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The state of modern CX

When the Cyclo-cross World Championships were last held in The Netherlands, home of Shimano’s European headquarters, the end of the Sven Nys era was drawing near. On that frozen, sunny day in Hoogerheide in 2014, the cannibal from Baal was beaten by Zdenek Stybar. The Under-23 race was taken by Wout Van Aert, with Mathieu Van Der Poel disappointed to get bronze.

Since then Stybar has moved to the road, Nys has retired, and Van Aert and Van Der Poel have continued their rivalry in the elite ranks. Many of the venues for major races this season are familiar – Hoogerheide, Zolder and Koksijde, to name a few. The World Championships have never visited Valkenburg, a spa resort nestling in the Dutch Alps, but the venue has staged many rounds of the World Cup. So far, so traditional.

And yet… is there just a glimmer of a deeper change?

While the sport’s spiritual homeland of Belgium could be perceived to be continuing much as it has done for the past thirty years, cyclo-cross around the world is enjoying huge growth. In Britain and the United States participation numbers make it the fastest-growing discipline in cycle sport, and in the latter there are now two World Cup rounds. In Australia and Japan the young scenes are vibrant and increasingly professional. China has two UCI-ranked races. And back in Europe, after many years of decline Swiss ‘cross is seeing a resurgence.

Much of this growth comes from years of hard work by grassroots organisers. Now, there are other important factors coming together to give cyclo-cross a healthy push. Firstly, the growing concern about inactivity in children means that there is more focus than ever on healthy lifestyles and keeping active. The Valkenburg World Championships is being used by the Limburg government as a vehicle to promote cycling of all kinds, and to encourage children to ride bikes.

With space on the roads feeling more pressured than ever, and parents justifiably worried about their children, off-road racing is an attractively safe proposition. This is something the Shimano-sponsored Telenet-Fidea Lions team understands. Assistant Manager, Karen Ramakers says: ‘We want to spread the word on the importance of that matter, by joining our sponsors’ campaigns but also by organising sports camps for children. In the Sven Nys Academy, children learn how to handle their bikes properly. Will that make all of them pro-riders? No. But they will all be better at handling their bikes, which makes them safer in traffic.’

When Telenet Fidea Lions switched to Trek bikes it was an illustration of the global outlook of their new manager Sven Nys. The media reach of the American company would bring benefits for the team and for the sport in general. Ramakers continues, ‘Our main sponsor Telenet is the name sponsor of the UCI World Cup too and Trek organises a World Cup in Waterloo (first one with equal prizes for men and women). They operate on the other side of the world, but they have the same goal: they want to think about the future of cyclo-cross and how we can get cyclo-cross involved in as many lives as possible.’

The growth of the sport outside Belgium, and the acceleration of social media as a way for ordinary fans to hold governing bodies and race organisers to account, means that in this regard the sport is going to modernize fast. 14-time US National Champion Katie Compton says, ‘We bring a high level of racing and excitement to the spectators that should be rewarded and promoted equally. As long as the racing continues to be exciting and people pay more attention to the women’s races because they are fun to watch, we’ll continue to grow the sport, bring more fans in, and create more consumers, both men and women.’

So, while the podium at this weekend’s Worlds may still be dominated by Belgian and Dutch riders, if you take a moment to look more closely you’ll see a sport that is growing organically, modernising and spreading its positive message: soften your tires and come into the mud – it’s safe and you’ll have a lot of fun.

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