Grid positions grind the gears of Pidcock and cyclo-cross Worlds podium mates

FAYETTEVILLE ARKANSAS JANUARY 30 LR Silver medalists Lars Van Der Haar of Netherlands gold medalists Thomas Pidcock of The United Kingdom and bronze medalists Eli Iserbyt of Belgium pose on the podium during the medal ceremony after the 73rd UCI CycloCross World Championships Fayetteville 2022 Mens Elite Fayetteville2022 on January 30 2022 in Fayetteville Arkansas Photo by Chris GraythenGetty Images
Lars van der Haar, Tom Pidcock and Eli Iserbyt on the podium at the 2022 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Ahead of the 2022 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships, Tom Pidcock was the outright favourite as the only one of the three titans of the sport choosing to come to the US for the elite men's race, and he delivered in a spectacular way on Sunday. 

But had the organisers gone by the rules, the British favourite would have had to make his charge for glory from the less prestigious second row on the grid. The UCI awards the front row to the top eight of its World Cup series and Pidcock was only 11th after limiting his racing this winter. He was forced to start on the far right of the grid.

Defending champion Mathieu van der Poel, out with a back injury, and Belgian champion Wout van Aert, who chose to focus on preparing for the road season, were not at the race. Had they been, and respectively 35th and 17th in the World Cup, they would have been further down the start grid, making a case for a gridding exception very difficult.

"I don't think the gridding for Worlds should be on the World Cup, which I believe it was," Pidcock suggested. "It puts too much bias on the World Cup. Not everyone can do all the World Cups, it should be on the UCI Ranking as normal."

As it was, Pidcock was head and shoulders above the rest of the field in the men's race - with Lars van der Haar (Netherlands) and Eli Iserbyt of Belgium rounding out the podium. He suffered a poor start but soon moved up on the climb before going on to enjoy the race and revel in the victory. But he didn't agree with the starting procedures and grid 

The new world champion raced his first WorldTour season with Ineos in 2021 and also spent time racing the mountain bike World Cups in the summer before winning Olympic gold. As a result, he didn't start racing cyclo-cross until December and only raced six rounds of the World Cup and finished 11th overall. He was seventh in the UCI Rankings which count finishes in all races since the last Worlds.

Questions about the UCI World Cup touched a nerve with riders, and having a race favourite chasing from the second row seemed to be an affront to his fellow podium finishers. 

Lars van der Haar (Netherlands) and the top US finisher Curtis White joined Pidcock in expressing their disapproval of the UCI's massive expansion of the World Cup from nine in 2019 to 16 this year (although Antwerp was cancelled).

When asked about comments he made early in the season about the hectic World Cup schedule, Van der Haar said he still felt it was too much. 

"It's still way too many World Cups. Ten is more than enough," Van der Haar said. 

"I think that would make World Cup a lot more attractive as well. I think next year there are 14. I think some riders and also I will skip some of those races."

Van der Haar agreed that the grid should be based on the UCI Rankings but didn't want to denigrate Eli Iserbyt's victory in that series. Iserbyt was one of only four riders to finish every round (along with Toon Vandebosch, Kevin Kuhn, and Marcel Meisen) and won by 128 points over teammate Michael Vanthourenhout.

"Eli definitely won the World Cup fair and square. He should have won it anyway if there was one or 20 races," Van der Haar said going on to indicate the size of the series is detracting from its prestige.

"If you win seven out of 16 or whatever, and you're just the best of the World Cup. But also points-wise, there was no tension for it. I think that's why also so many riders thought that the win was gone after half the season and skipped the far travel races and just focus on some other goals. And I think that's a shame for the World Cup, and I think the World Cup deserves more. It should be a more prestigious general classification."

Even White, who acknowledged that the World Cups were very important for North Americans, agreed that this year was too much, especially the ping-pong from Waterloo to Fayetteville and then Iowa City over a one-week span.

"I think it was a big thing for us to have World Cups on home soil," White said. 

"It helps develop the sport here in North America. It's fantastic to develop the sport here in the US, and with it being a World Cup, there should be rounds across the world to develop the sport globally, but I'm in agreement that if there was a way to kind of whittle it down to a seven to 10 real key races across the world, that really elevates the sport across all levels."

The UCI is expected to make its announcement of next year's calendar at the next Management Committee meeting in Montreux from February 10-12.

Mixing 'cross and road

The mix of road and 'cross isn't for everyone, and Van der Haar and Iserbyt focus only on cyclo-cross, perhaps missing some of the endurance that a rider who completed a Grand Tour might enjoy.

Pidcock said the road endurance helped at the start of the year but was a bit of a detriment in last week's final World Cup in Hoogerheide, where he lost out to Iserbyt. 

"Coming into the cross season I felt like I had a higher base perhaps than the start of last 'cross season. I think that gives me an extra platform to train from. But for explosiveness, the road is bad."

Combining disciplines can be beneficial, as Pidcock has shown, but it can also be too much - as Van der Poel's injury demonstrates. The 'cross specialists who race an entire season usually only dabble in road races in their off-season. 

Iserbyt was asked if he should try racing more road to get more speed for faster races like Sunday's Worlds. The Belgian was diplomatic in his reply.

"It's difficult because, with our team, we're not allowed to do some big races. Maybe I just have to push on training a little bit harder. I don't know if I would get better if I ride a lot of road races, but it's something to look into. I just want to push myself and get better for next season," Iserbyt said.

Van der Haar leapt to his defence. 

"Maybe all road riders should do 'cross then because Mathieu and Wout are also beating the road riders and we've got a bloody Olympic champion here on the mountain bike, so maybe you should start asking some questions to the road riders instead of asking us to go on the road."

When asked if he would continue to combine disciplines and race 'cross next season as World Champion, Pidcock said, "I will, but in what capacity. I don't know. I'm in Belgium next Sunday, so maybe I'll race."

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