Cyclocross season is starting to heat up. Metaphorically, of course – it is late October. But after a North American sojourn to start the World Cup, racing returned to the comfortable environs of Europe to start the Superprestige series last weekend. You know: large and, um, jovial blue-collar crowds; courses that make creative use of big earthen berms; and certainly those familiar banners for all manner of construction products and Belgian beers and of course your drankenspecialist, Prik & Tik.
This week brought the return of cyclocross weather, starting at Tuesday’s Nacht van Woerden and going right through Sunday’s sloppy World Cup at Maasmechelen. Another familiar routine: the night-and-day racing when certain riders are or are not present – and no, we don’t mean the golden afternoon light of Saturday’s Superprestige versus the under-the-lights of Woerden.
It’s hard to miss the contrast in the racing when the sport’s biggest names are present versus sitting it out. That’s been a major aspect of men’s cyclocross the past few years: when any time only one of the “Big Three” of Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, or Tom Pidcock is racing, the result is generally pretty predictable. Two usually provides an entertaining matchup, and three is a treat. Last season and the start of this one has seen a similar dynamic in women’s racing, where it’s Fem van Empel and Puck Pieterse typically running and riding away with the race.
After putting in a solid appearance at the World Cup opener in Waterloo, Pieterse – who raced a full World Cup mountain bike season that ended only in late September – announced she was taking a well-deserved break from competition until late November. That’s left reigning World Champion Van Empel firmly in control of the action, and this week’s trio of races was a sterling example of the phenomenon.
Van Empel rode away to wins on Tuesday at Nacht van Woerden and Sunday’s World Cup. In her absence at Saturday’s Ruddervoorde stop on the Superprestige series, it was Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado locked in a tight battle with Annemarie Worst for much of the race, and a tighter 17-second gap at the finish. It’s early days in the season, but so far Pieterse is the only one able to stay within about half a minute of Van Empel.
On the men’s side, Van der Poel, Van Aert, and Pidcock have yet to pin on a number this season. And instead of a typical lap-two move by Van der Poel that sees him ride clear in a snoozer, we’ve been treated to tight, tactical racing. Sunday’s Maasmechelen event was typical of what we’ve seen this season. Multiple riders were in contention for nearly the entire race before Lars van der Haar broke clear with two to go after a pileup behind him in an off-camber 180. And his 21-second margin of victory to Eli Iserbyt was the largest of any major race this year. Those two riders have swept three of the four World Cup and Superprestige rounds so far, but a dab of a pedal here or a slightly different line up a steep berm there and things could be much different.
This is, emphatically, not a criticism of riders like Van der Poel or Van Empel. Cyclocross’s Big Three men and Big Two women racers have star power that no one else in the sport matches. And they’re just doing their jobs when they do suit up: win (it’s also not a dig at the riders who make CX the focus of their seasons). It’s just that it’s undeniable that their presence changes races. And while I eagerly await the season debuts of Van der Poel, Van Aert, and Pidcock, I’m also enjoying the suspenseful, evenly matched sport that men’s elite cyclocross is without them, and looking forward to the return of the dynamic, barrier-hopping Pieterse.
Note: our cyclocross coverage this season will be very gallery-and-commentary focused, mostly on major series like the World Cup and Superprestige. That means it’s going to have a gap or two. Essentially: when there’s a lot of racing, like this week, we’ll be On It. But times like next weekend, where there’s a lone X20 round at Oudenaarde, we won’t have the depth and quality of images available to support a gallery.
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