If you’re reading this, you probably love cyclocross. And if you love cyclocross, you probably love mud. At least, watching other people race in it.
But this weekend’s round of slopfests at Niel and Dendermonde, as well as some rather eyebrow-raising comments from UCI bigwigs about the approach some riders take to the season, has us wondering if we have rather too much of both at the moment.
Let’s start with the cleanest, easiest discussion: the mud. Ankle-deep, chain-snapping, wheel-sucking, shoe-busting, soul-destroying levels of mud were the order of the day at both the Superprestige Jaarmarktcross Niel and the Dendermonde World Cup. It’s been a muddy few weeks on the circuit but Saturday and Sunday took that to new levels. Remarkably, there was no significant uptick in DNFs at either race, although there were proportionately more -1, -2, and -3 laps down notations in the standing.
Lucinda Brand took a fresh bike two minutes into the women’s World Cup, and swapping every half-lap was the order of the day for a number of riders. Lap times went up, speeds went down, and running (and balance) was the primary skillset needed. Was it fun? Ask Lars van der Haar, who fell and appeared to re-set his own dislocated shoulder while kneeling in the mud at Niel. But for my purposes, there’s a sweet spot for cyclocross conditions. I don’t love a grass crit, but unrideable, mid-shin muck also isn’t my idea of a course that showcases athletic skill. There’s not much to do about that except hope for slightly less-nasty weather in the weeks to come, but with memories of the dangerous Namur course of a couple of seasons ago in mind, I’d hope promoters are also conscious of rider safety as we head into the heart of the season.
Speaking of promoters and such, UCI brass is deeply offended that someone might want to skip one of its races now and then. Speaking to Sporza last week, CEO Peter Van den Abeele complained that riders seemed to see the World Cup series “as a toy,” and sniffed that if riders are prioritizing other events and series over the World Cup, “this cannot continue.”
He cited Lars van der Haar (who had talked about skipping Dendermonde, but rode) and Thibau Nys (who did skip), but there was also a conspicuous sexism to the Sporza article as Van den Abeele excused the men’s “Big Three” for “taking a rest” after a long road season, but seemed to criticize Fem van Empel, Puck Pieterse, and Shirin van Anrooij for doing the same, saying, “Nowhere else can they win as much prize money.” Nevermind that Van Empel and Van Anrooij both raced full road seasons with their teams just like Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, and Tom Pidcock, while Pieterse raced the entire mountain bike World Cup but still found time to head over to the US for opening CX World Cup round.
Not to be outdone, UCI president David Lappartient threatened to bar riders who skip World Cups from competing at the World Championships. “The World Cup is not a competition where you can choose what you want to ride. Everyone just has to participate,” he told DirectVelo. The Petit Napoleon’s threat is a non-starter, of course: plenty of riders who race the World Championships don’t do a full World Cup circuit. But it also misses a much larger point: part of the reason riders are skipping World Cups is there are so damn many of them now, and that’s the UCI’s own doing.
Recall that, prior to the 2020-2021 season, World Cups were run by a variety of promoters. There were generally seven to nine rounds. But that season, the UCI opted to award the organizing contract for all World Cups to Flanders Classics. Rounds increased in number to 14, a 50% jump. The intentions, ostensibly, were to further internationalize the sport and offer a bigger series to attract competition. Obviously, that first year fell victim to the pandemic, but the small sample size we have since then doesn’t seem to offer much evidence it’s working.
Pre-reformation, the World Cup usually saw three rounds in Belgium out of those seven to nine races. Now it has six of 14, plus two more in the Netherlands (no other nation has more than a single round). Combined with other top series like Superprestige and X2O Badkamers, the calendar is now packed with double-race weekends.
Rather than internationalize things, the new approach has actually correlated to reversed geographic and competitive growth in the sport. Cyclocross has always been dominated by Belgium and the Netherlands, but about a decade ago, World Cups typically saw riders from about 15 nations in the start grid for both the men and women, and from places as far afield as Japan and New Zealand. No round this year has seen more than 10 countries represented. Field sizes are down overall too: from the 50s and 60s just a few years ago to the low-to-mid 40s for elite men, for instance.
I say “correlated to” because there’s no hard evidence the World Cup calendar changes have caused the sport to effectively shrink; the drop in national representation, for instance, began before the reforms. There are a lot of overlapping factors at work, not least the massive rise in the popularity of gravel racing over the past decade. But Van den Abeele’s and Lappartient’s responses are absolute head-shaking jackassery. When the sport you’re charged with growing is actually regressing to a small corner of Europe, and riders are skipping events even in what is effectively their own backyard, then maybe the proper response is not to threaten them but find out why your product is so uninteresting to them.
And with that, here’s some racing pictures:
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