Form of his life
With a plethora of racing from 9:30 AM to 4 PM, there were many memorable moments but the last race of the day brought a huge victory for the newly crowned European champion, Lars van der Haar. The Dutchman started comparatively slowly, taking time to get dialled in on a fast course. Eli Iserbyt and Michael Vantornhout were catalysts before, almost without warning, van der Haar took command, leading the final few laps with only Iserbyt for company. In the final lap, van der Haar sprinted away to have time to celebrate in front of a large, mainly Czech crowd to take home his first World Cup win since 2017.
With this win coming off the European Championships a week before, this is the time for van der Haar. Normally, always the bridesmaid never the bride, he has had seemingly always been in the shadows of the likes of van der Poel, van Aert and, in more recent times, Iserbyt. But his patience to relentlessly work on his weaknesses seems to be paying off and he must be one of the favourites for the Worlds in January. If he can take that crown in what will be a tougher field than the one on display in Tábor, it will be an incredible year that would seal his place at the top table of cyclo-cross.
The course on the outskirts of Tábor hosted the World Championships in 2001, 2010, 2015 and will again in 2024 – a course made for champions, and that was certainly the theme across every race. Two European champions – van der Haar and Zoe Backstedt – won whilst Lucinda Brand, the Elite Women’s World champion was victorious in her category after a dramatic six-way tussle throughout the race.
It shows a course perfectly tuned to bring out the best in the best. It has a flowing nature with a few tough climbs punctuated by some technical sections. The fact the race stayed away meant that it remained dry throughout with no real mud to speak of. It gave us great, attritional racing all day and the course designers should be applauded for an accessible and spectator-friendly course.
Time for new venues?
There is no doubt that cyclo-cross’ heartland is in Belgium and the Netherlands, and that tradition should never cease, neither will it. But, although you could see a marked difference in atmosphere from Tábor to the likes of Koksijde where the World Cup will visit next, there is something to be said about the sport’s biggest series going to other countries like the Czech Republic.
From now on, the only other countries this series will visit outside of the main two are France and Italy – this needs to be addressed. There is certainly an appetite for the sport outside of the heartlands, the UK has hosted an event before, so why not return there or to other countries in Europe. Fans will go, so is it time to address the imbalance with the calendar?
Back to the racing and one of the performances of the round was from Backstedt. The young Briton, the winner of her age category’s European title a week ago, was once again in top form, winning by 20 seconds over Leonie Bentveld. And in fairness, Bentveld was the only one who looked like she could get near Backstedt.
The 17-year-old is now the World Cup leader, being that it was the first junior race of the season and has both junior world and European titles across multiple disciplines. Her progress at this level has been incredible and seems like it won’t be a long time before she is ready for the step up. And with cycling running through her blood, she has the perfect set-up to remain focused and patient rather than chasing goals that are just over the horizon. But it feels like it won’t remain like that for long.
Not so long ago, Czech cyclo-cross had names like Zdeněk Štybar and Kateřina Nash to cheer for but the current crop of talent seems a little way off fighting for major honours. The best result was from Kateřina Hladíková who finished fourth in the Women’s Junior race, 46 seconds behind Backstedt.
Michael Boros finished 18th in the Men’s Elite race and Kristýna Zemanová was 20th in the Women’s Elite race, showing there is a long way to go before any Czech rider is back on the top spot. This experience, though, being that Czech riders are given the opportunity to ride their home course compared to other World Cup events, is a great way to bring extra motivation and they will take away many lessons from Sunday.
There was one final moment of emotion at the end of the weekend, though. Pavla Havlíková, now 38, was able to take to the podium after the ceremony to wave to her Czech fans in what was likely her final race at this level. She finished 24th and was mobbed by her younger compatriots across the line. Whilst others looked disappointed with their result, Havlíková was noticeably beaming – a fitting home send-off for the ever-present Czech rider.
Did we miss anything? What was your favourite moment of the racing in Tábor? Let us know on social media.