Picture the scene. A crash occurs as 50-plus of the best men’s cyclo-cross racers in the world swing right onto the grass at Koksijde following the full-pelt dash for the first corner after the tarmac opening straight – not a wholly unusual occurrence.
What was unusual, however, was that reigning world champion and winner of his last 33 races in the discipline, Mathieu van der Poel, was caught up in the incident and found himself at the back of the pack.
What followed was one of the most extraordinary opening laps of ‘cross racing I have ever witnessed. He’d bide his time and gradually pick off the lesser-talented pack ahead of him, the TV experts commentated, with good reason. That is the conventional wisdom: don’t panic, work through the field, reach the frontrunners after half an hour of steady progress.
But this was Mathieu van der Poel, a superstar of both ‘cross and road, who seemingly has no need for such precautious tactics. He swept past swathes of riders, taking his own line. Any running section and he’d stride past in the sand, gaining places by the minute. By the end of the first lap, he was already at the head of affairs and well on the way to yet another victory. The last 45 minutes were a forgone conclusion. The rest of the field were fighting for placings and they knew it. A remarkable display of skill and power from the Dutch master.
The women’s race was arguably the better of the two in terms of battles, with Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado fighting all the way to the line with her Dutch compatriot Lucinda Brand, followed by a gaggle of their countrywomen. An athlete of colour is a very rare thing in cyclo-cross. To see this 21-year-old take her first World Cup win was something special. It was the first of many, undoubtedly.
But here’s the thing. Standing in the dunes of Koksijde, frites and beer in hand, soaking up the vibes, it struck me as less than atmospheric. Sure, there were some spectacularly drunken men staggering around who had no idea what day it was, let alone where they were, or who won, but twas ever thus.
And, yes, the odd shout would go out for a passing favourite rider from their supporters. But the atmosphere was decidedly flatter than my last visit in 2015, and the crowd thinner on the ground. That year, the incomparable Sven Nys battled with the young pretender Wout Van Aert. The 39-year-old master, in his final season, took his seventh Koksijde victory. Whenever I witnessed Nys racing in Belgium, the moment when he hit the front was when it lit up. The crowd went berserk.
In the women’s race that year, Sanne Cant displayed a glimpse of how she would go on to be a three-time world champion by seeing off the challenge of Britain’s Nikki Harris. The crowd were similarly enthused to witness Cant’s win on her favourite course.
Nys and Cant, in case you were unaware, are both Belgian. Cyclo-cross, in terms of supporters, finance and top-class racing, is overwhelmingly Belgian. Herein lies the problem.
In the latter years of his racing career, Nys would be found in the US and even Britain (2014 World Cup in Milton Keynes) stressing how important it was for the sport to internationalise for its very survival. He is quite correct. Yet as other country’s racers started taking the top podium spots, it has seemingly resulted in a flattening of interest in the sport’s heartland.
Could the answer lie in the nationality of those riders who have unceremoniously replaced the previously all-conquering Belgians on the top step? There’s no love lost between Belgium and their Netherlander near-neighbours – as with many bordering countries. The headline for the women’s race in Het Nieuwsblad newspaper the day following Koksijde spelt out the depressing statistic for the readership: “Top five women are orange”.
Much as we like to think of cycle sport as being internationalist and support being offered along non-partisan lines, it inevitably has a bearing. Would have cycling expanded to such a degree in Britain without the exploits of Wiggins, Froome, Thomas et al? Absolutely not.
So how can Belgium halt the decline of one of its major sports, televised live to millions on their terrestrial channels each winter weekend?
The UCI thinks it has the answer to reverse the downward trend. Expanding the World Cup next season from its current nine rounds to 16 would aid expansion of the sport globally, the governing body claim. And reduce confusion around the three competing season-long competitions in Belgium.
Sven Nys, though, described it as leading to “the death of the sport in the long term”. Riders, organisers and team bosses have all joined in criticising the reforms, citing the extra cost of attending 16 rounds as unsustainable in a sport run on a relative shoestring compared with road cycling. Start money for racers in those Belgium-based series goes a long way to providing a decent wage for the competitors. They feel like turkeys voting for Christmas.
Others argue that saturation live TV coverage is having an adverse effect. Why stump up €13 to stand in a freezing muddy field, eating a sub-standard burger and sipping an overpriced beer, when you could be nice and cozy on the sofa at home with a Leffe Brune for considerably less?
They may have a point. Either way, top level ‘cross is at a crossroads right now. Next season could be make or break. Let’s hope it’s the former, for everyone’s sake – including the all-conquering Dutch.