Racing Bumper CX World Champs gallery: Dutch domination at the top, while younger ranks provide the drama
Expectations were met in almost every race at the World Championships in Tábor, and the cyclocross world bid farewell to a legend.
Any World Championship can be a strange event. Rarely is that more the case than in cyclocross, especially in this current era of dominance from one or two parties. While there can be more variables at play on the road, not least with the influence of dedicated teams, on the field it’s perhaps more factually meritocratic – the chances are that only bad luck can prevent the dominant and in-form riders from topping the podium, as was the case in Tábor this weekend – and that can make for
a rather boring show.
Even the race behind the leader is harder to get excited about at the World Champs. Throughout the rest of the season, we’ve talked up the fight for the podium on a weekly basis, and though runners-up get a nice shiny medal and a dollop of prize money for their high placings, it’s hard to look past the rainbow jersey.
There is, however, a little (a lot) more meaning in those lower placings in the younger ranks. Sure, there’s a rainbow jersey to frame for a remarkable few, but a high finish at the biggest event of the year can be career-defining – or perhaps career-facilitating – for under-23 and junior riders. And this weekend, it’s in those races where some of the best drama of the World Championships played out.
Before we get into the gallery, a few words for Zdeněk Štybar. The now 38-year-old Czech rider built the foundations of his cycling career on the Tábor course, going from young fan to junior phenom, all the way to world champion in front of his home fans.
The affectionately named ‘Stybie’ – along with Marianne Vos – went on to lay the groundwork for a path that the likes of Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert would follow, namely that he proved it was possible to excel throughout the winter, and then find success on the road.
In his 12 years under the varying nomenclature of what is now Soudal-Quick Step before finishing his elite career with Jayco-AlUla, Štybar took two more world titles on the ‘cross bike and 18 wins on the road, including Strade Bianche, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 BinckBank Classic, the Eneco Tour overall, and stages at both the Vuelta a España and Tour de France.
He might have faded from the forefront of CX discourse in recent years, but he’ll be missed even so. Happy retirement, Stybie!
There’s some terrific CX history in Tábor, Czechia (more widely still known as the Czech Republic, but ‘Czechia’ is preferred as of 2022). Speaking of Czech history, while he wasn’t expected to disrupt the elite men of today, 38-year-old Zdeněk Štybar was one of the most visible riders in the build-up to his final home World Championships. The three-time winner (2010, 2011, 2014) unsurprisingly chose to extend his career by five weeks in order to enjoy a swansong on home soil, 14 years after he took his first rainbow jersey in Tábor. Naturally, the Czech superstar will remember many a brilliant day on his home course, but surely few will come close to that freezing day in late January 2010, when the then-young man (only just 24) raced to victory over Belgian stars Klaas Vantornout and 2005 champion Sven Nys. The confidence in pre-preparing a special-edition bike might seem eyebrow-raising (though it is very normal, especially at Grand Tours), but ‘Stybie’ was nearing the end of one heck of a season, winning both the World Cup and Superprestige overall, not to mention the fact he was on home soil – it was meant to be. Stybar took his third and last title in Hoogerheide in 2014 before the Worlds returned to Tábor the following year without the Czech darling, leaving a 20-year-old whippersnapper called Mathieu van der Poel to take his first crown. A young Van der Poel hopping the infamous Tábor planks during his first elite Worlds in 2015. Van der Poel is of course back on happy hunting ground this weekend, hoping to win a sixth world title nine years after winning his first on the attritional Tábor course, ahead of a clearly bitterly disappointed Wout van Aert (it’s ok, Baby Wout, you’re about to win for the next three years on the trot) and ever-cheerful Lars van der Haar, the oldest of the three by a few years at 24. But enough of the past; let’s get back to the present tense. There’s been plenty of discussion about the planks of the Tábor course, positioned on a slight uphill gradient and just after a steep ramp that would significantly blunt the momentum needed to execute the iconic bunnyhop, especially in this weekend’s moist conditions. It’s not new to the Czech home of CX, though, and was still very popular with the spectators who would fill the temporary stands. Puck Pieterse, one of the few elite women who consistently hops the planks, gave it a good go in the training laps … … with mixed success. The long weekend began on Friday with the mixed team relay, with the notable absence of the Dutch powerhouse squad which had chosen to focus on the individual events. The Belgians