Re-working a classic Belgian cyclo-cross course that has been used for 20 years is always going to cause tension, but when organisers Golazo tinkered with the UCI cyclo-cross World Cup course at the Citadel of Namur they created what could easily be described as the best 'cross race of the year.
But with the course erosion and a number of crashes, including one that left new World Cup leader Toon Aerts with a fractured rib, was it a case of too much spectacle at the cost of safety?
Three-time world champion Erwin Vervecken was the mastermind behind the new route, which went down a set of stone steps that were previously used in the opposite direction. Wanting to incorporate a steep cobblestone ascent at the base of the steps, Vervecken's team packed the steps with sandbags and covered the slope in sand to create a rideable, UCI-legal descent.
But mother nature had other plans and soaked the race in heavy, ice-cold rain. Riders who normally would excel in muddy conditions struggled to control their bikes with frozen hands and shivering bodies.
"It is sport in the extreme, but this is what people come to the cross for," Vervecken said to Sporza. "It was raining for a whole day and yet we recorded a new spectator record: 8,100. That is a lot for Wallonia. Incidentally, there was a striking number of French speakers. In in the early years of the 'cross in Namur that was only 10 or 15 percent of the spectators, now that is much more."
By the time the elite men raced, the rain had created deep puddles that came up nearly to riders' axles, soaking them in ice cold muddy water every lap. Eli Iserbyt abandoned with hypothermia.
There was no denying it was one of the most exciting races of the season, with Aerts and eventual winner Mathieu van der Poel taking turns leading then suffering crashes or punctures. The tension was undeniable.
"People come out for this", Vervecken told Sporza. "Spectators and journalists were wildly enthusiastic. That makes me happy."
"We can't control the weather. It was heroic, but it was also extremely difficult for the riders," he admitted. "What we do control is the safety of the riders and that wasn't too bad. Apart from the crash, for example, of Toon Aerts at the end. That also happens in regular 'crosses."
Vervecken says the weather was even worse than the worst case scenario they planned for. An always tough course turned into one that was difficult to ride and even harder to run.
"It is mainly the descent, the one that was taken in the opposite direction last year, that we have to evaluate," he said. "There were a lot of tree roots and they were exposed by the rain. It is because of this that Aerts has fallen. I don't know whether there is an alternative, because we are in a nature reserve and with a protected monument. So not everything is possible and allowed, but we will look at it."
Vervecken admitted that with the weather, the previous course would have led to a similar kind of competition.
"A good crosser must be able to handle every course. It was a spectacle, but also top sport. The riders were completely empty on the finish line. The best riders come forward in extreme circumstances."
Look back at Sunday's races with the gallery of images from Getty Images Sport above.
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