After the relative dry of Saturday, with a Dutch lock-out of all three races (Shirin van Anrooij leading a Dutch 1-2 in Junior Women, Ryan Kamp in Under 23 Men and the Elite Women where Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado led an Oranje 1-2-3, the stormy winds blew in on the specially-built Dübendorf course, and were accentuated by the exposed nature of the airfield venue.
With many of the branded hoardings removed from the crash barriers as a safety precaution and the overnight rain making the track muddy from the start – and the steep banked climbs and short off-camber sections tremendously challenging – the final day of the UCI Cyclo-Cross World Championships were set up for some epic battles.
Riders took lines closer to the grassy margins of the track and the shouldering sections grew longer, especially in the run-up to the steep steps at one of two flyovers in the superbly designed Swiss track.
But the questions remained: could the Dutch continue their dominance? Would the rest of the world get a look-in? And could Belgian pride be restored? All three questions were answered.
Junior Men: Belgium’s perfect repost
The first race of the day, Junior Men, saw the riders face four 3.15km laps, with Belgium’s favourite, U23 world no 1 and UCI World Cup winner Thibaut Nys – son of multiple UCI World Champion Sven Nys – under more pressure than ever. And he was not found wanting: breaking away late in the first lap and gently increasing the pressure on the chasing pack.
Nys, winner of six of the seven Telenet UCI 2019-2020 World Cup races, knew the threat came from his fellow Belgian riders and Switzerland’s Dario Lillo, who had great home support. As Nys powered away and eventually won by more than 30 seconds the attention turned to the other medal positions.
Lillo, winner of the season’s final UCI World Cup race in Hoogerheide (the Netherlands), was in the mix throughout. And while Nys broke away, he fought with Lennert Belmans and Emiel Versrtnge, looking good for bronze until a crash on the final lap dropped the Swiss out of the medal places, ensuring a Belgian 1-2-3 in Junior Men, going a long way to restoring the dented national pride.
Women’s Under-23: French tears of joy
Next up the Women’s Under 23 race: and yes, “the rest of the world” demonstrated how cyclo-cross really is a multi-national sport, growing in global stature.
The win went to Marion Norbert-Riberolle, who put in a dominant performance in her breakthrough year, just three weeks after her 21st birthday. The French champion broke away on lap 2 and never looked back, stretching the lead out and on the final lap allowing herself a bike change, popping a wheelie over the last flyover and collecting a tricolour on her way down the tarmac finish straight after a gruelling 12.7km.
Kata Blanka Vas – the 18-year-old Hungarian Elite Champion – came in a superb second after winning her battle with Great Britain’s Anna Kay at +40sec, replicating her third place in this season’s UCI World Cup overall ranking.
Dutch delight in Men Elite
The Men Elite final was in the simplest terms, superstar Mathieu Van der Poel versus the best that Belgium could throw at him. And that was in the shape of double and reigning UCI World Cup overall winner Toon Aerts, Eli Iserbyt (former U 23 UCI World Champion), Wout van Aert (triple UCI World Champion), Michael Vanthourenhout and Laurens Sweeck.
And under drying skies the Dutch member of Alpecin-Fenix – double UCI World Champion and multiple and reigning National Champion - took to the front. He led a 15-strong train of light blue Belgian and orange Netherlands jerseys broken only by Great Britain’s former double U23 UCI World Champion Tom Pidcock, mixing it well in his first full season with the Elites.
By the end of the second of seven laps, Van der Poel had a lead of almost 50sec over a chasing group of five men, and seemingly nothing could stop him… it became a race for second, and by lap 4 it was the Briton who was pushing the bid for silver.
And so it finished: Van der Poel took gold and his third rainbow jersey in this event; Pidcock an impressive silver (+1’20”) from Aerts with the bronze (+1’45”), the first of seven Belgians in the top 10.
“One of my best days of the season,” said the winner. “It was a very honest race, the strongest men were at the front from the start and I think that’s great for a World Championships… I think I rode the perfect race!”
If Van der Poel’s victory may have been predicted, the strength in depth of the Belgian chasing pack and the emergence of new talent in the Junior scene suggests the head-to-head battle between these two nations will continue as fiercely as ever as the sport expands further on to the global stage.