Cross-country racing – a cult sport in the dark Belgian months

Image: CC BY 2.0 Through Flickr

By Michael Stabenow

Sports enthusiasts and many other modern people who don’t necessarily claim this trait themselves like to find a suitable pastime after their Christmas days in front of the TV. There is no shortage of cheesy comedies, many of which are not on the show for the first time.

But sports? In England, professional football has traditionally been in full swing these days. If you want to avoid the pay-TV providers, you should do without them and instead take in the many winter sports broadcasts, not least of which is the Four Hills Ski Jumpers Championships.

In Belgium a sport is in full swing these days – also on free TV – and it guarantees good ratings: cross country, “veldrijden” in Dutch and “cyclo-cross” in French. While many professional cyclists prepare for the upcoming season on the easy-to-pass roads of mild southern Europe, a small crowd meanwhile rides on the mostly muddy, sometimes also frozen terrain of the northern regions.

The races, which are usually held on varied and demanding circuits, last just over an hour. Anyone who sees the dirty shirts of the often – and even more so – exhausted participants can get the impression of the difficulties of discipline. Likewise, skill on the handlebars, reserves of energy when pedaling, and — again and again — when running and jumping the bike over your shoulder are required.

Bikes are driven, which at first glance are no different from classic racing bikes. However, the shape and dimensions of the tires vary, adapting to racing conditions. When it comes to tire pressure, it is also important to consider optimal soil conditions. So often the wheels are changed in the “neutral zone” – be it because the gears and sprockets are dirty or the profile and air pressure of the tires do not match.

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In the Netherlands and especially in Belgium, cross-country running has become a real cult sport. The fact that professionals from one of these two countries have been mastering the sport for years has contributed to this. Long gone are the times when German drivers played a prominent role in mud, mud or mud. Rolf Wolfschall, winner of the 1965 Tour of Spain and a respectable sixth place three years later in the Tour de France, the toughest multi-day road race, has become a three-time world cross-country champion. His compatriot Klaus Thaler won the title twice in the 1970s.

Many drivers come from Belgium, more precisely from the Flemish part of the country, who have had a decisive influence on events over the years. These include seven-time world champion Eric de Vlieminck (in the 60’s and 70’s) and Roland Lebuton (four world titles in the 80’s). Sven Nys has only two world titles. The 46-year-old former driver, who is now a regular TV commentator on cross-country races, has often mastered the sport at will for two decades.

The three dominant cyclists of today’s generation are also among the most successful on the road. Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel, who won the Tour of Flanders classic twice (2020 and 2022) and the more demanding Strade bianche in Tuscany in 2021, has been lagging behind in form over the past few weeks. World Champion is Brett Tom Pidcock. He won the gold medal in mountain bike racing at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

The Belgian star Wout van Aert is more important at the moment. Not only is he a three-time world champion in the discipline, he is also considered the most versatile driver of his generation. In the latest Tour de France, the 28-year-old rider from Herentals, east of Antwerp, won not only three stages, including the individual time trial, but also the green jersey – which only tempts excellent sprinters – for the best placements. in the daily phases. Although Van Aert’s 1.90m finally tipped the scales at 78kg, he put in a more than impressive performance on several mountain stages – where lighter weights usually have the advantage.

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In Monday’s World Cup race in Javier near Ghent, van der Poel, the grandson of French cycling legend Raymond Poulidor (“Bobo”), who died in 2019, clearly made a comeback, ahead of Van Ert and Pidcock. The three pros move like fish in water on the cross-country track, which is often rough and wet in equal measure – much to the delight of many fans. Many fans make pilgrimages from place to place for the World Cup or “Superprestige” and other races. Whether in East Flemish Koppenberg, in Namur Castle or in the ups and downs of Overijse – the fan caravan meets everywhere.

Motorhomes arrive from home and abroad on the eve of the race, not only fans but also racers of all generations, their overseers, but also often friends and relatives. It’s usually very informal there – even during a race, Van Aert and the other co-drivers are “close enough to touch” those standing right on the side of the road.

For many years the races of this sport, which originally developed in the south of France at the turn of the 20th century, were held almost exclusively in Belgium and the Netherlands, and sometimes also in Germany, the Czech Republic or Switzerland, but now World Cup races are being held even in the United States or – recently for the first time – was held in Dublin. For a long time, women’s cross-country racing led a mysterious existence. Who still remembers that with Hanka Kupfernagel the German won world championship titles in 2000, 2001, 2005 and 2008? Today, the most successful drivers are almost exclusively Dutch, such as Fem van Empel, Shirin van Anrooij or Puck Pieterse.

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There will be no shortage of race dates (usually in the afternoon) in the coming days. The races are mostly broadcast on free-to-air television by VRT sports broadcaster Sporza, but also partially broadcast by VTM, Eurosport and Playsports. The calendar for the next few days includes races in Heusden-Zolder (27/12), Diegem (28/12, evening), Loenhout (30/12), Baal (1/1), Herentals (3/1), Koksijde (5/ 1), Gullegem (7.1.) and Zonhoven (8.1.) This year’s World Championships will be held from February 3 to 5 in Hoogerheide in the Netherlands, just a stone’s throw from the Belgian border.

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