With the Tábor cyclocross World Championships in the rearview mirror, attention turns to the Spring Classics and Grand Tours coming up in the next few months and a break for the full-time cyclocrossers. As we begin to look forward to the upcoming 2024/25 'cross season, let's examine 5 cycloross trends to watch for starting this Fall:
#1: Fueling during races
Historically, cyclocross races featuring short, intense efforts lasting only 45-60 minutes haven't been thought to have needed in-race fueling from a nutritional standpoint. You occassionally see riders start with a water bottle on their bike during a hot, early season race, or swap to a bike with a bottle mid-race race, but that was about it for fueling tactics.
Additionally, since it can also be challenging to take hands off the handlebar and find time for a bottle or gel during a race, riders typically didn't worry too much about nutrition intake, instead opting for a recovery drink to re-fuel, immediately after the finish line.
That's all changing rapidly, however, and it's becoming increasingly common to see riders at the Elite level taking on nutrition - typically gels - during a race, even in those events as short as 45 minutes. So what's happening here?
Clearly, there is a movement toward caloric intake as recent research suggest that even a tiny benefit from mid-race fueling could be impactful in the results. In Spring, 2023, a rider was DQ'd from the Strade Bianche for wearing a continuous glucose monitoring device. In layman's terms: measuring blood sugar in real-time. For the women specifically, it's also possible that nutrition has increased in importance due to recent efforts to ensure longer race times (more laps) in women's events.
With an increasing awareness that blood sugar levels are critical for performance, we've seen riders like Tom Pidcock, Lucinda Brand, and others adopt mid-race fueling in an attempt to avoid the last lap "bonk" - and the availability of caffeinated gels may also be contributing here for an extra boost. Pidcock has taken a pit bike with a gel taped to the top tube, while Toon Vandebosch has been photographed with a gel stuck in the hem of his shorts.
So should YOU be taking a gel halfway through your local race? It's worth experimenting with... just be sure to try it out during an intense training effort to make sure it doesn't upset your stomach on race day.
#2: About that team relay...
If you're unfamiliar (and many are, due to the lack of events) with cyclocross team relay, it works just like the 4x400 or 4x100 relay in track and field. National teams (think Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands) select 6 athletes who each do one single lap around the course - potentially one from each of the Junior Men, Junior Women, U23 Men, U23 Women, Elite Men, and Elite Women categories.
I love the cyclocross mixed team relay concept for so many reasons. By mixing categories who normally aren't on course at the same time, different tactics and strategies are introduced. Should teams start with their fastest rider, knowing that they might not be able to ride as fast might otherwise be possible, due to traffic in front of them? Or should the fastest rider go last, when they're more likely to be able to go full speed, resulting in the lowest possible lap time? Are riders in slower categories able to follow the lines of faster riders and gain extra motivation to ride at their limit?
In the 2024 mixed team relay, Cameron Mason (Elite Men) ended up in a sprint with Aubin Sparfel - from the Junior Men category - a dynamic that never would have happened in other races, where these riders typically aren't on course at the same time. In that same race, Zoe Backstedt (U23 Women) produced a scorching opening lap; perhaps due to the fact that she was the only woman selected for the first lap, meaning that she started at the same time as riders from categories that are typically faster - and was possibly able to pace off those riders.
Unfortunately, the mixed team relay concept only really works at the World Championship - at races like the Superprestige, Exact Cross, and so on, riders race for trade teams like the Baloise Trek Lions and Pauwels Sauzen - Bingoal, not their national teams. That means national teams don't get much time to practice, and the event doesn't get much TV coverage year-round, since there isn't a race every weekend.
One prominent team, the Netherlands, would have been the gold medal favorite, but elected not to even start a team at the 2024 mixed team relay at all. From a fan perspective, that's disappointing - especially given that even a "second tier" selection of Dutch athletes would still have been a medal contender. If the countries with top talent elect not to participate, I'm not sure what that says about the future of the mixed team relay, which is a shame.
#3: More international talent at the Junior level
The future looks bright for younger riders in a sport that has been dominated by Dutch and Belgian athletes on the individual side at the Elite level recently (in the Elite Men's category, for example, only 2 riders in the top 15 were not Dutch or Belgian, while in the Elite Women's field, only a single rider in the top 6 - Sara Casasola - was not Dutch or Belgian. )
So what's happening at the Junior and U23 levels? Especially for the Women's category, there seems to be a ton of emerging talent coming real soon as they age up.
Célia Gery took home a Gold medal in Junior Women and also as part of France's team relay; in the Junior Women's race only a single Dutch woman broke into the top 6. In the U23 Women's race won by Great Britain's Zoe Backstedt, the top 5 "wide angle podium" featured riders from Luxembourg, Canada, Czechia, and only a single Dutch woman, Leonie Bentveld.
Fans from North America also have reasons to be excited as well, with Vida Lopez de san Roman finishing 6th in Junior Women, and Isabella Holmgren finishing 4th with a racing age of just 19 in the U23 Women. Can these up and coming women break the Dutch stranglehold at the top of the sport? Fall 2024 will be interesting to watch!
#4: Fewer races on the World Cup calendar
Riders, especially European-based teams, have compained for years about the expense and time required to compete in World Cup races outside of the Belgium/Netherlands region, especially those in the United States.
Traveling across an ocean with a mountain of gear - spare bikes, wheels, tools - alone is expensive and complex logistically already. Throw in riders concerned about jet lag and getting sick from international travel in a sport that requires peak performance, and resistance and concerns are reasonable.
The importance of each World Cup race has also been diluted as the number of races on the calendar has increased; allowing riders to miss multiple events, yet still contend for the overall World Cup title.
Predictably, there are rumbles and rumors about a contraction in the 2024/25 World Cup calendar. In a normal year, the upcoming schedule is announced at the World Championship the prior year - but that didn't happen at Tábor - leaving plans in doubt. Belgian media indicates some likely changes coming this Fall, which are potentially still being negotiated. This includes:
- fewer World Cup races than in past years - perhaps 10, instead of 14
- a compressed schedule that puts those races in December and January (prime viewing time)
- a potential loss of World Cups on USA soil
- no "classified crosses" on the same weekend as a World Cup, i.e. if there is a World Cup on Sunday, there can't be a Superprestige on the Saturday prior
#5: New (possibly worse) streaming options for USA cyclocross fans
While there is a lot to be excited about for cyclocross fans, the way we watch the sport is not one of them. In 2022/23, cyclocross fans who subscribed to two streaming services, FloBikes and GCN+, could watch just about every major cyclocross race on planet Earth - World Championships, World Cups, Superprestige, Exact Cross, and so on.
That changed when GCN+ stopped operating at the end of 2023, leaving fans in limbo. Warner Bros. Discovery, who owns the broadcast rights to most of these events in the USA, moved them to the new Bleacher Report add-on to the MAX streaming service, starting in February 2024.
Unfortunately, the Bleacher Report / MAX service seems to be a worse value compared with GCN+. It's significantly more expensive, (but perhaps still the best available for now.)
Is there any hope? There is supposed to be yet another sports streaming service this Fall, combining services and content from ESPN, Disney, Discovery, and Fox into a single sports subscription. The early description: "sports networks including ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, SECN, ACCN, ESPNews, ABC, FOX, FS1, FS2, BTN, TNT, TBS, and truTV, with games from the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), and the National Hockey League (NHL), along with NASCAR, PGA Tour Golf, Grand Slam Tennis..." sounds like what's already available on MAX with Bleacher Report, so would the new service replace that entirely? We'll have to wait.
See you for the 2024/25 season
I look forward to following the 2024/25 cyclocross season with you. See you this Fall!