Top Men of the Mud: All eyes are on cyclo-cross at the moment with three big stars causing all the talk, but the cross scene has seen ‘super stars’ before. Many big names from the road have been top men in the mud – Ed Hood takes a look back through cyclo-cross history.
The ‘Big Three’ of cross
Wout, Matthew and Tom in the sand and mud – we love it, big road names lining up for ‘cross races, pulling the huge crowds in [Covid permitting]. But it’s only in the last seven years since the WVA v MVDP feud began that this has been the case, prior to that there were long spells where ‘cross was the province of the specialists with just the odd intrusion by ‘roadies’.
The first cyclo-cross World champion – Jean Robic. Handy on the road too
The first UCi ‘cross Worlds in 1950 went to Frenchman Jean Robic, Tour de France winner and Monument podium finisher. But even in those early days of the discipline, riders were beginning to specialise with the man who was second to Robic in the Worlds, his countryman, Roger Henri Rondeaux making a science of ‘cross and going on to win seven Nationals and three Worlds.
Roger Henri Rondeaux – Made a science of ‘cross
The event was very much the province of the French riders in those early days with Andre Dufraisse, another specialist, taking the next five Worlds straight as well as seven Nationals.
Italian class – Renato Longo
The next man to win the title was one of the legends of the sport, Renato Longo of Italy who took five world titles and no less than 12 Nationals. Whilst Longo did ride the road he was very much a ‘cross specialist but his big rival of the day, Rolf Wolfshohl, who triumphed in three Worlds, was a very capable roadman too, winning the 1965 Vuelta and with a very broad road palmarès.
Merckx, Simpson and Rolf Wolfshohl
The Longo/Wolfshohl era was ended by the arrival of arguably greatest of them all, Eric De Vlaeminck who would take seven world titles and could do things with a bicycle which left his rivals shaking their heads. The title remained in Belgium after De Vlaeminck’s tenure, going to prolific, hard as nails specialist, Albert Van Damme who won six national titles among an incredible 301 victories. It was Belgium’s title again in ’75 with the man Van Damme beat in to the silver medal position the year previous, Eric’s brother, Roger making it eight for the De Vlaeminck family.
Eric De Vlaeminck – Seven time World champion
The late 70’s was the time of the Swiss specialists, with Albert Zweifel taking four titles straight as well as nine Nationals; but it wasn’t just Zweifel, his compatriot Peter Frisnecht took three silver and two bronze medals in the same era. And Zweifel would come back to take a fifth title in 1986.
Thaler, Albert Zweifel and Liboton – Worlds’83
The years from ’80 to ’84 belonged to Belgian legend and 10 times National Champion, Roland Liboton with just lanky Dutchman, Hennie Stamsnijder preventing the Belgian from winning five titles straight in 1981 – and second to Stamsnijder? Liboton, of course.
When he won his final Worlds Liboton was only 27 years-old, years later he said; “There were financial problems in my team, ADR. I was not paid so I didn’t train so much and I lost my focus. The manager of the team kept promising me that he would pay. That guy took three of the best years of my career from me. I am very angry about that. Before, I was riding for an Italian team, Guerciotti, who paid me very well, but ADR told me they would pay me three times what I earned in Italy. That move was the biggest mistake I made in my life. I could have won more world titles.”
Klaus Peter Thaler
In 1985 it was a man who was more than respectable on the road, Germany’s Klaus Peter Thaler, who we spoke to a couple of years ago. Tour de France yellow jersey holder, Vuelta podium finisher he was twice amateur ‘cross Worlds champion and twice professional, winning again in 1987.
Andrie van der Poel – More than handy on a road bike
Second that year was a man who we’ll hear more of later, Adrie Van Der Poel, father to Mathieu and silver medallist no less than five times before he won the title in 1996; and there were also two bronze medals. The ’86 title went to Zweifel.
