Beyond Belgium: A look at the internationalisation of cyclocross

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Belgium with its icy winters, abundant mud, beer tents, frites and a long cycling history is usually the first country that springs to mind when you think of “cyclocross”. It’s the country where more cyclocross World Championships have been held than anywhere else,  whose riders dominate the results tables and where watching cycling is the country’s favourite pastime.

Of course there’s always been a bunch of other nations on mainland Europe who have made sure the Belgians don’t have it all their way, most prominently in recent years, the Dutch. But now there’s a new guard walking on in. They may not share the same history in the sport but sure have the passion for this no-longer niche discipline of winter bike racing.

More and more riders from America, Britain and even Australia and New Zealand have begun turning up at the start line of the top races, jumping the pond and making their presence well and truly felt at the pointy end of the field. Particularly when it comes to the women’s races.

The internationalisation of cyclocross is well on its way, and it’s looking like a trend that will stay.

“We’ve noticed an increase in the number of countries reaching the podium at UCI Women World Cup events … so although Belgium and the Netherlands are still dominant on the men’s side, the women’s results are clearly becoming more global,” Peter Van den Abeele, UCI head of off-road.

The Nommay World Cup just a couple of weeks ago. Two Americans claim the top two steps, with Katie Compton in first, Kaitlin Keough in second and French rider Pauline Ferrand-Prevot in third.

Plus, the newer nations aren’t content with just coming in and racing on the traditional cyclocross nations’ home turf. With growing domestic scenes of their own and a desire to be part of the bigger picture, the new cyclocross nations are determined to bring the top level racing into their own backyards.

We’re seeing UCI classified races pop anywhere from China to Portugal, the United States to Japan. In fact, there are now 20 countries that host UCI classified cyclocross races, double the number of countries from the early  1990s.

The newest arrival is Australia, which is just about as far away from the spiritual hub of cyclocross as one can get. The land of kangaroos, which is basking in summer sunshine during the heart of the global ‘cross season, even kicked off the international racing this year at the Melbourne Grand Prix of Cyclocross, beginning of a whole new era for a nation of relatively new cyclocross devotees.

In fact, there is even hope that the Asia-Pacific region could follow the lead of the United States and take top level racing to yet another new continent in future years.

“Although development must be achieved gradually, hosting World Cups and World Championships is a possibility if Australia, Japan and China continue putting up races that one day will result in world class events,” said Van den Abeele. “In 2013, the UCI organised, for the first time, Cyclocross Worlds outside mainland Europe and we aim to continue developing the discipline across the continents.”

An entrenched home base

While there is hope of further expansion, lets not pretend it’s easy to ask the top riders to pick up and travel to multiple new continents when most of them are based in a small patch of Europe. It’s where the riders, fans and interest lies. But that could soon change.

While the men’s top 10 is currently completely  filled with riders from the Netherlands and Belgium, the women’s field is already showing the diversification, with riders from seven nations in the first 10 spots.

With that said, the fanbase largely remains in Europe, developed over several generations, which makes it extremely difficult to replicate elsewhere.

The crowd at the Superprestige Cyclocross race in Belgium. Cor Vos © 2017

In Belgium the sport holds such pride of place that it is akin to AFL football in Australia or basketball in the US. The spectators come out in droves, they know the riders, the tactics and the gossip. Even the Dutch, who have long been highly successful in the sport, don’t pull anywhere near the same support and celebrity as the Belgian riders get.

Plus with so many point-earning races on tap in that small patch of Europe, the travel that riders from places like the United States and Australia take for granted, can be an unfamiliar inconvenience.

“It’s a bit difficult. Some riders have sponsor interests in the US, and others don’t. So that’s the first thing, and the jet lag, et cetera. And the trip is long and it’s hard,” Dutch rider and world number one Mathieu Van der Poel said after travelling to the US for the first World Cups of the season.

Mathieu van der Poel rides to victory in Waterloo.

It’s also a different feel and environment and, while the progressive build of crowd numbers may be impressive for those who have come from little, the numbers don’t quite stack up to those in the established cyclocross nations.

“I really enjoyed being in the US,” said Van der Poel. “There was really something cool, and I was really relaxed,” he added. “So I really had a good time there … but I expected there to be more crowds during the race.”

Even though numbers might not quite be at Dutch and Belgian levels, cyclocross is growing rapidly in the United States and not just in terms of participation. They are starting to make their presence felt in the results too. Among the men Stephen Hyde is now sitting at 12th on the rankings and the women are a growing force that can really be felt.

