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Elite cyclocross racing has never been so predictable, so boring. Elite cyclocross racing has never been so unpredictable, so exciting.
As it turns out, both of these statements are true — it just depends on which elite cyclocross race you’re watching.
Sunday’s World Cup race across the sand dunes of Koksijde, Belgium, truly brought this point home. The women’s event saw at least five leaders across 45 minutes of racing, with a last-lap attack yielding a first-time World Cup winner in Denise Betsema. The men’s race saw Mathieu van der Poel ride away from the field inside the first five minutes, putting on an hourlong masterclass alone at the front to take the 18th World Cup win of his young career.
One race was suspenseful to the finish, with a surprise winner taking the biggest victory of her career. The other race was over before it started, another victory in the career of a rider who, at age 23, already ranks among the greatest the discipline has ever seen.
Van der Poel’s dominance has been so supreme that the cloud hanging over the elite men’s category is whether the discipline can withstand such dominance, leading former world champion Roger De Vlaeminck to suggest that the Dutch rider has “broken” cyclocross.
By contrast, women’s racing is undergoing a golden age of sorts, the field so deep and level that the outcome of every race remains an unknown well into the final lap.
After five rounds of the women’s World Cup, there have been four different winners, and 11 different women on the podium. Two of those women, American Kaitie Keough and Dutch rider Denise Betsema, registered career-first World Cup wins. The winners of the last two rounds, Lucinda Brand and Betsema, are not ranked in the top 10 of the series standings.
The men’s series has seen two race winners across five events, and six men stand on the podium. And that doesn’t tell the full story, as Van der Poel didn’t make the trip over to the United States for the first two rounds; he’s won all three World Cup events he’s started.
A more meaningful statistic: Van der Poel has won 13 races out of 15 starts this season. He won 31 of 38 races last year, including seven of nine World Cups. Combined, he’s won 44 of the last 53 races he’s started, for an impressive 83% victory rate since September 2017.
Another meaningful statistic: According to Daam Van Reeth, a Belgian sports economics researcher, across six major cyclocross events this season — five World Cups and the European Championship — on two occasions the audience for the women’s race in the Netherlands was higher than for the men’s race. Overall, the Dutch audience for the women’s races has been 77% of the men’s audience; last year it was 71% across the entire season.
If Van der Poel’s dominance has broken cyclocross (it hasn’t, but more on that in a minute), it’s the elite women who are saving it.
Cyclocross isn’t broken
The explanation behind van der Poel’s dominance isn’t complicated. He’s simply on another level than the rest of the field. He’s stronger, he’s faster, and he’s a better bike handler. He and Wout van Aert had a few good battles during the 2017-2018 season, but van Aert, the only rider capable of challenging van der Poel, is simply not riding as he has in years past. Others, such as Toon Aerts, Michael Vanthourenhout, and Lars van der Haar, are capable of putting together a strong ride on a given day, but they just can’t compete with the man known as MVDP.
Add to this van der Poel’s preference for attacking early and riding alone at the front, and you have a recipe for predictable racing. Elite men’s cyclocross has turned into 50-minute time trials, and behind, battles for the podium. As spectators turn away, the lack of interest threatens sponsorship, which in turn threatens both event and team sponsorship.
Interviewed by VRT a few weeks ago, De Vlaeminck — the four-time Paris-Roubaix winner and 1975 cyclocross world champion whose impressive palmares is surpassed only by his ability to disparage modern riders — was critical about van der Poel’s complete dominance, suggesting that he should keep his competitors closer, for longer, to foster suspense.
“I think it’s a shame, nobody is nipping at Mathieu van der Poel’s heels, he’s way too good,” De Vlaeminck told VRT. “I think van der Poel has to be smarter because many people are put off. After 10 minutes, you’ve seen everything in cyclocross nowadays, it’s no longer worth viewing. Van der Poel is a real Dutchman who wants to take everything, I understand that, but you can also make it beautiful if you are the best. I do not like it anymore, van der Poel makes the sport a little bit broken.”
I’m guessing the 71-year-old De Vlaeminck also muttered something under his breath about Tom Boonen being a less-deserving four-time Roubaix champion, though I have no evidence.
The whole thing led Belgian cyclocross legend Sven Nys to take to Twitter to address Sporza, writing, “Fantastic. Can you let these gentlemen speak every week? Top entertainment.”
Nys was the dominant rider of his era, though not to the same degree as van der Poel is today. His career spanned those of Richard Groenendaal, Bart Wellens, Erwin Vervecken, Niels Albert, Lars Boom, Zdenek Stybar, and ultimately, van der Poel and van Aert. Nys took seven World Cup series victories, two elite world titles, two U23 world titles, nine national titles, and 50 World Cup wins. His 50th and final World Cup win came ahead of van Aert and van der Poel in Koksijde in 2015, 17 years and one day after his first World Cup win. He now manages the Telenet-Fidea team that is so often beaten by both van der Poel and van Aert.
