There is always room for something new, even for the historic discipline of cyclo-cross and in a location as prestigious as Ostend. The Belgian city has its place on the world map as a major hub, a centre of economic and geopolitical activities and for tourism. The tales Ostend tells are both bumpy and glamorous, just like its sandy beaches. The stars of the cyclo-cross circuits are now gearing for another exciting episode with the 72nd edition of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships (January 30-31), the tenth to be held in Belgium, and the first in Ostend.
Following the final round of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup in Overijse, dozens of cycling champions head north-west. Once they reach the coast, some 100km from the capital city of Brussels, they’ll be able to immerse themselves in the seaside atmosphere of the Belgian “Queen of Beaches”, a place that has welcomed and inspired artists such as the Belgian icon Jacques Brel, the American legend Marvin Gaye and the French diva Catherine Deneuve.
The sight of cyclo-cross virtuosos battling in the sand will be every bit as thrilling. The event’s organisers - the Veldritcomité Hooglede-Gits, headed by Rik Debeaussaert - aim for a “historic weekend” of competitions, with four races and several side events designed to bring the local fans as close as possible to the UCI World Championships despite the strict restrictions enforced to fight the Covid-19 pandemic (https://www.oostende.be/oostende-is-klaar-voor-het-wk-veldrijden).
“We know how much everyone needs to enjoy relaxing moments in these difficult times,” explains press officer Nico Dick on behalf of the organising committee. “The circumstances made things extremely difficult. Financially, it will be an organisation with a loss. But thanks to the support of the Flemish government, the city of Ostend, the UCI and the efforts of the Organising Committee, people will enjoy a high-level competition with magnificent images of the riders on the beach, the waterside, the hippodrome, and so on.”
The course: Van Aert’s delight
Local fans are familiar with these spectacular sights, already previewed in the 2017 Belgian National Cyclo-cross Championships. It was the 100th edition of the event and for Ostend, it was a first that introduced a spectacular circuit with a 135m long, 8m high bridge connecting the beach with the Wellington hippodrome.
At that event, Wout van Aert and Sanne Cant dominated the Elite races, Quinten Hermans and Laura Verdonschot claimed the jerseys in the Under 23 ranks and the Junior titles went to Toon Vandebosch and Marthe Truyen. Three years later, these six champions have all been selected to represent Belgium at the UCI Worlds (Van Aert, Cant, Hermans and Verdonschot in the Elite races; Vandenbosch and Truyen in the Under 23 events).
They’ll race over a 2,900m course divided into eight sectors. The surface will be predominantly grass (1,326m), while sand sections represent about a fifth of the course (565m). The main bridge will challenge the riders with a 21% gradient. “It suits me 100%,” Van Aert told Wielerflits ahead of the event.
The three-time Men Elite UCI Cyclo-cross World Champion took his first crown in Belgium (Heusden-Zolder, 2016), before claiming two more rainbow jerseys in Luxembourg (2017) and in the Netherlands (2018). Preparing for Ostend 2021, he highlighted similarities with the course of the Zilvermeercross, held in Mol, where he won ahead of his Belgian compatriot Laurens Sweeck only two weeks before the UCI Worlds.
“The stage for a titanic battle”
Riders from all around the world aiming to challenge the Belgians on their home ground will also be able to familiarise themselves with this unique setting in the week ahead of the UCI World Championships. They’ll enjoy official training sessions from Thursday, while the course will be reserved for the youngsters’ enjoyment on Wednesday afternoon with cyclo-cross initiations.
The organisers, who already welcomed the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Hooglede-Gits in 2007, were expecting “around 40,000 people” on site before they had to exclude spectators from the event. They will now rely on broadcasters around the world to show the best of Ostend, as a seaside destination and a sports city whose beaches also hosted the IAAF (now World Athletics) cross country World Championships in 2001.
“Nobody could have anticipated it a year ago, but it’s the only good solution today,” said Ostend’s Mayor Bart Tommelein when he had to announce that the races would be held behind closed doors. “Ostend will be the stage for a titanic battle for the UCI World title. That’s what we promised and that’s what will happen thanks to the efforts of all parties.”