As I watched Wout van Aert cross the finish line (with no saddle!) an hour after Fem van Empel overcame Puck Pieterse in the first of two fantastic battles, I was reminded of the immortal words of The Office’s Andy Bernard, “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.”
Dominance is one thing, a maybe not terrifically exciting thing, but when the dominant individuals bring up the level of their rivals and/or all turn up on the same top form on the very same day, you’re in for a treat.
That’s close to what happened in Benidorm this weekend. For two hours on Sunday afternoon, the world’s best cyclocross riders swapped the icy cold of northern Europe for the dusty warmth of the Costa Blanca and delivered some spectacular racing.
There were a few exceptions, as there always will be. Shirin van Anrooij, third here last year, was sadly absent after injury brought her CX comeback to a premature end, and her Baloise Trek Lions teammates Pim Ronhaar – my 23/24 season MVP – and Joris Nieuwenhuis seemed a little off-colour despite strong starts in this 13th round, but everyone else in the all-star ensemble showed up and raced like they’d never get to race again.
Benidorm will be remembered as one of the most exciting, if not the very best race of the season, and that goes for both elite races, thanks in large part to the start lists. It was the last of big showdowns to which all the top names promised to show up: Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado would defend her tight grip on the World Cup leader’s jersey despite still nursing a back injury, alongside season-long rivals Puck Pieterse and Fem van Empel, not forgetting Lucinda Brand; while on the men’s side, the ‘Big Three’ were all there for the last time before Van Aert and Tom Pidcock turn to skinnier tyres, along with all the usual suspects, including Michael Vanthourenhout who was one of a very small number who chose to race back home in Zonnebeke on Saturday – and an even smaller number who lined up having already lifted a trophy this weekend.
Both start lists were enough to provoke a popping-candy thrill through your bones, even though there was still a very good chance that both elite races would have a familiarly predictable outcome – Fem van Empel and the so-far unbeaten Van der Poel would repeat their 2023 performances and take victory in the World Cup’s second-ever visit to Benidorm. However, a combination of the dynamic course, the great conditions, intense rivalries and good old-fashioned human failings that often come out when operating at or close to breaking point, made for a blockbuster event that might even begin to thaw the hearts of the most jaded followers of the sport.
These might just be the good old days. Long may they last.