At last year's UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships, the Dutch won all four categories held amid the coronavirus pandemic. It was a stinging defeat for Belgium, the historic titans of the sport. At this year's Worlds in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Joran Wyseure, Emiel Verstrynge and Thibau Nys turned last season's bitter taste into pure sweetness with a sweep of the under-23 men's podium.
Their Dutch rivals: defending champion Pim Ronhaar, 2020 champion Ryan Kamp and this year's World Cup winner Mees Hendrikx, three of the pre-race favourites, came away empty-handed.
Belgium dominated the race with classic teamwork and selfless riding and, not coincidentally, two of the three stood atop the country's last Worlds podium sweep in Dübendorf in 2020 when Nys won the junior title and Verstrynge was third.
To set the stage, the frigid conditions of Friday's team relay gave way to sun and warmer temperatures. The purpose-built grassy, undulating course thawed but remained fast. Although it was quite windy, the race was fast and furious, and the 13-strong leading group on lap two was awash with the orange jerseys of the Dutch and sky blue of the Belgians.
The first rider to open a significant gap was Wyseure. His attack was not dramatic but the gap opened significantly with his powerful run on the stairs. With his teammates nullifying every attempt to chase, it turned into a winning move .
Wyseure, a third-year under-23 was not perhaps the first rider on the Dutch team's radar - he started on the second row, and only launched his attack as a way to soften up a front group that was too large.
"On the second lap it felt a little easy in the group," Wyseure said. "I wanted to attack to get the legs a little warmed up. But then I had a gap and that was enough for today."
The Belgian team's winning formula was, according to Thibaut Nys, not to ride against each other rather than follow a pre-made plan. "I think we did that in a perfect way. In a cyclo-cross race, it's not trying to help someone else win, it's just don't fuck up his plans."
Once Wyseure was away, it appeared there was little the Dutch trio could do. The federation opted not to send a full team to the race because of the cost, and they were up against twice as many Belgians, the rest of whom packed into the top 10.
"The Belgians were just too strong today," Kamp told Cyclingnews. "We came here with three potential winners and the plan was that if you don't feel your best today, you surrender yourself for the strongest rider in the race and today that was clearly Mees. So from the second lap on, I tried to put myself at work for Mees. Even if we had had two additional Dutch riders we wouldn't have been able to close the gap."
The Dutch chased their hearts out but with two laps to go, Hendrikx was in the unfortunate position of chasing with Belgians Emiel Verstrynge and Thibau Nys marking his every move. Verstrynge mercilessly attacked when it was clear Wyseure would win the jersey and Hendrikx, having done so much work chasing, was powerless to respond. Kamp made it back up to his teammate and buried himself in an attempt to launch Hendrikx to the final podium spot, but he could not shake Nys. Scottish rider Cameron Mason led out the three-man sprint but Nys was far too powerful, Hendrikx did not react quick enough and had to settle for fourth.
Hendrikx was profoundly disappointed to not be able to come through for the team. "I'm very bummed. I came here for the title and I didn't even get on the podium. That's a big downer for me," he said.
"I spent 60 per cent of the race chasing and tried to do everything to close the gap but I couldn't close it and then Emiel [Verstrynge] was sitting in chariot. When he started to ride away from me, I had no answer. Then, it became a sprint for bronze and maybe I wasn't paying attention but Thibau started early and I just didn't have it."
But it was not the sprint that lost the race for the Dutch, but a lack of cooperation in the large group behind a strong Wyseure in the early laps.
"I think the moment Joran attacked, I just couldn't join him immediately," Hendrikx said. "I really felt like I needed a moment to get into the race. Then he rides away and we, as the Dutch team, have to lead the chase, of course. It was very difficult to close it. We didn't work together right away and there was someone who didn't really want to help — or maybe he couldn't at that moment, but that was the frustration you saw out there."
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