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Into the Rough

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Feb 1, 2016 – Cycle racing isn’t always visually beautiful. Sometimes it’s grim and brutal, a slog, a mudfest. There’s pain, disappointment and controversy. Yet amid the greyness you can still find rays of sunshine.

Written by Paul Maunder/Images by Marshall Kappel

The venue for the World Cyclocross Championships was the motor-racing circuit at Heusden-Zolder, a place surrounded by sandy forest on one side and ugly industrial estates on the other. And as torrential rain drummed onto the finishing straight, soaking spectators, paralysing cameras and freezing riders, it was tempting to wish for summer. But with cyclocross you take the rough with the smooth. Cold rain and mud is all part of the equation. Being too cold to write a text is part of it too. As is diving into the press room for hot soup and bread rolls. We love ‘cross because of these things, or despite them. Whichever, you don’t really have a choice.

In the weeks running up to the races, riders had been talking about preparing for a fast course, doing lots of motor-pacing work to increase their top-end speed. But a day of heavy rain turned the forest trails into sandy muddy gloop, and as the juniors, U23 Women and Elite Women took to the course on Saturday, they were looking at a very different kind of race.

The social media storm surrounded the alleged concealed motor of Femke Van Den Driessche will, unfortunately, lodge itself in the collective memory of the cycling community. But the record books at least will remember a more positive aspect to that wet day in Flanders – the first ever U23 Women’s race, and the victory of Evie Richards. Cyclocross has been slow to address its gender inequality, but this new category was a step in the right direction. For Richards, it was a chance to show the cyclocross world her talent. ‘If the category wasn’t here, I wouldn’t have been racing. It’s amazing for female riders coming up,’ she said after the race, wearing her bright new rainbow jersey.

By the time of the Women’s Elite race, the party tents were full, the beer barrels were less than full, and everyone was making new friends. Through the gloom the world’s best women charged away down the motor-racing circuit. After forty minutes of splashing and sliding and scrambling, Thalita de Jong claimed the victory from Caroline Mani and Sanne Cant. For Cant, the disappointment was crushing. Television cameras captured her in tears behind the podium, as the trio waited for the medals presentation. The expectations of a nation can be a heavy burden for a young athlete.

If Holland dominated Saturday, with Jens Dekker and de Jong’s gold medals, Sunday belonged to the host nation. But the thousands of Belgian fans who stood, swayed, danced and shouted, had some nerve-jangling moments as their heroes fought off contenders. In the U23 Men’s race, Adam Toupalik from the Czech Republic flew into the finishing straight with a lap to go, raised his arms in victory and freewheeled across the line, only to see Eli Iserbyt and Quinten Hermans flash past him, with the bell ringing in their ears. Realising his mistake, Toupalik accelerated, got back to the Belgian duo and took a brave silver medal. Mistakes decide ‘cross races, just as much as attacks. For Iserbyt the rainbow jersey, for Toupalik a memory he’ll want to forget.

The elite men took to their muddy stage. The crowds cheered the Belgian riders, booed the Dutch and ignored everyone else. One hour to decide the new World Champion. And it was another mistake that proved decisive. Mathieu Van der Poel faltered on a climb, jumped off his bike, but swung his foot straight into Wout Van Aert’s spokes. The foot stayed there. Wout banged his wheel. Van der Poel wiggled his foot. Time seemed to be moving very, very slowly. The crowd watched aghast. The rest of the riders in their group pushed on, hardly able to believe their luck. The foot came out, Van Aert got away quicker than his Dutch rival. With all of Belgium cheering him on, Van Aert hunted down Lars Van Der Haar, bided his time and then on the last lap used his superior running to open a small gap. That was enough. The World Championship was won.