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Cyclo-cross Season Erupts in Controversy and Doubts

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

The current cyclo-cross season has barely begun and already the discipline is awash in controversy. The crisis was sparked by an interview given by UCI president David Lappartient to the French cycling magazine DirectVelo. Stung by the large number of top riders skipping World Cup cyclo-cross competitions, he proposed several changes in both the cyclo-cross calendar and the discipline’s rules, one of which grabbed everyone’s attention.

“If a rider prefers to ride in a national competition during the World Cup [season], you will not take part in the subsequent World Cup races, and therefore not in the World Championships,” Lappartient said. “The World Cup is not a competition in which you can pick and choose as you please. Every rider has to play the game.”

That declaration was provoked by the Belgian U23 world champion Thibau Nys skipping the Dencermonde World Cup race on November 12, saying he was tired, and racing instead in the Jaarmarktcross Niel the day before. “He had a bad result at the European Championships at Pontchâteau [Nys did not finish],” the UCI head said. “He said he was tired. But why then race Saturday at Niel. When you are tired, you don’t ride.”

The response from teams and riders was immediate. “If I start doing everything, if I continue to do everything, I think I will ultimately destroy myself completely,” said current World Cup leader Lars van der Haar.

Intermarché-Circus-Wanty team manager Bart Wellens told CyclingNews the UCI was “panicking,” and wondered: “Would Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert and Tom Pidcock suddenly no longer be allowed to compete in the World Championship? And not Fem van Empel either? That doesn’t make sense. We’ve been saying it for so long; the structure of the World Cup is not well put together. It’s way too busy now. We knew that from day one.”

The problem is that the cyclo-cross World Cup calendar was increased from nine races to 14 races after the 2020-21 season, so it may be a lot to ask of riders to ride in every World Cup race. The World Cup season began on October 15 and runs until January 28, 2024, with the World Championships to follow in early February in Tabor, Czech Republic. But Wellens made an interesting point. Van Aert recently announced that he will be riding in only six cyclo-cross races this season, apparently picking and choosing according to his future racing schedule.


“It’s a conscious decision to do a shorter programme,” van Aert explained on the Jumbo-Visma website. “Last year, I found it mentally difficult to focus on the cyclo-cross season and then move on to the spring. I didn’t want to leave anything to chance with the spring classics. That is why, with a heavy heart, I am riding a more limited programme.”

The three-time cyclo-cross world champion went on to lower fans’ expectations of his performance in these races, saying: “It will definitely be difficult to reach a high level. I have a few races to get in shape, and then it will stop already. I hope to prove myself during these races. For the first time, it will be different from what I am used to, but with a higher goal in mind.” That “higher goal” presumably is winning some spring road classics. Lappartient has so far said nothing about van Aert’s plans, though it’s hard to envisage him banning the 29-year-old Belgian from the World Cup if he skips a race after his initial competition on December 9, in Essen.

Despite his limited schedule, van Aert will meet his arch-rival, current world champion Mathieu van der Poel six times in this cyclo-cross season, for the Dutch Alpecin-Deceuninck rider has packed his cyclo-cross programme with 15 races, not all of them on the World Cup schedule. Cycling fans from all disciplines will no doubt be eager to watch the two go head-to-head this season. Those who saw it will remember this year’s world championship, when van Aert and van der Poel left the peloton behind early in the race and fought an exciting cat-and-mouse battle that was won by van der Poel in the sprint to the finish line.

Having these two exciting racers, and the 2022 world champion Tom Pidcock, riding in cyclo-cross has brought many new fans to the sport, and will continue to do so. But the Cycling Weekly senior writer Adam Becket has put forward the bold opinion that the so-called “Big Three” are not good for the discipline. “The big three are undoubtedly good for raising the number of TV audiences and fans when they are introduced – hence the large appearance fees they get – but would the action not be more exciting if there was tighter competition when they appear?” Becket asks.

According to his calculations, of the 15 races that van der Poel took part in last year, he won seven, and of the eight races he didn’t win, only one wasn’t won by either van Aert or Pidcock. For his part, Van Aert won nine of the 14 cyclo-cross races he rode in; van der Poel won the five races the Belgian didn’t win. The numbers were less remarkable for Pidcock, but close enough to confirm the pattern.

Becket asks if this dominance is good for the sport, since it effectively divides the season in two: before the Big Three take part and after, since they don’t join the cyclo-cross competition until December. “The problem with all this racing, while it has been fun, is that it very much feels like everyone is just playing around, waiting for the big boys to join in,” Becket writes, and adds: “November feels like tennis of the 2010s without Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer, or Formula One without Red Bull and Mercedes.”

It’s an intriguing discussion, one I’m sure Lappartient is aware of, but Becket ends it on an upbeat note, kind of: “Having multiple riders dominate is better than having one,” as is the case in the women’s cyclo-cross, where Fem van Empel has won each of the 12 races she has ridden in.