US women leading the charge

Katie Compton, currently ranked third in the world, has long been a strong presence on the international stage, becoming the first American to podium at a Cyclocross World Championships in 2007 and the first non-European to take the overall title in the DVV Troffee in 2017. But, there is also a new band of riders coming through that are talented enough to make the top riders stand up and take notice.

“Yes Compton rides well but I was startled by the level at which Kaitie Keough is riding this year too,” said world champion Sanne Cant. “The level [of cyclocross] in America is rising alongside that of European cross,” the Belgian rider said. “And that’s a very good thing.”

Having more high level racing in the US is bound to have helped that progress, with Keough now ranked second in the world and 22 year-old rider Ellen Noble sitting in the top 20 at number 16.

Riedel after making the podium at the C2 ranked Melbourne Grand Prix of Cyclocross. Picture by Ernesto Arriagada

Key to the internationalisation of cyclocross is the active spreading of UCI ranked events beyond Europe, which allows riders from different regions to not only gain experience, but earn valuable UCI points as well.

“It’s a huge stepping stone for people like me who are planning on going to Europe,” said young Australian rider Stacey Riedel, who will be lining up to represent Australia at the World Cyclocross Championships on Saturday. “It makes a big difference if we can get any points, even if it’s only a few just so that we can start a few positions higher,”

“Starting at the back makes for a very hard race. Even by the first corner you can be almost stopped and often you’ll have to get off your bike and run when the first riders who are 70 paces ahead are already flying off.”

“It feels like a different sport sometimes”

The issue of points, and consequently start position, makes dipping into Europe just for World Championships a difficult option, but when you take into consideration the different conditions as well it becomes almost impossible.

“I would say we call Europe just deep thick sticky mud most of the time, Australia is probably the driest and least technical and, depending on where you are in the US, its probably somewhere in the middle,” said Garry Millburn, who would have to be one of Australia’s most well-travelled cyclocross racers.

Toon Aerts (BEL/Telenet Fidea Lions) focussing riding the mud during the elite men’s race at GP Sven Nys 2018

“In Europe they use slope and the angles of land a lot more than we do,” said Millburn, Australia’s top-ranked male rider, at 64th on the individual rankings. “It feels like a different sport sometimes but you’ve got to keep going back and keep giving it your all and it starts to get a little bit more rewarding.”

Apart from the points and conditions there are still even more reasons that Europe is the place to be if you are serious about cyclocross

Compton, who won her 14th straight US National Cyclocross Championship this year, decided this season was the one that she’d spend a big block of time in Belgium to see what advantages it could bring.

“I have been in Belgium since early October, and it’s been nice to be in one spot to train and all the races are pretty much within an hour’s drive. I’m not dealing with the jet lag and physically I’ve just been feeling stronger and stronger,” Compton said.

“And then the racing also helps. When you’re racing against the strongest in the world weekend after weekend, you’re going to get stronger and faster …or smarter anyway. A little bit of both maybe.”

True global potential

But there are signs that the gap between European competition and every where else is beginning to narrow at least a little. With the growing commitment to cyclocross across a new group of nations, the spread of world class racing and a lifting of the level outside Europe there seems to be a real potential to transform it from an obsession for a few countries, to a truly global sport. A sport where the top contenders don’t need to be in Belgium, the Netherlands or just a stone’s throw away.

It’s a potential seven-time world cyclocross champion Marianne Vos could see all too well as she sat mapping out an imaginary cyclocross course on a property in the hilly Yarra Valley of Victoria in Australia in November, just before she headed back to launch into the European cyclocross season.

Road cycling may be a more popular discipline and mountain biking more international, but there are so many factors that cyclocross has going for it that make it ripe for growth. Growth at the grassroots as well as the top level.

“I see cyclocross, in potential as a bigger sport worldwide because it’s safe to go out on a CX bike, instead of going out on the road — which is safe in Holland but not in all countries,” said the multi-discipline Dutch rider.

“It’s much more of an option to ride all the trails and dirt tracks on the CX bike and it’s less difficult than going on the mountain bike on real mountain bike trails. So it suits many more people.”

Plus the relatively short and exciting races make the sport great for television and on course spectators.

“In terms of potential, I see much more,” said Vos. “And you know, of course it would be great with America stepping in and Australia coming in, to have it as an Olympic event. That will bring it to the next level.”

But perhaps let’s save that circuitous discussion of whether it belongs in the winter or summer Olympics for next time.

(Additional reporting by Anne-Marije Rook and Neal Rogers)

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