Although we're in the middle of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, as of this writing, the 2021 UCI cyclocross world championship is still on the calendar and scheduled for January 30 and 31, 2021. Let's preview the course and athletes:
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.
Junior women, U23 men, and Elite women race on Saturday, and Junior Men, U23 women, and Elite men race Sunday during race weekend.
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 don masks again at the conclusion.
As of this writing, ticket sales have been suspended, suggesting organizers aren't planning on hosting the public for the event unless something dramatically improves related to the spread of the pandemic. 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.
For Americans, COVID-19 may also impact the ability of your favorite USA racers to attend, or perform, at the World Championship. Some riders, like Curtis White and Rebecca Fahringer, are already in Europe, cleared "quarantine", and have started their European racing campaigns. Others wait in the USA for clarity before traveling.
One key issue affecting American cyclocross racers is their inability to collect UCI points. UCI ranking points determine the call-up order at staging, a key factor in race outcomes. While some cyclocross racing has proceeded in Europe this Fall, it has not in the USA (with a couple small exceptions.) This means that Elite American racers haven't been able to accumulate points, because there simply haven't been any races. Unless the UCI makes changes due to this special circumstance, Americans will get far worse "call-ups" than they would under normal conditions.
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:
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.
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, NBC Sports has the broadcast rights on their Gold Cycling Pass, a subscription streaming service. An annual subscription is $54.99 and expires May 31, 2021 (regardless of when you started the subscription). The subscription period is timed to coincide with the start of the Tour de France, to which NBC also owns the USA broadcast rights.
This quirk in scheduling means subscribing to Gold Cycling Pass can be a poor value, depending on when you sign up. A customer who signs up to watch the Cyclocross World Championship stream, for example, will only get 5 months before their "annual" subscription expires, but it's still full price. To maximize value, the best time to sign up was at the very beginning of the subscription period over the Summer - something to keep in mind if you describe to subscribe next year.
As of mid-November 2020 we are yet to see Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, or Tom Pidcock make their season debut. Early season racing has been dominated by 3 men - Eli Iserbyt, Toon Aerts, and Laurens Sweeck, but they are yet to face MvdP this year.
On the Elite women's side, it's wide open. Defending champ Ceylin Del Carmen Alvarado would be the preliminary favorite, but there is more parity on the women's side of the sport, with Lucinda Brand, Annemarie Worst, and Denise Betsema, among others, already taking victories this Fall.
With about 70 days still remaining before race day, it's a little early to make a prediction.
Check back on this article in the weeks immediately prior to the race for more current information and I'll continue updating as COVID-19 conditions, scheduling, and rider form changes the likely race day outcome.