Cameron Mason leads Witse Meussen through the muck at the Superprestige Niel cyclocross race. both are ankle-deep in mud running with their bikes.

Cyclocross gallery: Too much of a good thing

The courses weren't the only thing muddy over the weekend, as UCI brass covered themselves in their usual rhetorical glory.

Joe Lindsey
by Joe Lindsey 13.11.2023 Photography by
Cor Vos
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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:

Amandine Fouquenet and Francesca Baroni shoulder their bikes and run through soupy mud during the women's Superprestige round in Niel.
Things started off extremely sloppy for the pro women in Niel; even with full mud tires, many riders were forced to run long sections of the course.
A cyclocross racer runs through deep mud at the Superprestige round at Niel. She's shouldering her bike, seen from behind/above as she picks her line through the thick muck.
Absolute shoe-swallowing muck was the order of the day.
Margot Marasco leans over to try to fix her right shoe at the Superprestige Niel. She's standing in deep, watery mud and her shoe is covered in muck.
Margot Marasco attempts to fix her shoe after a crash. Lots of riders faced footwear issues in the punishing mud.
From behind, a rider is seen riding through mud at the Superprestige round at Niel. Only the wheels and feet are visible, covered in mud as the bike traces another track.
This was one of the cleaner, more rideable sections of course.
Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado fights for balance while running at the Superprestige Niel. She is looking down and her left arm is out to the side to keep from falling.
Women’s winner Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado fights the slippery stuff for balance. Or maybe she’s telling Peter Van den Abeele, “Talk to the hand”?
A rider is shown in closeup at the Superprestige CX in Niel. His knees and lower legs are visible with parts of two wheels as mud flies up from his footsteps.
Didn’t get any better for the men.
Lars van der Haar shoulders his bike to run in the mud at Superprestige Niel. He has an intense look of focus on his face.
Try cyclocross, they said. You’ll have fun, they said. We’re not sure if this is before or after Lars van der Haar re-set his shoulder, but he looks pretty non-plussed just the same.
A closeup of a cyclocross shoe, covered in mud and missing one of its Boa closure dials.
Pretty sure that shoe normally has a Boa dial on that top cuff. Also pretty sure these will never be white again.
Eli Iserbyt raises his arms as he crosses the finish line to win the Superprestige Niel. He's covered in mud.
Eli Iserbyt emerged from the primeval ooze as best of the pro men. Or maybe he’s just happy to be done.
Felipe Orts finishes the Niel round of the Superprestige. He's also covered in mud and looks kinda shocked, thousand-yard-stare.
“What the f*&k was that?!” Felipe Orts just wants a hot shower.
Women racers tackle another day of mud at Dendermonde World Cup. Some are riding, some are running, and the mud is just as soupy as the day before.
“When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Dendermonde and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter. From Dendermonde, it’s Phil Connors. So long.”
Lucinda Brand races at the Dendermonde World Cup round. She's remarkably clean looking for all the mud they're racing in.
Former World Champion Lucinda Brand made her first appearance of the cyclocross season at Dendermonde. Maybe if she smiles sweetly at David Lappartient he’ll let her race Worlds again.
Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado runs in the mud at the World Cup Dendermonde. She's alone, with no other racer in sight behind her.
But it was del Carmen Alvarado who ran away with things again. Maybe it’s that lovely blurple paint job inspiring her?
Denise Betsema scooters her bike at Dendermonde. She's standing on the left side, with her right (wrong) foot on the pedal, pushing off with her left leg.
Denise Betsema goes scooter mode with a mechanical at Dendermonde.
Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado bows to the crowd as she crosses the finish line to win the Dendermonde CX World Cup.
Don’t tell Ceylin she didn’t put on a good show just because Fem, Puck, and Shirin weren’t here.
Zoe Bäckstedt gives a thumbs-up and sticks out her tongue as she crosses the finish line of the Dendermonde World Cup.
Zoe Bäckstedt approves. And would like a nap.
Yeah, we’re not sure what’s going on her either. But we would like some frites too.
Ryan Kamp leads teammate Eli Iserbyt in a running section at the Dendermonde World Cup. Eventual winner Pim Ronhaar lurks behind.
Ryan Kamp had another solid start before slightly fading to 10th. Eli Iserbyt was fourth while Pim Ronhaar (right behind Eli) waits and plots his move.
Three riders climb a set of stairs at the Dendermonde World Cup.
This was probably the driest, best footing riders had all weekend.
Emiel Verstrynge and Witse Meussens get fresh bikes in the pits at the Dendermonde World Cup.
It was one of those days in the pits, and this week is one of those weeks where every bearing on the bike gets replaced.
Lars van der Haar has a very pissed expression on his face as he plows through soupy mud at the Dendermonde World Cup.
Try cyclocross, they sai– oh, wait, we used that one already.
Kevin Kuhn crosses the finish line with a drained expression on his muddy face.
Kevin Kuhn is quietly hanging around the top five, top 10 at races, probably waiting and plotting his revenge at Val di Sole.
But it was another of Baloise-Trek Lions’ young lions who roared loudest at Dendermonde. 22-year-old Pim Ronhaar went clear roughly halfway through the race for his first World Cup victory to join his younger teammate Thibau Nys, who won the opener in Waterloo.

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