intricate twists and turns of Diegem await as we head into December.
That being said, we've seen a wide range of courses featuring beneath the requisite mud this November, from the cobbles of the Koppenberg to the bridge of the urban Kortrijk circuit, and ending up in the slick Celtic sludge in Dublin. So who shone through the gloom, in November?
Baloise Trek cooking with gas
Last month I was raving about Thibau Nys, and while he started the season strongly, the young Belgian has tapered off somewhat in terms of form without a win to his name in the month of November (outside of the 1st of the month in Oudenaarde). It’s a learning curve for him, moving into the elite ranks, and his fiery start gives a good indication of what we can expect from him in the future – he now has to build the base to deliver that high level consistently.
Despite his relative waning, his team have continued to impress, with wins coming from multiple riders and the team a commanding presence in every single race. They are very much owning the team battle this season, ahead of a slightly less deep Pauwels Sauzen Bingoal squad. With Lars van der Haar taking the win in Maasmechelen and Pim Ronhaar holding strong in Dublin, Trek have won 4 out of the 5 World Cup rounds so far, and even Joris Nieuwenhuis got in on the action winning at the Superprestige in Merksplas.
Whilst Eli Iserbyt has notched up five wins and Michael Vantourenhout peaked at the perfect moment to take the European championships, it’s Baloise Trek who’ve had the lion’s share of the success so far this season.
Frustrating Autumn ends with hope for women
Let’s be honest: it’s not been a classic start to the women’s elite season this year. Not through a lack of quality in the field but rather a case of the top riders being like ships passing in the night, coming and going from the schedule and leading to a noticeable gulf in almost every race between the likes of Fem van Empel and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado, and the rest. It leaves little in the way of mystery when it comes to the outcome, with the fact that the winning margin in almost every race has been over a minute the proof that we desperately need all the top women to feature, all at once.
We had a ray of hope at Kortrijk, when Puck Pieterse, Brand and van Empel spent the first half of the race locked in battle, and there is more to come, as with the winter period approaching Shirin van Anrooij returns to the fold, along with Pieterse and van Empel. Though we sadly won’t see Silvia Persico joining the fray this year – the Italian has chosen to focus solely on goals on the road – to have an in-form Alvarado and Lucinda Brand back to her powerful best following her shoulder injury, there is a good chance that come Christmas, we could have at least five riders pushing one another all the way to the kind of thrilling finales we’ve come to expect from the women’s side of the sport over the past few seasons.
There have been stand-out performances from some of the lesser known riders in the field too, with Italian Sara Casasola and Luxembourg champion Marie Schreiber in amongst it from time to time, along with a certain young Welshwoman...
British champs maintain form
Not normally one prone to nationalism, I feel a positive word on Cameron Mason and Zoe Backstedt’s progress is in order, in a review of a month in which they have both shone.
Mason has raised his game this season and shown consistently that he is not to be underestimated. Beginning November with outstanding results at the Koppenbergcross and the European championships, Mason has gone from strength to strength, and just last weekend could be seen launching an attack on Lars van der Haar, Eli Iserbyt and Michael Vantourenhout at Kortrijk in a display of confidence that really underscores not only his physical improvement, but also an uptick in self-belief – he belongs with these guys, and he knows it. Sadly a small mishap on the tricky off-camber section saw him drop back, but finishing in a podium spot once again – his second this season (with an additional five top tens in European races) – will continue to inspire the young Scot.
Zoe Backstedt is proving that she is on another level to most of the riders she graduated from the junior ranks with by also mixing it at the front of races. In heavy conditions in Dublin on Sunday Backstedt was pushing the pace herself early on, forcing Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado to respond, and she had secured her podium spot early on in the race, after which she simply had to make it to the finish line unscathed. Backstedt has achieved two podiums in World Cups this season at just 19 years of age – proof of her potential and a promise of big, big things to come for the youngest in the Backstedt dynasty.
Depth in men’s field remains
While the usual suspects have remained competitive so far this season, flashes of excellence have come from a wide variety of riders, from Joran Wyseure who led early on in the Dublin World Cup fixture, to Corne van Kessel, the veteran giving compatriot Lars van der Haar a run for his money in Kortrijk, and Felipe Orts Lloret who continues on his own upward trajectory. If Laurens Sweeck had been able to overcome Pim Ronhaar in the final sprint in Dublin, it would have meant that from five World Cup fixtures so far, we would have seen five different winners – a potential outcome that emphasizes the current depth in the men’s elite cyclocross peloton.
Of course, the picture changes when Van der Poel, Van Aert and Pidcock enter the frame, as it does every year, but it’s been a fun ride to this point and given the level of competition we’ve seen during the autumn, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the other riders giving the big three a run for their money at times over the winter. Despite the headline acts drawing more attention to the sport, fans who watch throughout the season have been treated to wide open contests and genuine intrigue – we can only hope that the stars of the early season have something left in reserve for the battles to come.
As for the women, the return of last season's top three young Dutch women (van Empel, Pieterse and van Anrooij) alongside champions from the previous seasons in the shape of Brand and Alvarado offers the tantalising prospect of an unpredictable and exciting winter, culminating in what could be a World Championships for the ages in Tabor. And the suggestion this week that Marianne Vos may recover from her iliac artery surgery in time to play some role in the season is just the icing on the (rather muddy) cake.