were favourites, partly thanks to the presence of both Sanne Cant and Michael Vanthourenhout, though much of their team were drawn from the younger ranks. In the end it came down to a two-up sprint between France and Great Britain. Cameron Mason had regained contact with leader Aubin Sparfel, the junior rider taking over from Hélène Clauzel who’d powered through the penultimate lap to take the lead off the Brits with a seven-second advantage, but Mason was unable to out-punch the 17-year-old after a hard chase. The combined oomph of Cant and Vanthourenhout in the last two laps brought the Belgians up to third. The French success continued on Saturday, which kicked off with the junior women as 18-year-old Célia Gery overcame Britain’s Cat Ferguson to take the title. It was a race-long battle between Géry and Ferguson after they and Slovakia’s Viktória Chladonová went clear of the field early in the race. A good start for France. The under-23 men were next to take to the course. Dutch rider Tibor Del Grosso started the race with a huge target on his back, a week after sealing the U23 World Cup title with victory at Hoogerheide. The 20-year-old, who won silver last year just four seconds behind Thibau Nys, lived up to expectation on the wearing Tábor course, accelerating early and avoiding a disruptive crash, then breaking the elastic on the second lap. Del Grosso’s key rival was World Cup runner-up Emiel Verstrynge of Belgium, the only rider able to stick to the leader in the early phases, before dropping off the pace. Del Grosso stayed away, building a lead of almost half a minute before celebrating a dominant victory with what was essentially a victory lap. Verstrynge was joined by fellow Belgian and current U23 European champion Jente Michels on the penultimate lap. Michels tried to jettison his compatriot on the run-in, but ended up leading out Verstrynge who had the punch to snatch silver. Saturday’s marquee event was the elite women’s race where the Dutch riders – surprise, surprise – were dominant from the off. Fem van Empel held nothing back in her title defence, putting the field under pressure from the gun. Puck Pieterse and Lucinda Brand tried to hold on, but the Visma-Lease a Bike rider found space in the opening lap and set about building her advantage from there on. What is there to say, really? It was a near-perfect ride from the season’s most dominant rider. Ordinarily, national team dynamics work rather differently in cyclocross than at, say, the road World Champs. As long as no one jeopardised the nation’s chances of victory, the Dutch team were all racing for themselves, and once Van Empel had broken free, the most interesting duel of the day was between Brand and Pieterse for the silver medal. Even Pieterse opted to run the planks (see above) as she battled for the highest possible placing. After leading the bunch off the start-finish straight, Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado slipped back in the sticky mud and found herself on the front of the chase group which was also dominated by orange jerseys. An on-form Laura Verdonschot marched her way up through the field and duked it out with Italy’s Sara Casasola in the battle for best non-Dutch rider, a fight the Belgian won with fifth at the finish. Fellow Belgian and three-time world champion (2017, 2018, 2019) Sanne Cant raced to 14th. Powerful Canadian, Maghalie Rochette, retained her top-10 streak at the World Champs with a steady 10th. Van Empel’s margin of victory was 1:20, the cherry on top of a bloody good CX season. Pieterse had been looking most likely to claim best-of-the-rest status until the young rider began to fade late in the race. Brand passed her young compatriot on the penultimate lap and went after her third world silver medal, her seventh in total including gold in 2021. Alvarado ultimately left behind her fellow chasers to finish just off the podium in fourth. The 2020 world champion has had a fantastic 23/24 season, sealing the World Cup overall for the first time in her career last weekend, despite the latter part of her winter campaign being plagued by a recurrent back injury. Party in the Netherlands tonight. Sunday got underway with the junior men’s race where the Netherlands were well represented once again, led here by Veije Solen. It was, however, the duo of Aubin Sparfel – who outsprinted Cameron Mason to win France the mixed team relay title on Friday – and junior World Cup winner Stefano Viezzi who looked set to fight over the rainbow stripes, with Czech home favourite Kryštof Bažant and Dutchman Solen going for bronze. Barely any of the very long course went without enthusiastic crowds. With Sparfel suffering a devastatingly timed puncture, Viezzi seized the opportunity to cement his advantage and add the rainbow bands to his World Cup title, as the Frenchman sank to fourth in the last lap. A huge day for the young Italian, the first of the azzurri to swap blue for rainbows since Davide Malacarne won the junior title in 2005. When bronze feels like gold; Bažant got the loudest cheers at the finish as he became the first Czech rider of the weekend to