Is cyclo-cross surfing a wave of popularity or sinking into a sea of indifference? I honestly can’t work out which way this most spectator-friendly of disciplines is going.
This weekend the great and good of cyclo-cross will gather at Hoogerheide in Holland for the World Championships, where the highlight is likely to be the face-off between “the Kannibaal”, Belgium’s Sven Nys, and reigning champion and local Dutch hero Lars Boom. The racing will be frantic for an unmissable hour and the impression will be of a sport very much on the up.
Or at least, that’s the case in Holland and Belgium. Television audiences are rising so fast in Belgium that they are now not far short of those registered last year for the Tour of Flanders, while Nys is reported to have played a key role in raising the profile of Landbouwkrediet. One of the bank’s directors called him “a gold nugget” after it was revealed 40,000 new customers had been attracted to the bank, most of them in the wake of the Baal-born rider’s switch from Rabobank.
However, outside the Low Countries and one or two other nations, the impression is of a sport that is thriving at the grassroots – which is very noticeable in the UK and US – but stagnating at the top level. The tragedy of this is that 'cross offers not only hell-for-leather action on compact and usually very spectator-friendly courses, but also ideal sponsorship opportunities for companies which don’t have anything like the promotional budget of the Saxo Banks and Columbias of the cycling world.
As a fan who came into cycling in the mid-1980s when the muddy battles of Steve Douce, Chris Young and Chris Wreghitt regularly featured on BBC1’s Grandstand, I wonder if 'cross will ever again achieve that status in the UK. And this is not the only country where top-level cyclo-cross is struggling. The UCI admits the centralisation of what is supposed to be the World Cup in Belgium and Holland – where five of the nine legs take place – is worrying.
Salvation may come with the introduction of 'cross into the Olympics; even the Winter Olympics have been suggested for it in the past. In that event, national federations, just as they have done with track racing, will realise the opportunities it offers and direct more resources towards it.
Current 'cross world champion Lars Boom keeps winning, and knows it
Until then, it may remain Boom-time in Holland and Belgium, but lean times for cyclo-cross fans in the rest of the world. To follow this weekend's World Championships, click here.