2021 Cyclocross World Championship Preview

2021 Cyclocross World Championship Preview

Although we're in the middle of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 UCI cyclocross world championship has been approved and is moving forward as scheduled for January 30 and 31, 2021.

Let's preview the course and athletes: 

When and where is the 2021 Cyclocross World Championship? 

The location rotates on an annual basis and is announced by the UCI several years in advance. The 2021 event is in Ostend, Belgium on January 30 and 31, 2021. Ostend is a coastal city in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium. It's a town with a military history, having been occupied by Germany during both WWI and WWII. 

The average high temperature is about 40-50 degrees F at race time. Rain is likely - it rains about every third day and the area gets about 30 inches of rain annually, similar to Seattle or Portland in the United States. So a cold, damp, wet race with mud is likely in January. The course has a heavy sand section with significant running.

U23 men and Elite women race on Saturday, while U23 women and Elite men race Sunday during race weekend.

Elites and U23 only - Juniors will not race

On January 15, the UCI announced that only the Elite Men, Elite Women, U23 Men, and U23 events will take place. Junior Men and Junior Women races have been cancelled, due to the pandemic.


The United States team for the 2021 cyclocross world championship

I definitely have a North-American fanboy bias; so let's take a look at Team USA specifically. For 2021, the selection committee focused on athletes who are already living and racing in Europe: 

U23 Women
Madigan Munro (Boulder, CO; Trek Factory Racing)

Elite Women
Katie Compton (Colorado Springs, CO; KFC Racing / Trek / Knight Composites
Rebecca Fahringer (Concord, NH; Kona/Maxxis/Shimano)
Clara Honsinger (Portland, OR; Cannondale Cyclocrossworld)
Katie Keough (Colorado Springs, CO; Cannondale Cyclocrossworld)

Elite Men
Curtis White (Delanson, NY; Cannondale Cyclocrossworld)

As noted above, no Junior men or women athletes will participate at Ostend 2021.

COVID-19 Race Protocol and Impact

Currently, face masks are mandatory, even in outdoor spaces in Ostend. It seems likely that the World Championships will be held under similar conditions to those used in the Superprestige series in Fall, 2020 - which means no paid spectators, and riders can only have minimal support staff in the pit.

Riders are required to wear masks until they reach the staging area, immediately prior to the start of the race, and then put masks on again at the conclusion, including for post-race interviews and podium ceremony.

Ticket sales for the event have been suspended, the public will not be able to attend. This means the event may lack some of the atmosphere and excitement that a World Championship would typically have, with normally tens of thousands of spectators on hand. 

Course Preview

Since this takes place in a coastal town, we'd expect some sand to be part of the 2,900 meter course, and it is. You can see the course runs out pretty close to the water line.

Here's the breakdown: 

  • Grass = 1,326 meters
  • Cinder = 404 m
  • Sand and improved sand surface = 565 m
  • Bridges = 400 m
  • Asphalt / concrete paving = 205 m

Here's a map of the course preview (click to enlarge)

The course goes over a large pedestrian bridge repeatedly, passing over a highway to transition between the two distinct terrain features - a sandy beachfront part and a grassy (likely mud) part of the course. 

Pitting for complete bike swaps may be a key strategy if the course is muddy. There's an opportunity to pit at the end of the possible muddy part, taking a clean bike into the sand portion each lap.

Expect the "beach" to be a defining feature that helps decide the race. After descending the massive flyover bridge, riders encounter several hundred feet of "choose your own adventure" sand where the course is untaped and unstaked, before they make a right turn back up on the taped section of the course. 

In that unmarked section, riders can make their own path - down to the waterline, where the sand is firmer and ridable (but this is the longest possible distance), or taking the shortest line, which means dismounting and running in loose, deep sand. Which is faster? We may see riders make wildly different line choices depending on the other racers around them and the day's conditions.

UCI Cyclocross World Championship Live Stream

UCI World Championship events are broadcast live on the official UCI YouTube channel. Availability varies by country, however, and geo-blocking applies based on your location. The USA, notably, will typically be blocked from this free stream unless you use a VPN to "spoof" your IP address. 

In the United States, FloSports has the broadcast rights on their FloBikes subscription streaming service. FloBikes offers annual subscriptions that include all cyclocross World Cups, plus the World Championships in all disciplines, including 'cross. Read my review of FloBikes and get more info. 

Some readers may have previously used NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass, a competing subscription service, to watch the cyclocross world championship. NBC Sports no longer has broadcast rights to the world championships or world cups, focusing primarily on the Tour de France. Additionally, last week it was announced that NBCSN, the satellite/cable channel, will be shutting down in the future. It's unclear how/when the bike racing content may move to another streaming platform, like NBC's Peacock service - so now isn't a good time to subscribe. Wait and see. 

Contenders and Predictions

Early season racing in 2020 was dominated by 3 men - Eli Iserbyt, Toon Aerts, and Laurens Sweeck; and then changed completely when 3 heavy-hitters - Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, and Tom Pidcock made their season debut.

Each of van der Poel, Wout van Aert, and Tom Pidcock has won at least once race since returning to 'cross this Winter. Those 3 would have to be considered the favorites. Pidcock showed flashes of brilliance, winning Superprestige Gavere in a convincing fashion, but that's his only victory this season, suggesting a two-up battle between MvdP and WVA may be in the cards. Michael Vanthourenhout, a strong runner, could be a dark horse. He seems to have slipped in recent weeks but took it to a new level in early season races.

On the Elite women's side, defending champ Ceylin Del Carmen Alvarado would be a podium favorite, but Lucinda Brand has been the most successful and consistent rider on the women's side this season. There is more parity on the women's side of the sport, with Brand, Annemarie Worst, Alvarado, and Denise Betsema, among others, already taking victories this season.

Will Brand's World Cup series domination lead to a victory at the one-day, winner-takes-all World Championship? Possibly. Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado appears to have peaked at exactly the right time, winning at both Flandriencross and the Overijse World Cup in the space of 24 hours. She's clearly ready to defend her title. Did she defeat Brand outright twice last weekend? Or did Brand "shut it down" to preserve her energy for worlds? Only Brand knows how deep she went. 

Since I'm American, let's talk about Clara Honsinger. Does she have a shot at a medal? Yes. What's needed for her to get there? At the Overijse World Cup, Honsinger was unable to capitalize on a front row start, dropping back to about 15th and more than 20 seconds down, before using her "diesel" engine in the middle of the race to come back to the front. That's an amazing demonstration of power, but also takes significant energy. She has shown that she can ride with the best in the world, but would have to carefully manage her position to be a medal contender.

Sanne Cant, 3x world champ, is another rider who made a big leap in the final tune-up weekend and appears to be peaking at precisely the right time.

This one might be marred by the absence of some key athletes injured in a starting-grid crash at the Overijse World Cup. We'll see who is able to take the start with a week to recover. Ryan Kamp looks like the preliminary favorite, based on winning the European Championship earlier this year. 

Manon Bakker has to be considered the front-runner for the U23 women, consistently placing near the front in the open, Elite women's events with riders much older and more experienced. Anna Kay is a rider who seems to be getting hot at the right time, getting a bunch of TV time at the Overijse World Cup, following a season that seemed like a regression from last year. 

Want more? Give a listen to episode 3 of the Inside Cyclocross podcast for more World's coverage:

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