World Championship cyclo-cross

Of course cyclo-cross is topsport. Just watch the World Championship in Zolder. Coming Sunday high mass will be celebrated: the Belgians against the rest of the World. With Sven Nys, the hope of the whole of Flanders against Mathieu van der Poel, who will defend his title.

Hugo Camps says that cyclo-cross makes him think of World War I between ’1914 and 1918’ . That sounds as a giant leap. On the one hand a sport “drenched in mayonnaise and beer” as Camps says himself. On the other hand a World War drenched in blood.

The Belgian columnist is not the person to avoid this giant leap and he has a rich vocabulary as his jumping pole. When speaking of cyclo-cross he uses the words ‘cruel labour’, ‘uninviting scenery’ and ‘mud’. Of course he speaks of mud. If ever the trudging cyclo-crosser and the poor soldier at the front can be caught in one word it is mud.

The best place for that is Zonnebeke in the south-west of Belgium. Two weeks ago the Castlecross was held there. After the start in the Berten Pilstreet the peloton turned into the park of the local castle. That park is dedicated to the First World War. On the right hand there is a museum commemorating the Battle of Passendale, which was recorded in the annals as an inferno of mud and fire.

A bit further all the nations involved have laid out a commemoration garden. My boots sink solidly in the mud when reading a horrifying war-poem about emerging roses and unmerciful death, written by soldier Ernst Stadle. Just beside the German commemoration garden the Belgian rider in the lead will fall. In that very same mud.

Mathieu van der Poel has the face of an angel; his talent can only be compared to that of the young Cruijff

— Hugo Camps —

A Sunday in Zonnebeke is racing, cheering Sven Nys and a pint of beer.

At the beginning of this year Hugo Camps wrote an angry column in NRC Handelsblad about the contempt the Dutch show for cyclo-cross. Always that eternal speed-skating in wintermonths and at present the silliness they call darts. Never any attention to a real sport, to the strength and agility required for cyclo-cross, and then above that the Dutch in leading position at the moment.

Camps, presumably drenched in a small tub of lyrics when he was a baby, speaks highly of the Dutch World champion Mathieu van der Poel, a young man who has just reached the age of 21. His face is that of an angel, his talent can only be compared to that of the young Johan Cruijff. ‘Extraterrestrial’ sighs Hugo Camps in silent admiration. Unforgivable that his compatriots do not notice it.

Coming weekend Mathieu van der Poel will defend his world title. Beside him Lars van der Haar will start as an outsdider. It is the only race of the year in which a Dutch cyclo-crosser can reach the news bulletins. The rest of the year his sport remains in the margins of the media.

Just like the First World War one century ago passed alongside the Dutch border cyclo-cross ceases to be a popular sport at the height of the border at Hazeldonk. Two years ago the World Championship was in Hoogerheide, just at this side of the border. Flemish was the official language for two days.

The sport goes back to the beginning of the last century, when especially ‘cyclo-pedestre’ attracted masses of public in France and Belgium.

Crude plodder

This time Zolder will be the setting, just at the other side of the border. Some 65 thousand of spectators are expected to be present beside the track. Already now the World Championship cyclo-cross is said to be the most massive sports event of the year in Belgium. Another 1.5 million Flemish will be seated before the TV=screen. And when it rains it will be two million, says reporter Carl Berteele. The weather forecast is rain.

Hugo Claus sees the Flemish soul reflected in the love of cyclo-cross. Cyclo-cross is folklore beside topsport. Where cycling becomes more and more streamlined the image of the Flandrien, the crude plodder who rides to hell for a small penny sticks to the cyclo-cross. With these symbolics the First World War, still an open wound in Belgium, is not far away.

Field of honour is a tell tale title of the book the Flemish Luc Lamon and Mark Van Hamme wrote last year. In 2015 it was the 65th time the World Championship was held. But the sport goes back to the beginning of the previous century, says Lemon. In particular in France and Belgium ‘cyclo-pedestre’, the combination of cycling and running attracted masses of public. ‘A Tour winner like Sylvère Maes earned much money with cyclo-cross in winter.

Erik De Vlaeminck

And yet it was not before 1966 that Belgium could celebrate the first World Champion. In the beginning there was a fierce competition. In many European countries cyclo-cross was an important sport. Before 1966 France was in the leading position. After 1966 Switzerland had a series of World Champions. For that matter, it was as late as 1981 that Hennie Stamsnijder as the First Dutchman could be written on the list of honor.

Erik De Vlaeminck, who broke the spell fifty years ago, is a key figure in Flemish cyclo-crossing. Before that he was the best of the world seven times. Later he became the national coach and thus responsible for the present supremacy.

This century knows cyclo-cross as a sport that is taken seriously in only one country. Out of the sixteen World Champions ten are Belgian. And every time a Belgian was one of the top three. It was five times that the podium was completely Belgian. Instead of Belgian you should read: Flemish. Whern the anthem (the Brabançonne) sounds this weekend in Zolder it will be for the Flemish district.

The revolution was put in motion in 1994. The Flemish coastal town of Koksijde was flooded with Flemish hungering for success that year. They witnessed how their compatriot Paul Herygers overtook the Dutchman Richard Groenendaal in the last moment. When passing him Herygers triumphantly put his hand on Groenendaal’s shoulder.

