January 31, 2021
The 2021 cyclocross world championships from Ostende, Belgium are in the books. You can read the results anywhere... I wanted to focus instead on some interesting bits that I saw during the live streams.
Here are 6 things we learned about the riders, the course, and the state of cyclocross this weekend:
Last year, Worst finished second to Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado at the 2020 world championship, in a thrilling sprint. Then this past July, she suffered a devastating injury in a mountain bike race, which resulted in her being airlifted by helicopter for treatment.
Following surgery, her 'cross season started ok - she won Koppenbergcross at the end of October, but that was it, as she went backwards from there as the season progressed. Frustrated with her results, she skipped a few races in favor of a training block, and then returned looking better, but still not near the podium, and her run of great performances at worlds looked to be ending.
It all came together though just in time for one day. No one picked Worst for the podium, yet she looked very strong, like a different rider compared to earlier in the season. She was riding more of the sand than her competitors, and closed several gaps after crashing, each time making it back to the front, and had the lead before yet another crash near the finish sealed victory for Lucinda Brand. Chasing back to the front each time surely sapped her energy, but it's worth noting how many matches she seemed to have, allowing her to do exactly that.
Whoever put together her training plan deserves some credit for her peaking at just the right time. Was it Bart Wellens, the Team 777 manager? A coach or trainer? Worst herself? Whatever the answer, they did their job perfectly and Worst made the most of the form to redeem her season with a Silver medal.
In the much-hyped battle between Wout and Mathieu, flat tires have unfortunately played a role throughout the 2020/21 season, and again at worlds, as an untimely puncture for Wout forced him to ride quite a distance before reaching the pit for a bike swap.
Did it affect the outcome? Maybe... I feel like the best rider on the day won, which is the outcome we'd hope for. When Wout and Mathieu met head-to-head this year in races that weren't marred by mechanicals, MvdP usually won. The notable exception, the Dendermonde World Cup, was a laugher that featured more running and walking than riding due to a flooded, muddy course.
In a perfect world, there would be no punctures, no dropped chains, no broken spokes. But racing happens in the real world, and riders do contribute to mechanical failures (or their absence) through their line choices and handling skills. The best man won today.
The Ostende, Belgium worlds course featured a few questionable design choices that don't exactly meet the letter of the rules when it comes to course design.
I was stunned to find that the signature feature, the bridge, had no physical separator between athletes traveling in opposite directions except course tape. This could have easily led to an accident and even local amateur races have been forced to modify their course layout for this exact reason. Riders were coming down the ramp at 20+ MPH and a head-on accident there would have been ugly.
Several athletes in the U23 Men's field slipped on the frozen stairs on Saturday; by Sunday, additional traction had been added on the steps to remedy this problem. It's good it was fixed, but not before at least one athlete abandoned due to slipping on those step. Given that snow and ice were in the forecast, that seems like something that should have been discovered during the official inspection.
There was also a U-turn in the first 30 seconds of the race, another "no-no", but hey - "rules for thee, not for me." In typical fashion, the UCI raises a stink at some issues, but looks the other way when it suits them.
MvdP did an over-the-bars crash that would have ended the race of any mere mortal. Instead he tucks and rolls, pops back up, and goes on to win the world championship. Amazing.
I've watched the video over and over trying to figure it out. Look how he sticks his hands straight out front to protect his face and torso. This crash could have broken a wrist or collarbone, broken ankle or worse.
Was that skill, luck, or something in between? Perhaps the master bike handler MvdP is better than everyone else at crashing, too.
Clara Honsinger, for example, has tended to start slower, but rides very consistent laps, picking off riders as she goes. Contrast with Dinese Betsema who started quick but seemed to fade later in the race.
The Elite Women's race was just 5 laps, totaling about 47 minutes for the winner. If a lap was added, the winner would take more like 56 minutes, and Honsginer has a whole extra lap to gain more time. Can she catch Betsema on that extra lap and claim the bronze medal? Maybe.
Line choice played a critical role in many of the worlds races. In some cases, creative line choice worked, and in others it actually hurt the rider.
The most dramatic example occurred on the beach in the U23 women's race, when Kata Blanka Vas took an entirely different route than the rest of the field - riding much further down the rideable, wet sand compared with her competitors, who dismounted and began running toward the beach exit far earlier. Her line was so different she didn't even show up in the same TV camera shot! Very creative, but ultimately it seemed like she was losing time with this choice, as the gap between her and the group widened.
In the Elite women's race, the much publicized bump between Annemarie Worst and Lucinda Brand happened after they choose two different lines up a small rise, one inside, one outside. Worst went outside and left the inside line open, Brand wedged her way through it, Worst fell, and that was it. In this case, choosing a different line worked for the rider.
These options created excitement on the course and added interest to the live stream; I've love to see more courses that are far wider than the mandated minimum.
If you haven't watched yet, replays of the 2021 cyclocross world championship weekend are available on FloBikes' subscription streaming service, and if you just want to check the text results and finishing times, those are on the UCI website.
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