Belgium may be the historical heart of cyclo-cross, but its neighbor to the north may be poised to take its place in ‘cross dominance if the younger riders’ categories are any indication.
The Netherlands has won more medals in the UCI cyclo-cross world championships junior men’s event than any other nation in history, and, taking into account only the past ten years, its under 23 men have surpassed the Belgians in the medal count.
In addition, the Dutch women have dominated the medal count over the 13-year history of their event, netting six gold, three silver and six bronze medals.
Its only problem now is keeping the top riders from following the example of Lars Boom and moving to a more lucrative road career.
Coming into the 2013 event in Louisville, Kentucky, three Dutch riders are returning world champions: Marianne Vos, junior Mathieu van der Poel and the two-time U23 champion Lars van der Haar, who moves up to challenge for the elite men’s title.
Vos has five ‘cross elite titles to her name, the first earned at age 18, and also happens to be fully capable of combining the discipline with a high level of success in road, track and - this year - mountain biking. Yet, even as reigning Olympic and road world champion, the 25 year-old from 's-Hertogenbosch still gets nervous before a championship event.
“At the start line, everybody is the same, anyone can win and the championships of the past don’t count anymore,” Vos told Cyclingnews. “I do get nervous, but that’s what I like, that’s what I do it for.”
How the Dutch have crept up on and are perhaps beating the Belgians at their own game comes down to the good training provided by the country’s cycling federation. By now, Vos knows exactly what she has to do to be in race-winning shape, and that knowledge gives confidence.
Although cyclo-cross loses its popularity the farther north one travels from Belgium, the federation still puts ample support behind the discipline, and the proximity to the ‘cross hotbed allows riders to get more competition.
“We have a good national team, we have good facilities and races from the youth categories on. I think that helps to develop the sport in Holland. It’s not as big as in Belgium, but it’s not so far away that we can’t take advantage of that,” Vos said.
The growth of ‘cross in the Netherlands can be witnessed by the numbers in the youth and junior categories. Van der Haar is one of the most successful riders of the program, and although he is technically eligible to race in the U23 class for this championship, he chose to take on the added challenge of the elites after dominating the past two espoir seasons.
Having new talent in the elite races has been a boon for the Dutch team, and van der Haar is committed to sticking with ‘cross.
“I see myself staying in ‘cross,” he told Cyclingnews. “I am not interested in road - I don’t like it that much, I find it boring. I do road races in the summer, but I do it all as preparation for 'cross. I wouldn’t like it if I had to be good in the road. I only have to be good for one month for the [road] nationals, and then it’s all prep for ‘cross.”
He also sees the Dutch surpassing the Belgians in terms of development, and one of those talents is the defending junior champion van der Poel.
One of the most exciting talents to hop a barrier, the 18-year-old son of former road Classics specialist turned ‘cross world champion Adri van der Poel is also the grandson of legend Raymond Poulidor. His pedigree and dedication to the sport has resulted in something perhaps unprecedented in ‘cross: an undefeated season.
How does he do it? Van der Poel can’t answer, he says, “I just race like I should, and live for the racing, so maybe that’s why I am that good.”
It is clear that van der Poel’s dominance isn’t the result of a lack of competition, either. His lap times on the World Cup courses have been on par with the fastest elite men. However, he is not planning to skip over the U23’s and move up next season.
“I’ve never done an elite race, but we’ve compared some lap times and then we can see that the step should be easy to make, but we will see that next year when we race the U23s.”
Belgium may still be the dominant country in the elite men's 'cross category, but in a few years the situation could be very different. The visit of 'cross Worlds to the USA has heightened the popularity here, and will only serve to add more competition from outside Belgium to the field.
The visit of the world championships to the USA is something that is good for the sport, says Vos, but not one that riders should see as an unnecessary burden. “It’s good to see all the Americans so excited about their championship. But in the end it’s the same, it’s the cyclo-cross Worlds, everyone is on the same course and then it doesn’t matter where it is.”