The elite men’s race in this year’s Cyclo-cross World Championships was hardly a nail-biter. Mathieu van der Poel had a gap on his competitors within the first lap – a gap which he held, convincingly, until the bitter end of 58 long minutes of racing. The Dutch rider was methodical in his conquering of the muddy laps in Tabor, rarely taking any risks on the slippery corners and dismounting calmly, rather than trying to jump the barriers or ride precarious sections of the course. Van der Poel kept a steady rhythm throughout and eventually took victory with a gap of almost 40 seconds between himself and Joris Nieuwenhuis who finished in second place. Nobody would have bet against MVDP before the race, and he dutifully delivered with a cyclo-cross masterclass – just like he has in almost every race this season.
Things tend to get a little tricker for Van der Poel on the cyclo-cross field when the likes of Tom Pidcock and Wout van Aert are racing – this trio of multi-disciplinary superstars have been coined the “Big Three” by the media in recent years. Events in which all of them are competing draw huge crowds and TV viewing figures skyrocket, because everyone wants to see a showdown on the mud between three of cycling’s biggest names. When they don’t all turn up though, things are a little anticlimactic, just like they were at the World Cyclo-cross Championships last weekend.
There’s plenty of entertainment to be found in watching a rider like Van der Poel finesse corners and ride muddy banks in a way most riders can only dream of, and there’s no denying that the Dutchman’s cyclo-cross campaign this season has been an impressive feat of physical strength and bike handling prowess. Much of the joy in competitive cycling, however, comes from the unpredictable and the unexpected. Turning on the television to watch a race in which the outcome can be predicted before the riders even set off from the start line can take the fun out of things. Not only for the fans, but for the riders, too.
Van der Poel himself has been vocal about potentially stepping away from the ‘cross field after this season – the Alpecin-Deceuninck rider has achieved pretty much all there is to achieve in cyclo-cross, and believes that it might not be necessary to race through the winter in order to perform on the road. According to CyclingNews, Van der Poel said, after winning his sixth World Championship title: "It’s a decision that I obviously cannot make alone. But we will discuss it within the team. Cross in the winter is something that takes a lot of energy. If it turns out that I can perform even better on the road by skipping cyclo-cross, then I will do that."
The choice that both Pidcock and Van Aert made to skip the Cyclo-cross World Championships altogether is an indication of where the discipline ranks in terms of importance for them, too. While neither rider has outrightly confirmed or denied whether they will continue racing cyclo-cross in the future, it’s clear that they aren’t prepared to sacrifice their goals on the road for victories or rainbow jerseys in the cyclo-cross field.
So, what could the likes of Van der Poel, Van Aert and Pidcock stepping away from the sport mean for the future of cyclo-cross? Should fans despair, or can we look forward to better racing as a result?
Often, the battle for podium positions behind the ‘Big Three’ (or whichever combination of them is racing) in cyclo-cross can be more enthralling than watching the winner himself. Riders like Lars van der Haar, Joris Nieuwenhuis, Eli Iserbyt and Michael Vanthourenhout are far more evenly matched – partly because they focus on cyclo-cross in its entirety, and don't have the option to start racing ‘cross later in the winter, like Van der Poel, Van Aert and Pidcock usually do. Without these road superstars switching disciplines for a couple of races, cyclo-cross could be much more open because all the riders on the start line will have had similar approaches to the start of the season.
However, the danger of riders like Van der Poel dropping out of cyclo-cross could also mean a drop in fan engagement. There’s no denying that when the Dutchman races – and the same can be said, to a certain extent, for Van Aert and Pidcock –more people watch the sport. Would cyclo-cross suffer from a loss of interest if riders stop hopping over from the road peloton?
It seems like some of the sport’s key stakeholders hold this concern. There have been talks of a restructuring of the cyclo-cross season which would play into the favour of riders who ride multiple disciplines and encourage them to partake in a full World Cup season, rather than only certain races as is the current norm. While no plans have been made official, Belgian media have reported ideas of a more compact World Cup series in December/January which includes 10 or 12 races.
In a recent interview with HLN, Tomas van den Spiegel (the CEO of Flanders Classics), commented: "If you want to make cyclocross sustainable, we can no longer ask the riders to adapt to the calendar. Then it seems logical to me that the World Cup adapts to the rider of the future. We have to find a format that allows this type of rider to win the World Cup. The cyclist of the future is multidisciplinary. I'm not just talking about Van der Poel, Van Aert and Pidcock. But also about Van Empel, Van Anrooij, Pieterse, Backstedt and Thibau Nys. That is the next generation that emulates Mathieu, Wout and Tom.”
Regardless of whether these plans of a restructure come to fruition over the next year, it’s clear that cyclo-cross, as a sport, needs a rethink. The domination of nations like Belgium and the Netherlands is an area that should be looked at if the sport ever wants to globalise and see a wider spread of talent at the top. There is a clear split between full-time cyclo-cross riders and those who do a small handful of events after mostly racing a season on the road, and this gap needs to be lessened in order for racing to progress and become better to watch. Should the ‘Big Three’ step away from the sport, they will undoubtedly be missed, but the popularity of an entire discipline can’t rely on just three riders to make it a success.