The Future of Women’s Cyclocross

Does the future of women’s cyclocross belong to Belgium?

There’s something strange going on in the UCI cyclocross rankings, and some cross aficionados have begun to take notice. Belgium remains a dominant force in the sport, but a quick investigation of the UCI’s women’s cross rankings shows that the USA boast 17 of the world’s 100 best riders, including the first and third place under-23 racers. Belgium, traditionally a hothouse of cross talent, is home to only eight of the world’s top 100 – and just one who is an under-23. Most surprisingly, the second best under-23 Belgian is 200th in the UCI’s rankings.

Quantity isn’t everything, but it could be that the future fights of women’s cross will be between the Dutch, Americans, and the Swiss. For a closer look at these developments, we turned to Bill Schieken of cxhairs.com.

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Simply put, the under-23 field of women’s cyclocross is stacked with talent. Along with Rapha’s Ellen Noble – overall UCI World Cup winner, under-23 world championships silver medallist, and five-time champion of the States across multiple age categories – are Belgian star Laura Verdonschot, the American Emma White, Annemarie Worst, one of the best mountain bikers in the Netherlands, and last season’s under-23 world champion from the UK, Evie Richards.

With this mix of talent, the women’s under-23 field is a fascinating series of battles and rivalries, and the recent world championships were a fine example of this. An ordinary (by her high standards) performance from Noble the week before Worlds knocked her down the list of favorites, while questions remained over Worst and Richards, as both are first and foremost mountain bikers and hadn’t shown their mettle in many cross races. To make matters even more uncertain, the Bieles track proved icy and technical, rewarding focus and superior bike handling skills – in other words, it promised a true test of cyclocross ability.

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The course brought out quality racing from the field. Worst, foreshadowing the tactic of her Dutch teammate, Mathieu van der Poel, took off from the start, forcing a small group of chasers that included Noble, Richards and Verdonschot to go into the red before the first lap was halfway complete.

Despite Worst continuing to put pressure on the field, and Evie Richards’ strong effort at the midway point, Noble didn’t waver. She kept her position in the top five and focused on riding safe, established lines during the treacherous descents. An action-packed middle section of the race (which is well worth viewing in its entirety) led up to a final lap that was one of the most riveting of the five races that weekend. Noble gave her version of the day’s events for Rapha, writing that she was “proud to have been part of a battle like that.”

All of this is made remarkable when considered in the light of the very short history of women’s cyclocross on the world stage. Before 2000, there wasn’t a women’s world championship event and it took until 2016 before there was a women’s under-23 race at the world championships. By contrast, the first men’s cyclocross world champion was crowned in 1950. Until recently, women’s cyclocross was not regularly televised, the pay wasn’t close to equal and races were scheduled early in the morning before most fans arrived.

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But that’s changing. Close to one million viewers watched the recent Belgian national championship battle between Sanne Cant and Verdonschot. And for American racers such as Noble and White, the thriving US racing scene has allowed them to develop into world class athletes without having to leave home (and offers the prospect of pay equal to that of male peers). The US scene is now of such a strength that it attracts top racers from around the world, which means up-and-coming racers are seeing the best competition in their backyard.

British elite crosser Helen Wyman, who is a member of the UCI’s cyclocross commission, points to the rapid development of the under-23 women’s field as evidence that steps towards equality in the sport are having a noticeable effect far sooner than most predicted. “Racing in the senior world championships can be demoralizing when you’re young, as you cannot see how to get from where you are to where [Marianne] Vos and [Sanne] Cant are.” The introduction of the under-23 category last year allows young racers to compare like with like, instead of crawling across the line minutes behind the action.

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Ellen Noble agrees, and cites the clear pipeline that exists in the US between the amateur and elite ranks. “From your first race all the way up to UCI World Cups, you’re challenged every step of the way,” explains Noble, “if someone isn’t challenged, and just keeps winning races in their home country, then their development could be stunted.”

In a slightly ironic twist, Noble benefitted from the comparatively amateur status of US cross. Plenty of amateurs take to the sport, creating a bigger talent pool. Belgium, with a much less celebrated amateur scene, is struggling to provide the same level of competition for young riders.

There are plenty more advancements that can be made, though. For Wyman, the priorities are under-23 races in UCI World Cups (right now the under-23s start with the senior women, which doesn’t happen in the men’s field) and a junior women’s category at the world championships. Noble’s ambitions are closer to home. “The USA Cycling Montana training camp exists exclusively for junior men. Where is the equivalent for junior women?” Montana camp or no, Noble earned her world championship silver with no small degree of panache, and proved that she’ll be a force to reckon with in coming years. The question is, from where will her competitors hail?

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Bill Schieken is a writer, podcaster, and cyclocross zookeeper for all things that happen at cxhairs.com. In what seems like ages ago, he also created the SVENNESS video series.