Do you love Christmas time ? I might not see or hear you but I guess most of you say yes. Real cyclists love Christmas time. They are looking forward to getting another cycling related gift under the Christmas tree or to eat all they can eat several times in a row. But the real reason they love Christmas time is Cyclo-cross!
This is where you say, “what the heck, the season started in September and you only talk about it now?” You are right, we are closer to the end of the cyclo-cross season than to the beginning, but the Christmas week is probably the busiest and also most beautiful time of the year on the calendar. There is a race going on every second day including the iconic World Cups of Namur and Zolder. Sometimes it feels like the sport calendar is taking over the religion calendar in Belgium, which sounds pretty normal in a country where cyclocross is literally considered a religion. Unfortunately their religion starts to become somewhat… boring and predictable those last weeks. The –superman on a bike- aka Mathieu Van der Poel does indeed win everything. And while fans are torn between frustration due to lack of suspense in the races and admiration in front of so much perfection on a bike, women’s cyclocross steps up and saves the holy Belgium cyclo-cross religion.
I could throw numbers at you like the number 183. With 17’000 TV spectators on Eurosport during the Namur Worldcup, the women’s race reached 183 % of the men audience. The race in St Niklass got 362’000 viewers on Sporza. The last two World Cups each had over 80 participants in the elite women’s race ! I got to wear numbers 74 and 73 in Namur and Zolder which were numbers the organisers wouldn’t even print the years before. And while you are thinking about those numbers I haven’t even started talking about the race scenarios which are way more exciting in the women’s races than in the men’s races. The race might be a little bit slower then the men, not everyone (including me) can (yet) bonny hop obstacles but at least you didn’t turn off the TV or go home before the end of the race because you HAD to watch how this race is turning out.
Another thing women’s cyclo-cross showed to the world in 2018 is that the future is heavily knocking at the front door. A few sentences ago I exposed the fact that we are 80 plus riders at the start line as something great. Basically it is. But it is more complicated than that. It does unfortunately hide a more negative fact. One of the reasons the number of starters literally exploded this year is that more and more young girls dare to join the party. You recognise them during the world cup races because they are wearing a black number and there are a lot of black numbers riding around in the last few weeks. So basically U23 and elite women share the same start time, race length, result and prize money which isn’t something to be proud about, dear UCI. The positive trend of starters and level they ride at should be a reason enough to the UCI to give those girls, just like the boys, their own separate race. They do so during Worlds and Europeans so why not during the World Cups? Helen Wyman’s work off the bike during the last years made things move in the right direction and no later than today, successfully the first international women’s Junior race in DVV Loenhout and believe me everyone was excited about this race.
I hear you saying, yes but look, the best U23 girls can beat the best Elite girls. Why should you take them one step down? The best U23 boys can beat the best Elite men (maybe not MVP), but they still get their own races. It doesn’t only concern the best but also the rest. I am a defender of what I would call « late to the game » politic.
Unfortunately the most common idea is that if you want to succeed in a sport whatsoever, you need to start early. With everything. You need to start practicing early, you need to start competition early, you need to focus on one sport early, you need to win early and you need to do a lot of sacrifices early. Unfortunately for most of the athletes no matter if you are a boy or a girl this is the best way to also quit your sport early. Overreaching in young years is just one of the reasons why an athlete might decide to stop sports and do something completely different. Would he have been given the time to develop properly, to experience different sports, to skip a race he actually didn’t wanted to do, to make sure that this is really the path he wants to take for the next 10 or 15 years, maybe then he wouldn’t have quit. Exceptional athletes with great talent might suffer less from quitting early if they stay free from injuries, because being successful and winning makes it easier to dedicate yours and your family’s life to that one sport. But it doesn’t necessarily do them any good to be put under performance pressure from the beginning. My valuable “late to the game” politic does favour everyone. The one that needs more time to develop physically or to decide on his future is given more time.
Being late to the game doesn’t mean you won’t make it to the top. I have never competed cycling at Junior level. I only started racing internationally in my last year U23. I did different things than riding my bike but once I decided to go for it, I was really ready to do so, and not just half ready. The super talented on the other hand is given more stress-free time at the start of his career. Pressure and stress will come early enough so every season where they can just race or play like if they were in their backyard is a season won at the end of their career, where victories and titles are worth much more than a Junior World championship title.
This is in my opinion the major reason why everyone should get the chance to compete against same aged athletes: protecting the athlete. Why should we protect only the boys and let the girls hit the wall deliberately?
Sending to everyone all the best for 2019. Enjoy the last frosty rides of the year. Stay warm and ride safe, and hopefully more adventures in 2019!