That gesture is stored in the Flemish collective memory as the sweet revenge for tghe Dutch arrogance of which Groenendaal was the paragon. ‘Yes, it was a bit naughty’, says Herygers more than twenty years later. With Groenendaal and later Lars Boom as unwanted foreigners cyclo-cross became the vehicle of Flemish pride. For that matter for Flemish sorrow as well. In 2000 Richard Groenendaal became the World Champion in his own Sint-Michielsgestel. Behind him the Belgians Sven Nys and Mario de Clercq were fighting their own battle. It was a national scandal.


Cyclo-cross is a sport that fits in seamlessly in the crude scenery of the Flemish countryside

Meanwhile self confidence seems to gain over resentment and cyclo-cross has grown more and more popular. The sport that is regarded as an inferior form of cycling in the Netherlands is held in high esteem in Flanders. ‘First of all this is because of the successes’, says Herygers. ‘That is the motor of everything’.

But these successes are only part of the story. Cyclo-cross is a sport that fits in seamlessly in the crude scenery of the Flemish countryside. As opposed to cycling on the roads cyclo-cross has always kept its popular character.

With boots on into the fields, a beer at the beer-tent, chips at the chips-tent and a sausage at the sausage-tent. Cheering your favourite. That is and will always be the very essence of cyclo-cross, says Hennie Stamsnijder in his chronicle ‘Masters of the Mud’ , that appeared recently.

The Castle Cross supplies the addict with all these elements. Even the boots will come in handy in this winter, which never became a real winter. Later on the winner will be a devil of the mud, flanked by the most beautiful girls of the village on the victory platform. ‘Fellinian’, says Hugo Camps, a hint to the Italian film director and his bent for the burlesque.

Sven Nys in action in the Castle Cross of Zonnebeke. The 39 year old Belgian is now doing his farewell tour and has never been this popular.

I do hope things will remain positive this time. In 2002 there was a short period with a Dutchman in the lead and all you heard was yelling boos.

— Sven Nys —

In Flanders, and only in Flanders, cyclo-cross changes into an absurd attraction of the kermess. The competitors land with their covered wagons and campers on the central place of Zonnebeke. Different from cycling on the road; no buses as big as fortresses or multinationals as genial moneylenders. This is still the domain of the middle class.

Mathieu van der Poel, the winning devil of the mud, warms up under the awning of a giant camper. The public is kept at a distance with a ribbon. Berne Vankeirsbilck remains dry in a porch. Everybody leaves him in peace.

Sven Nys takes most room in the Langemarkt street. The uncrowned emperor of cyclo-cross has arrived in an oversized motorhome. WShen he appears a quarter of an hour before the start a loud cheering swells on. The 39 year old Belgian is now doing his farewell tour and he has never been this popular.

This cheering will follow the two-times World Champion throughout the race as a wave. At every spot of the track you can here where axactly Sven Nys is. At First that is in the leading pack, but a pebble in his gear shift throws him back. Nys finishes at over 3 minutes from Van der Poel, 18 years his minor, but the enthusiasm is not less.


On Friday morning Sven Nys receives a national jersey featuring all his successes in twenty years of cyclo-cross. He has returned to the spot where he became third fourteen years ago on the World Championship, behind two compatriots.

It is a sweet memory.’The first time a cyclo-cross race really exploded: 45 thousand people shouting into your ears. Only on top of Sacrament Mountain it was silent and there was a whistle in your ears from all these cheers. The impact of the public was tremendous.

Warning: ‘I really hope things will remain positive this time. In 2002 there was a short period with a Dutchman in the lead and all you heard was yelling boos. This is quite nasty, also for us; the Belgians. Cyclo-cross should remain a feast.

The Belgian journalists are silent for a moment. Then Sven Nys says: ‘I do not defend the case of the Dutch. Of course I hope that a Belgian will win’.

Mathieu van der Poel another year in the rainbow jersey?
Mathieu Van Der Poel

From favourite to towering favourite. How does an athlete feel whern this happens? Good. Just look at Mathieu van der Poel. He knows the word stress, but he does not know its meaning. Coming Sunday his world title is at stake, but to him it is a race like the others. ‘That is the way I approach it. Of course it would be a pity to lose the rainbow jersey. But on the other hand; I have had the privilege to wear it for one year’.

Last year Van der Poel became world champion is his first year as a senior athlete. Surprising, especially the way in which he did it. During a great part of the race he kept his advantage over his Belgian opponent, however slight it was, completely on his own. Now the only thing he can expect is a lesser achievement. He ruled in the last few races. Van Aert has every reason to take the position of the underdog coming Friday. Mathieu van der Poel laughs when he hears it. Calculations of probability are a game of words to him. Van Aert has devoted his complete season to this. He must be good, he says in his characteristic accent. Van der Poel himself has taken a week of rest, in so far he allows himself to do so. I have done a few fierce workouts, in order not to get lazy. In doing so he hopes to be slightly better than in the last few races. It must be so. In a World Championship you should be fit for 110%. A self assured look in his eyes accompanies this last remark.