A closer look at cyclo-cross in the Netherlands

Jan 27, 2018, 13:44 PM

The Valkenburg 2018 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships are coming up shortly. Gerben de Knegt is the man behind the scenes for the Dutch Cycling Federation KNWU, while Mathieu van der Poel is the main name on the billboards, the man who attracts the crowds. He has dominated the 2017-2018 cyclo-cross season so far and is the top favourite to capture the world title on Sunday.

“With Mathieu van der Poel, we’ve got the ultimate billboard,” says de Knegt. “Everybody wants to be Mathieu van der Poel. That’s great. If only a few Dutch teams would be founded. We’ve got some, but not with the big money like the Belgian teams.”.

The 42-year-old off-road head coach from the Dutch Cycling National Federation (KNWU) works hard to support the young Dutch riders. Cyclo-cross isn’t the most popular winter sport in the Netherlands, but the KNWU knows they’ve got to use this momentum to support the discipline in several ways. The Netherlands are hosting the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships for the eighth time in its history. It is the first time that Valkenburg will be host town.

Back in his heydays, De Knegt combined cyclo-cross and mountain biking, spending most of his career with the Rabobank team. Cyclo-cross is his passion, and he has noted a drastic change in the discipline in the past decades. De Knegt recalls that he showed up to races in his car: “I only got a camper in the final years of my career and in hindsight that was great. Then again, I thought it was nice to come by car to the races too. It was all less stressful. Nowadays, everybody arrives at the race six hours before the race. We showed up two hours before the race. You opened up the boot, rode your race and headed to the dressing room. It was completely different. It’s much more professional now but not always better. I see a lot of young riders in their campers, calling and sending messages. I think it’s a bit too organised.”

In between the two final UCI World Cup rounds of Nommay (France) and Hoogerheide (the Netherlands), De Knegt is keeping an eye on the course in Valkenburg. “It’s still messy out there. Right now some sections are blocked off because otherwise there would be no grass left. We’ll have to wait and see if it’s still wet during the first free training. If that’s the case then there will be no grass left after an hour. That’s good for Mathieu. Both physically and especially technically he’s good enough.” 

Mathieu van der Poel is the exponent of the Dutch youth development. He probably didn’t need a lot of guidance himself, but many other riders who needed it were able to get it from the KNWU. At the Telenet UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup rounds, the Dutch selection is often one of the largest. They don’t just show up but they also tend to capture victories in any race category. That’s been the case for many years. The KNWU facilitated the development of now famous cyclo-cross riders like Lars Boom, Marianne Vos, Lars van der Haar, Thalita de Jong and Mathieu van der Poel. In every discipline, the Dutch always manage to get about five riders at a high level. That is no coincidence.

“There are a few things that we’ve done for years and that we continue to do,” explains the head coach. Before the season, I make a planning for the year and create talent groups. I appoint a few junior riders who can rely on facilitations. I organise a small training camp before the start of the season. That’s when I explain how the World Cup selections work and what we facilitate, including six national training points. The KNWU facilitates the World Cups, the European Championships and the World Championships. We’re always heading out with junior men and U23-riders, men and women. We facilitate that completely. We also have six national training points on Wednesday afternoons. I’m in charge of those and I lead the training in Alphen. I’m seeing the riders in the weekend, on Wednesdays and sometimes for additional training on Thursday. I see the riders a lot and that’s great, even though they ride for a team. My predecessor Nico van Hest recently retired. He led these training sessions for 35 years. The training points are really popular. If I would allow everybody then we would probably be training with 120 riders. Right now, we’re training in two groups, men and women. We’ve got 25-30 women. That’s unbelievable. It’s crazy that something like that doesn’t exist in Belgium.”

As a young rider Gerben de Knegt participated in these training sessions in Alphen, as did big names from the past like Adrie van der Poel, Sven Nys and Richard Groenendaal.

“The support from the National Federation has always been great because for 20 years Rabobank not only supported the team but also the Federation. There was always the necessary budget to do things. Rabobank was a big fan of cyclo-cross and even added a separate donation purely for cyclo-cross. Sadly enough, they stopped and now it has become much harder to get the necessary funds for cyclo-cross. Mechanics, soigneurs and a team bus... they don’t come for free. If I want to use a team bus then I’ve got to pay.”

Although cyclo-cross receives funds from the National Federation’s title sponsor, it has no discipline-specific sponsor. De Knegt says that the lack of budget means exceptionally talented Dutch riders who want to ride as professionals head to Belgian teams.

However he assures that the situation for Dutch cyclo-cross is not disastrous. “There’s certainly still budget and it’s looking ok for the near future but it’s not as luxurious as before. I’m positive though. We’ve got a lot of riders with a lot of potential so the future looks promising.”

De Knegt is pleased to see that cyclo-cross is still very popular. “The national circuit is huge. The start lists at the national championships for the Master’s and amateur races were gigantic; there were 75 junior riders. We don’t have a lot of professional races though, apart from Valkenburg, Hoogerheide, Gieten, Woerden, Surhuisterveen, Hulst, Rosmalen and sometimes Huijbergen.”

In the meantime, De Knegt hopes that the UCI World Championships in Valkenburg can generate a new dynamic.

“I hope so. We’ve got podium candidates in every category but things will need to go our way. World Championships are always a weird race. Obviously, Mathieu van der Poel isn’t going to pick up the world title after a walk in the park, absolutely not. I just hope he can defend his chances without being struck by bad luck. I don’t fear a Belgian block. This course is going to be so hard. One might get in his way for a moment but he’s so good. There’s no tactic that can fight against that.”