Cyclocross Worlds 2018: A Weekend in Valkenburg
As the train pulled into the Valkenburg station from Maastricht last Saturday, I caught the first glimpse of a cyclocross course, way up at the top of the hill towering over town. Giant colorful banners cupped the top of the hill, revealing a race course with a heart stopping amount of elevation change, visible from half a mile away.
The Cauberg is most famous for being the final climb of the Amstel Gold race, but it’s also the site of a spectacular cyclocross World Cup race, and last weekend was the site of 2018’s UCI Cyclocross World Championship.
Last December, in a wave of end-of-cyclocross-season excitement and incentivized by ultra cheap airfare, my friend Dan and I decided, why not, let’s go to Worlds. In the middle of a dreary winter full of trainer workouts, it was the perfect reminder that there’s nothing better than the adrenaline rush of being at a crowded bike race, even when you aren’t racing yourself.
A few blocks from the train station, a narrow set of stairs wind up the Cauberg, providing the quickest way for us to get up to the race course. As we trudged up the steps, the roar of the crowd came into focus, and I realized that this was not just going to be a race, but a spectacle. It had rained the day before, but was bright and sunny on Saturday, so I wasn’t prepared for just how intense an experience it would be. We were rushing from the train to make the tail end of the junior race, and headed straight for the first bit of course adjacent to the ticket booth.
This flat-ish corner of the course looked fairly reasonable from a distance. There was a 90-degree turn, then a small bump in an otherwise flat straightaway. But it turned out that the mud made even the flattest, most boring parts of the course a challenge. This bump was pretty steep 4-5 foot rise, and turned out to be completely unridable. Even in thick rubber boots, I could barely walk up the muddy rise to the edge of the course. I watched as racer after racer gingerly slogged through the corner before the rise, then tried to get enough traction in the flat mud to have the speed to make it up the rise. Everyone — the best teen cyclocross racers in the world — failed and ended up having to run.
As an American fan, the Valkenburg venue was familiar as a cyclocross course, but everything was just…….. more. The course itself was steeper, muddier, wider, and packed in more features than any American course I’ve seen. And from the sidelines, it was more crowded, and certainly drunker, than even the most raucous NECX races I’ve been to. Between races, hundreds of people crowded into a tent in the inner vendor area of the race, dancing and reveling. Honestly, I would not be upset if American cross adopted more mid-day mid-race dance parties.
One of the best things I saw all day was the eventual women’s U23 winner, Evie Richards, descending the steepest slope on the course. One of the several steep off cambers along the hillside veered into a deeply rutted out right-hand turn, which quickly turned into a terrifying drop down the hill. Many of the women chose to run, and nearly all of them took the drop slowly and carefully. Not Evie Richards. She came around the corner and shifted her weight back, then sprawled her body out on her bike, so that her torso was almost laying on the top tube. Then she let her bike rip down the hill. It was incredible to watch.
After several hours squishing in the mud, Saturday’s main event, the women’s elite race, finally went off. We were standing about 500m from the starting chute, where the course gets narrow and forces racers down a quick, steep drop and then back up again. Standing at the top and looking at the mud, Dan looked at me and said there was no way anyone could ride the slick incline. We should be prepared for them to run past us. A few minutes later, Eva Lechner, several bike lengths ahead of the group, proved him wrong. As the pack made their way past us, several women made it up the climb still on their bikes. Others, including eventual winner Sanne Cant, ran through traffic. Ellen Noble, American hero, sitting perhaps 20th wheel, rode it despite being surrounded by women running.
For most of the race we settled near the rail on a false flat just after a fairly steep descent. It was almost flat, but just uphill enough that several people ended up stalling their bikes in the thick mud and having to get off and run. Leaders Katie Compton and Sanne Cant were exceptions: they both had so much power they almost made the section look easy. Dan and I, Americans that we are, went crazy for every U.S. jersey that passed us. The Europeans were more discerning in their enthusiasm, saving it mostly for Cant. The guy standing next to us even went so far as to make fun me for my wild cheering as the laps wore on.
The race was too exciting to care what the old Dutch men around us thought. For much of the race, Katie Compton was in contention for the win. Katlin Keough and Elle Anderson, the latter of whom resoundly crushed me several times in collegiate road racing back in the day, sat comfortably in the top ten. I got within five feet of Marianne Vos (!). Even though I race cyclocross at home, and have lined up in the same UCI races with many of the women I was cheering for (many rows behind, mind you), the spectacle of the thing was such that I still felt star struck.
I love American cyclocross, but god damn do the Dutch put on a good show.