When you hear the words “Czech” and “cyclo-cross,” what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Surely it must be Zdeněk Štybar’s victory at the 2010 World Championship? Stybi powering his way to victory on the icy course of Tábor, shaking his head in disbelief, realizing his victory in front of the home crowd is one of those rare moments when the absolute dream scenario comes to life.
A moment that well and truly placed the Czechia on the map for everyone even remotely interested in cross.
Since then, Štybar has become a world champion twice more. Czech riders reached the podium in almost every youth category at the worlds, and riders like Kristyna Zemanová and Michael Boros are regular parts of the field in the CX World Cup. The World Cup, which includes Tábor almost every year, barring the ones when the Worlds take place there, such as 2015 and now in 2024 again.
From just that, the evolution of cyclo-cross in the country seems like a success story. But is it still one? Has it ever been? With the World Championships only a few days away, it’s the perfect time to take a look at the CX scene of the host nation, showing how they've become an important part of the sport and a role model for other countries in the region, but also the shortcomings of their system, which threatens the future of the sport there.
To understand the scene today, we have to mention that the history of the sport in the country started long before the 2010 Worlds. Tábor was already a host in 2001 and part of the World Cup since the mid-1990s.
But even before that, Radomír Šimůnek Sr. became a world champion in 1991, and Mladá Boleslav hosted the championship during the communist times in 1987. And even long before that, the Worlds took place for the first time behind the Iron Curtain in Prague, in 1972, with iconic local rider Miloš Fišera winning gold in the amateur category. But even before that... alright it started around that time.
So the Czechs have been a part of the cyclo-cross world for the last 50 years, and they have won much more than a few elite men's world championships. If we total the medals from the Czech and Czechoslovak times, the country is actually at the top of the table in the men's junior category and has also found great success in the U23 field ever since its creation in 1996. And that is without counting the amateur category, where during the communist times, the biggest stars of the country were forced to race in their peak years.
So it was not really a surprise for them, certainly not as much as it was for the field, that right after the Czech riders could finally race for the elite pros, Šimůnek won.
“In order to increase the popularity of cyclo-cross in the country, you need a sports star," Michal Bednár, a former pro and assistant sporting director of the road team ATT Investments, tells us. He is now also part of the organizing committee in Tábor.
In other words, success breeds popularity, and popularity breeds more success. The Czechs capitalized well on their initial victories, and according to Bednár, the sport has become more mainstream with each organized World Championship, especially following the glory of Štybar in 2010.
But, of course, this process is not natural; it requires a lot of work and dedication. So what are the important parts of this success?
“They are ahead of us in everything. In the junior categories, the field is maybe even stronger than in Belgium,” says Zsolt Búr, a former Hungarian CX champion, who is now a junior coach. Hungarians like him or his youngsters have appeared regularly in races in the Czech Republic for decades, just like Poles, Slovaks, and other riders from the region.
Image credit: Czech Cycling instagram - https://www.instagram.com/p/CzRlgMHsMgR/?img_index=1
Holding these races is an enormous advantage in itself. In Czechia, there were eight UCI category races throughout this season; in Hungary, only one. Slovakia was on the level of the Czechs in terms of numbers, but all of their races were organized during early autumn, so anyone who wanted to score points after that also had to cross their western border.
So there are the races of the so-called Toi Toi Cup (yeah, it’s named after the Toi Toi mobile toilet company, but is sadly changing its name from next season...), but clearly, it is Tábor which spearheads the racing calendar. The first races there were held with the influence of the locally based sportswear company Kalaš, but nowadays, there is also the powerhouse club Cyklo Team Tábor, and according to Bednár, the city also supports the race financially.
It certainly helps too that the riders also really like the course. Even if they aren’t really sure why.
“I don’t know why, because it is a pretty heavy course, so maybe that is the reason why everybody likes it. It’s really hard, so always the best wins, and you can also overtake pretty well,” rounds up Boros, who is currently the best elite male rider from the country.
So Tábor is a locked-in location for the World Cup and occasionally for the Worlds, and there are a number of UCI level races in the country to support the base for cross. But nobody can reach the top level solely racing at home, so that in itself shouldn’t be enough for the aforementioned success in the youth categories. That’s where the role of the federation comes in.
“They are much more professional than us. To World Cups and championships, their riders travel with their national team, not individually like we do. Mechanics, coaches, everything is there. Their level is similar to the one in Belgium, Netherlands, or France. Our kids showing up in their own kits don’t even understand that,” Búr tells us.
The Hungarian coach also thinks that their level is high because despite all this, there is no natural way for a talented Czech rider to become a full-time crosser, so at that age, they take everything more seriously.
But that also suggests some kind of limitation. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that despite the great number of youth success, only Štybar and (now US-based) two-time bronze medallist Kateřina Nash reached the top at the elite level. Boros reinforces that feeling when we ask him about it.
“The CX world changed a lot in the last 10 years. You can see most of the guys moved to the road teams and they are doing CX just for fun. So it is pretty difficult to be only a pure CX rider nowadays.”
Image credit: Michael Boroš instagram - https://www.instagram.com/p/Ck70j9LM2Xt/?img_index=3
Particularly if you are not from within or around Belgium, where the majority of the professional teams operate, the sheer geographical distance alone is a serious disadvantage. To become a professional, you have to live in the Benelux countries for the season or travel there and back home almost every week. None of this is possible without a nice salary – which you can hardly get if the biggest teams don’t want you because of their sponsor interest – or a very solid family background.
Another hurdle could be the extensive schedule of the World Cup, which deters the best local riders and most of the western international competition to race in Toi Toi Cup races, thus forcing the promising youngsters there to jump a bigger gap, once they travel to the Belgian events.
Covid surely also played its part, and for all of these reasons, everyone agrees that there has been a small regression in the last couple of years. Czech athletes only won one medal at the last five Worlds, but everyone is hoping that this year’s race at Tábor can end the drought.
“This year we have really good competitors in the youth categories. Especially Zemanová is one of the best in the U23. In the junior category, we have an excellent competitor Krystof Bazant, who was 2nd in Namur, and also two girls who are in the top 10 at the World Cup. So I see the future is bright,” evaluates Bednár.
He specifically mentions Zemanová, who after her bronze medal in Hoogerheide last year is now their best shot for another top result and according to the sport director has the potential to bring the “sport star” factor that the local CX scene so desperately needs to stay relevant.
That would be a well-timed step up by Zemanová. Štybar will finish his career with the race in Tábor, and with him, the greatest star the Czech cyclo-cross has ever seen will be gone. Both Bednár and Boros agree; it will be hard for anyone to replicate his success, but a great World Championship this year could pave the way for a future where dreams like his victory on that icy course in 2010 could happen again.