Hennie Stamsnijder and Pascal Richard
With another man who was no slouch on the road taking the ’88 race, Switzerland’s Pascal Richard, who won the Tour of Lombardy in 1993, the first ‘open’ Olympic Road Race in ’96 and out-foxed Big Tex to take Liège-Bastogne-Liège the same year. There wasn’t really a dominant figure over the next few years with the titles all falling to specialists, the diminutive Belgian Danny De Bie in ’89, Dutchman Hank Baars in ’90 and Czech Radomir Simunek – the only man to have won the junior, amateur and professional titles – in ‘91.
Danny De Bie and Radomir Simunek – World championships in Getxo, Spain
Van Der Poel was the silver medallist four years straight for four years from ’88 to ’91. Germany’s Mike Kluge took the ’92 title and really should have taken the ’93 titles but for mechanical nightmares – read about it here with Frenchman Dominique Arnauld the beneficiary.
Paul Herygers in the ’94 Worlds
The ’94 race went to Belgian specialist, Paul Herygers with a beautiful late race move, riding a ramp which up until then everyone had run, distancing the man the Belgian fans loved to hate, Richard Groenenaal of The Netherlands. Swiss rider, Dieter Runkel produced the ride of his life to win in a ‘mud fest’ 1995 championship on home soil at Eschenbach with Groenendaal again bridesmaid.
Worlds 1996 Montreuil, France – Adrie van der Poel
If ’95 was a ‘mud fest’ then ’96 was anything but; on a course frozen hard and fast at Montreuil, Van der Poel’s roadman’s sprint was way too fast for Italian specialists Pontoni and Bramati after a race run at 29.053 kph average. Pontoni’s revenge came on year later in ’97 with another Belgian ‘cross legend, ever-grumpy Mario De Clerq taking the first two of three titles in ’98 and ’99.
Worlds 2002 – Zolder
Feisty Groenendaal won in 2000 with big, strong Belgian specialist Erwin Vervaecken taking the first of three titles in 2001 before De Clerq took his crown back in ’02, the first of four years straight when all the medallists were Belgian. The 2003 and ’04 titles belonged to popular and dogged, Bart Wellens.
The one and only – Sven Nys
The 2005 race went to hugely popular and prolific, Sven Nys his first two Elite titles to go with his two U23 successes. Some would say that had he concentrated on peaking for the Worlds then he would have had more Elite rainbow jerseys to his name but the man raced hard from the first flag of the season dropping until the last podium of the year: 180 wins plus 63 Superprestige and 50 World Cup wins – enough said.
World cross champ – Lars Boom
Vervecken was back to win in 2006 and ’07 with US rider Jonathan Page producing the ride of his life to take silver, pushing the Belgian all the way to his third title. Versatile big Dutchman, Lars Boom who was an Eneco Tour, Tour of Britain, ZLM Tour, Vuelta and Tour de France stage winner as well as Junior World Time Trial Champion added the Elite to the U23 title in 2008 before under-rated Belgian Niels Albert took the first of two titles in ’09.
Cyclo-cross World championships in Tabor 2010 – Zdenek Stybar
Ever-smiling and popular, ‘honorary Belgian’, Zdenek Stybar of the Czech Republic won in 2010 and 2011 and would do so again in 2014 with Albert winning again in ’12 and Nys in ’13. ‘Stybie’ has put ‘cross behind him now and is a main stay of Patrick Lefevere’s ‘Boys in Blue’.
2015 and Mathieu takes his first rainbow jersey
And in 2015 the modern era began with MVDP taking the first of four – at date of writing – titles from a certain WVA, who would win for the next three years before Mathieu made it five Van der Poel family titles over the next three seasons. The Worlds are in Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA for 2022; WVA is dominant thus far, can he level the score at four titles apiece or will MVDP go 5:3 up?
We can’t wait to find out.
Will Van der Poel and/or Van Aert go to the Worlds in Fayettville?