“It’s true that a lot of ’crosses quickly get settled. Mathieu is even more dominant than he was last year,” Nys told Sporza. “You just have to enjoy the class and the spectacle. You can turn it around or spin it however you like, [Mathieu] stands out in every area. Every turn, every barrier, he’s winning by a tenth of a second. On the other hand, he is only human. It also won’t change all at once, certainly, because he never shies away from an effort. But ’cross has always been a sport of peaks and valleys. Sometimes it has a solitary king. That’s how it is now, and you have to respect that.”
Likewise, Simon Burney, the UCI technical delegate and TV commentator, tagged van der Poel in an Instagram video to say that he’d never seen anyone ride the Koksijde sand as fast as he did on Sunday, adding, “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re ruining cyclocross, personally I’m happy watching a masterclass.”
Van der Poel has been characteristically nonchalant about the criticism, essentially saying that it’s up to the other riders to up their game.
“I understand why people say that, but if I wait to ride away and three laps before the end I have a flat tire, the rest will not wait for me, either,” van der Poel told Het Nieuwsblad. “I train hard in the week to win cyclocross races, not to make cyclocross exciting.”
Another way to look at it — is men’s cross-country mountain-bike racing broken?
Swiss rider Nino Schurter has dominated men’s cross-country for the better part of a decade now, taking seven world championship victories in the last 10 years, six World Cup series titles, and an Olympic gold medal. Yet a Google search for articles, videos, or social media posts accusing him of ruining mountain-bike racing yielded zero results. (It’s noteworthy that van der Poel finished second overall behind Schurter in the World Cup standings, and that van der Poel will spend his summers racing on singletrack in 2019 and 2020.)
If anything, elite men’s cyclocross has an international diversity problem, not a Mathieu van der Poel problem. The top-10 ranked men in the World Cup rankings represent just two nations, Belgium and The Netherlands — in fact, 17 of the top 18 elite men come from these two nations. World Cup events hardly feel like they’re being contested by athletes from across the globe.
By comparison, women from six nations comprise the top 10 in the World Cup rankings. Women’s racing is more diverse, though the Dutch are demonstrably ahead of the rest, having won four of five World Cups with three different riders, and currently fielding four Dutch riders in the top five of the U23 women’s rankings.
Instead of worrying about the domination of one rider, those who are genuinely interested in growing cyclocross might instead focus their energies on developing the sport outside of the Benelux region. Van der Poel (and van Aert) will ultimately move on to road racing, and some form of parity will return, but the issue of elite cyclocross being dominated by the Low Countries will remain.
The women are saving it anyway
With the win Sunday, Betsema, a 25-year-old mother of two, bettered her career-best international result, a podium finish at the European Championship. That result had immediately netted her a spot on the Marlux–Bingoal team of Michael Vanthourenhout, Kevin Pauwels, and U23 world champion Eli Iserbyt.
Racing in her new Marlux–Bingoal kit, Betsema placed fifth at the November 17 Tabor World Cup, won the EKZ CrossTour in Hittnau, Switzerland, the following day, won again at Saturday’s Ambiancecross in Wachtebeke, Belgium, and then made it a weekend sweep at Koksijde. A non-factor at the international level last year, Betsema won the demanding Koksijde World Cup race that was first led by Vos, a seven-time world cyclocross champion, and later by Sanne Cant, the two-time and current world champion. Ultimately, Betsema rode away from Nikki Brammeier on the final lap.
“What a weekend. After yesterday it was already great,” Betsema said. “I was able to move up all the time. I can’t believe that I’ve won.”
Cant, winner of the Koksijde World Cup in 2014 and 2015, would finish off the podium, in seventh. Vos would ultimately finish 12th. American Katie Compton, who struggled with asthma issues, finished 13th.
Add Betsema’s name to the growing list of potential winners on any given Sunday, along with Italian Alice Maria Arzuffi, 24, who finished third in Tabor and fifth in Koksijde, and won the November 11 Superprestige Gavere.
And that list is growing. Particularly exciting in the women’s field has been the incoming class of riders born in the late 1990s, led by Annemarie Worst, Evie Richards, and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado.
Worst, 22, won the elite women’s European Championship on November 4 and has been on the elite podium at the last three rounds of the elite World Cup. The Dutch rider turns 23 in December, excluding her from the U23 rankings.
Richards, 21, took a breakthrough win at the elite World Cup in Namur last December and finished second at the elite World Cup in Iowa City in September. The British rider sits fifth in the elite World Cup ranking, and leads the U23 World Cup ranking.
