Mud was the word of the weekend as the world’s best cyclocross racers traveled to Valkenburg, The Netherlands, to vie for the sport’s biggest honour; the rainbow jersey.
Five categories competed at the 2018 UCI Cyclocross World Champions: junior men, U23 women, elite women, U23 men and finally, the elite men.
Each category was faced with a challenging and treacherous course that was bogged down with heavy mud. Riders spent a significant amount off the bike, scooting, running and plowing through the muck in an effort to keep moving forward. Slips and crashes were abundant and the pit crew had their work cut out for them as well.
Great Britain was the first country to claim a rainbow jersey with Ben Tulett winning a thrilling duel against Tomas Kopecky (Czech Republic) in the junior men’s race. Ryan Kamp earned bronze for the Netherlands.
While Tulett was the race favourite, the win nearly escaped him. Mid-way through the race, Tulett was well on his way to a solo victory when Kopecky came charging through the field to catch up with the Brit. Entering the bell lap, the duo was neck-and-neck.
But then, digging deep, Tulett threw a massive attack to drop the Czech rider for good. He rode hard but cleanly as crashes and fumbles were very costly on a course like this. Kopecky was unable to match the Brit’s attack, and never made contact again.
Fans looked to another Brit to take the gold in the U23 women’s race as well. Already a former U23 world champion and a fierce competitor in the elite World Cup series, Evie Richards went into the race as the top-favourite. And she delivered.
Richards took the lead in the first lap and using her mountain bike background to her advantage, masterfully manoeuvring through the difficult course. Her lead was only challenged when, in the last lap, her rear derailleur got stuck in the largest cog. Spinning her bike into the pit, she was able to exchange it without losing too much time. Richards still reached the finish completely solo where she then collapsed and fainted before the podium ceremony.
Behind her, Dutch rider Carmen Alvarado and Austria’s Nadja Heigl duelled for silver, and it was the woman in orange who came out ahead.
Arguably the most anticipated race of the championships weekend, the women’s elite riders were the last to compete on Day 1. Women’s cyclocross has made such strides in the past few years that the field of competitors has gained considerable depth. Despite having had a very successful season as a whole, defending world champion Sanne Cant never just walked away with a win. Instead, we saw different faces on the podium weekend after weekend, which meant the championships were really anyone’s game.
The race became a tale of two duels. All champions of their respective countries, Cant and American Katie Compton took on the battle for the rainbows while Lucinda Brand (The Netherlands) and Christine Majerus (Luxembourg) fought for bronze.
Cant may have gone into the race as the top-favourite, but 39-year-old Compton, already a three-time silver medalist, was coming off her best season in recent memory with wins in the World Cup as well as the overall title of the prestigious DVV Troffee series.
The race lead rotated constantly. One second Compton would slip, allowing Cant to take the lead, but then Compton would turn on that diesel power of hers to bridge the gap, never letting Cant get too much space. At times the American took the lead.
With only a quarter lap and two more run-ups to go, Cant put in one final dig on Compton. Grinding the mud-covered gears with pain and exhaustion written all over her face, she reached the muddy run-up, “the muir”, first. While she ran, Compton’s legs said no more. Unable to respond, Compton watched Cant go clear, soloing to her second consecutive world title.
Compton once again settled for silver, and Brand would best Majerus in the duel for bronze.
The Brits were again looking for victory in the men’s U23 race, where Thomas Pidcock lined up as a favourite. A product of the successful British Cycling junior cyclocross program, Pidcock was rising through the ranks quickly. He won the junior men’s race last year in Luxembourg, and the U23 title in the World Cup series this season.
His season-long rival, Belgian Eli Iserbyt, would also be lining up, however. Iserbyt won the U23 Worlds in 2016 and was keen to repeat after a poor performance in 2017.
Pidcock struggled from the get-go as he failed to clip in at the start, lagging behind as defending champion Joris Nieuwenhuis (The Netherlands) put down the hammer at the front of the field.
Luck wasn’t on Nieuwenhuis’ side, however. He relinquished his lead to Iserbyt after he crashed in a rutted turn and had to go into the pit for a bike exchange. Half a lap later he was back in the pit again, this time to change his shoe. Iserbyt wasted no time and seized these opportunities to put some time between him and the Dutchman. Returning to the top of the U23 field, Iserbyt finished a solid 28 second ahead of Nieuwenhuis, who was trailed by seven seconds by Yan Gras (France).
Pidcock meanwhile never recovered from his delayed start and finished in 15th place.
The biggest surprise came in the championship’s pinnacle event. Fans had hoped for a duel, but expected another solo victory. And while they were indeed treated to a shut-out solo performance, it wasn’t at the hands of top favourite Mathieu van der Poel (The Netherlands). Instead, the Dutch phenom cracked and barely hung in for bronze while Belgian Wout van Aert (Belgium), won his third elite world championships in a row. Van Aert’s compatriot Michael Vanthourenhout took home the silver.
Lars van der Haar (The Netherlands) had taken to the front first, but as in the previous events, gaps formed almost immediately and the field scattered. Unraveling like a ball of yarn, van der Poel started with a slip here, a fumble there but then his legs went. While Van Aert was making the most of this sign of weakness and steadily gapped his rival, Van der Poel looked positively cooked and was unable to match Van Aerts acceleration.
The Belgian crossed the line over two minutes ahead of an ecstatic Vanthourenhout, while a dumbfounded Van der Poel came through in third with barely a reaction.