The reason why I like bike racing is probably the same reason most people like their favorite sport, unpredictability, but wait, there is so much more. Cycling is so raw, once the lights turn green there are no time outs, no caution laps, and almost no rules. You’re not supposed to headbutt other rides, but that doesn’t stop it from happening.
Of all the different categories of bike racing none is more raw than cyclocross. To win at ‘cross you have to be fast, powerful, be able to jump off your bike and run, and have world class handling skills. In a typical road race, riders form a group or peloton to protect each other from wind resistance. In cross generally having riders around you is a liability, the riders around you will mess up your line, slow you down or worse crash in front of you. Since ‘cross is raced in dirt, sand, grass, and mud there are many opportunities for mishaps that keep the racing more unpredictable and exciting.
Cross mostly takes place in Belgium and the Netherlands where it extremely popular, but it’s gaining popularity in the USA and we had a world cup race this year in Las Vegas. This year’s cross season has been significant for a few reasons Sven Nys, who is the Michael Jordan of ‘cross is retiring this year. Last year he struggled, this, his final year, he has been back on form, he even won a world cup race. Oh did I mention he is almost twice as old as some of the other riders. Last year’s World Champion Van Der Poel missed the first half of the season while recovering from knee surgery leaving his main rival Wout Van Aert to dominate.
When Van Der Poel returned with his knee fixed he came back with a vengeance. He was winning everything and made it look easy. This was the situation leading up to the World Championships, the most important day of the year for ‘cross. I said earlier I like racing because of it’s unpredictability, but some of the last races of the season were feeling more like processions where the riders sorted themselves out and everyone rode the course perfectly to their pre-determined placings. Fortunately for us the World Championships delivered.
The best riders were stuck in a loose group and no one seemed to be able to get away, Sven Nys managed to pull his 39 year old body to the front and Belgiums were going nuts. Van Der Poel was there with Van Aert right behind him then something wild happened. Van Der Poel spun out on a and off cambered climbing turn, he jumped off to run and put his foot right through Van Aert’s wheel. They stood there locked together while rider after rider blew by. Eventually they got untangled and began the chase. Van Der Poel seemed rattled, he was going crazy fast and nearly crashed into a wall. He seemed to have a problem with his bike and went into the pits for a new one. He was unable to match Van Aert who was settled into a fast pace and returning to the front.
The two favorites mishap sent another Van, Van Der Haar into a mad dash for the win. Van Der Haar is a little Dutch guy who is insanely good, he’s ranked 4th in the world, but he doesn’t manage to win many races. His attack in the final two laps of the race was legendary, none of the other leaders could stay with him and it appeared he had the Worlds in the bag. But wait, here comes Wout Van Aert; like Peppy LePue he’s gradually catching and his Belgium fans are driving him on. He catches Van Der Haar on the last lap and despite some insane downhill riding by Van Der Haar, he beats him.
It was the best race I’ve watched all year.