Alvarado, 20, finished fourth in Koksijde, seventh in Tabor, and fifth in Bern — the top U23 rider at all three events. The Dutch rider, who hails from the Dominican Republic, won the U23 European Championship earlier this month. She would likely be leading the U23 rankings if she hadn’t skipped the opening rounds of the World Cup in the US.
Betsema. Brammeier. Worst. Alvarado. Arzuffi. With the exception of Brammeier, the top five in Koksijde have not been household names in elite women’s cyclocross until very recently. With the exception of the British rider, these women were all born in 1993 or later.
It would be an understatement to say that follow the thrilling women’s race at Koksijde with a men’s race that delivered a clear winner on the first lap was anticlimactic. It reminded me of the time I saw Smashing Pumpkins try to follow Ill Communication-era Beastie Boys at Lollapalooza; what began as the audience trickling out of the venue soon became a steady stream. The marquee act had performed in a supporting role.
It also reminded me of Trek’s decision to run the elite women’s race last at their Waterloo World Cup event in September. That decision may have taken the European audience into consideration — elite men raced at 8:30pm Belgian time and the women’s race was held at 10:15pm — but a statement had been made, in line with the American bike brand’s insistence to offer equal prize money for both the men’s and women’s fields.
Living in the US, where women’s races often start at 5:30am, I’d welcome a reversal in the start times. Some “traditionalists” might object, but most fans just want to see a suspenseful, hotly contested bike race.
Around the time van der Poel crossed the finish line in Koksijde 25 seconds ahead of van Aert, I spotted a tweet from American cyclocross racer Elisabeth Reinkordt suggesting that van der Poel’s dominance might be the best thing to happen to women’s cyclocross.
The comment was made in jest — the expanding field of world-class women deserve the credit for their thrilling battles — but the point is salient. If it’s exciting cyclocross racing you’re after, it’s happening. You just need to tune in a few hours earlier.
In their own words: Contrasting dominance to parity
Is Mathieu van der Poel ruining men’s cyclocross? Is women’s cyclocross benefitting from his dominance? I reached out to four stars of international women’s cyclocross to get their opinion.
Marianne Vos: Indeed I think the women’s cyclocross races have been very exciting to watch, because there are many riders at the top that can win. It made for great battles until the line in most of the races and many different winners. That doesn’t say a thing about the level of the men’s field in my opinion. Mathieu is an exceptional talent and shows he’s the best at the moment. We shouldn’t complain about the ‘boringness’ too much, but admire his class instead. I hear many fans come to the races to see the women’s race (alone or together with the men’s), so of course that’s a positive evolution for us. It’s good to see that all the effort that the riders and teams put in gets recognized by fans and sponsors.
Katie Compton: I think Mathieu is good for bike racing overall, since he’s so great at everything he does. From a women’s perspective, I don’t want to give him credit for the fact that the women’s racing is getting more attention. Our races are dynamic and exciting since any one of 15 women at the front have the ability to win on any given day. Credit should be given to us, the women who are racing hard, getting stronger, more competitive, and progressing women’s bike racing to a point that it’s more entertaining than the men’s racing. I feel like we should get full credit for that. The men have had plenty of attention in the past, but right now their racing just isn’t as exciting from a head-to-head perspective. They don’t have more than four riders who could win on any day. That doesn’t mean their racing isn’t fun to watch, since they are so strong and technically great at riding courses. I think both are positive and fun, they are just different from each other right now. As a bike racer, I think the women’s racing on a whole is saving men’s right now. More characters, exciting racing and big age differences all coming together to put on a good show.
Katerina Nash: I think women’s racing has been good for years. I also think men’s racing is still good. I think people can enjoy both — or not, it’s really their choice. It’s hard not to be impressed by Mathieu van der Poel and his riding style, and he should not be given any hard time for being exceptional and dominant. I would not say that one is making the other better or worse. In a perfect world the fans enjoy it all. Everyone has the choice to cheer for whoever they want.
Ellen Noble: I think it’s easy to lay blame on van der Poel, to say that he’s ruining the sport, but I think it’s been exasperated by the fact that Wout is struggling so much. There’s a stronger divide between the fields than there normally is. Previously he did have really good competition with Wout, and Wout and Toon Aerts could come back. It’s not like the sport is over on the men’s side. I do think, in a sense, it does benefit the women, but I also think it’s almost been this way for people to not support women’s racing in the way we need to be supported, but still be able to say “I love women’s racing.” You have to do other things to prove that you care. There’s still such a long ways to go to get that support.
Video: Elite Women, 2018-2019 UCI Cyclocross World Cup, Koksijde