mount the podium. Onto the under-23 women, and Zoe Bäckstedt was considered the rider to watch. Marie Schreiber was also expected to be up there having been one of Bäckstedt’s closest competitors this season, and it was the Luxembourger who was best able to glue herself to the Welsh rider’s wheel in the early phases. However, a spill in the mud instigated Schreiber’s tumble down the standings and she ended the race in fifth. Kristyna Zemanová was on a very good day in front of the home crowd, showing some of the form she’s demonstrated among the elite and under-23 ranks all season long in her battle with Leonie Bentveld for silver. Backstedt, though, was unstoppable. Ultimately, the 19-year-old added another gong to her flourishing palmarès and bettered last year’s silver behind Shirin van Anrooij (absent through injury this year). A podium that pretty accurately reflects the women’s under-23 category for the 23/24 season. The elite men closed out the weekend, and look who’s already on the front through the very first corner … Belgian Niels Vandeputte glued himself to his trade teammate’s wheel off the start line and stuck with/close to him for almost half a lap before dropping off the pace. Joris Nieuwenhuis steadily rode into silver-medal position behind his compatriot, keeping the gap inside 10 seconds for as long as he could. It took less than five minutes for Van der Poel to gain an advantage on the long and fast course. Settling in. Further down the field, Štybar was intent on having a good time at his last race, surrounded by enthusiastic home fans. “I don’t want to say I’ll only be happy with a top 10, but it doesn’t really matter if I’m 10th, 15th or 20th, it’s just more for my mind,” Štybar told CyclingNews on his way to Czechia from Hoogerheide last week. “I just want to stop with a feeling that I did everything. I want to show that I was professional, motivated and enjoying it, right to the end.” While ‘Stybie’ was out to take a bow, his younger compatriot Michael Boroš went after a top-10 result on the course on which he won the Czech National Championships last month. Seventh in this company was arguably the best result of the 32-year-old’s season. Nieuwenhuis wasn’t able to hold the pace set by the reigning champion, but he was more than equal to defending his best-of-the-rest status. Michael Vanthourenhout had a difficult start which left him working his way through the field until he tagged Pim Ronhaar and battled it out for the final step of the podium. Lars van der Haar had a day to forget. First, he lost traction at the start, one foot flying from his pedal in an attempt to regain control – “Things didn’t go well at the start, my rear wheel skidded. I had so much strength in my legs that it slipped,” he said, laughing. He worked his way up into the top five placings, but then his chain broke and his race was essentially over. He eventually finished 15th. The Tábor course is often hard-packed, frozen and/or covered in snow, but conditions this weekend were rather different. “I had good legs and rode very controlled,” Van der Poel said at the finish. “I never really took risks and tried to keep everything intact. In many places you could see stones being flicked up by the wheels. I took those passages calmly and pushed on where I could.” Vanthourenhout made it up to the podium placings and ultimately got the better of Pim Ronhaar who’d been on track to make it the second all-Dutch elite podium of the weekend. “It looked good halfway through,” Ronhaar told Wielerflits. “Michael was just better. In the beginning I was messing around a bit too much and I wasn’t feeling good about it. I was lucky that Michael also started poorly, so I was able to go with him and gain a gap on the rest – Joris and Mathieu had already escaped … [then] Michael accelerated two laps from the end and I couldn’t keep up.” It wasn’t the four-minute gap Sven Nys predicted, but 37 seconds was more than enough for the reigning champion to take to the finish. A moment of appreciation for Van der Poel’s bike as the world wonders: could this really, I mean really, be his last World Champs?? Štybar’s final lap was undertaken at a slow pace due to a puncture, but that just meant he could enjoy it all the more, with a broad smile across his face and repeated salutes to the delighted home crowd there to send him off. His final placing was 31st (third Czech rider after seventh-place Boroš and Adam Toupalik in 27th) but it didn’t matter. “It was very special and very emotional … I couldn’t wish for a better farewell than today. Maybe I could have raced another year, but I couldn’t have wished for a better farewell than today.” It’s hard to say who the crowd was more eager to see, Van der Poel, Nieuwenhuis and Vanthourenhout, or national hero ‘Stybie’. Actually, I don’t think it is all that hard. Sure, there is a sprinkling of orange in there for the now six-time world champ, but I’m going to hazard a guess that the celebration was for Czechia’s retiring hero. Van der Poel bids Štybar “happy trails” after accepting his sixth rainbow jersey. What did you think of this story?
😐Meh 😊️Solid 🤩Excellent