The Big Picture: 2016 Cyclocross World Championships

[Editor’s note: Matt Stehr traveled to the World Championships last weekend to photograph the event for cxhairs.com. Here’s his report and images.]

I’ve always thought the World Championships was a funny animal.  In reality it’s all the usual players coming together for a race that someone decided should determine who deserves the title of “World Champion.”  Why this location?  Why this race?  Even more interesting is that the riders raced (almost) the same course just over a month ago.  Why wasn’t that the World Championships?  Admittedly the Worlds includes a lot more riders from “lesser nations,” but these riders rarely feature or influence the race.

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© 2016 Matt Stehr

So what makes the Worlds the special event that it is?  I can’t say for sure, but I think it’s just the simple fact that every rider on the start line would probably give up the results of their entire season (or entire career) to be crowned World Champion.  Everyone wants it to be the best race of their life, and each rider has done everything in their control to make sure that they arrive in peak fitness.  Riders who haven’t made the podium all season hope against hope to have the form of their life so that they will be able to wear the coveted rainbow jersey.  It may be the same riders that we see at the front of every other World Cup, but I can tell you that the atmosphere is quite different.  Both the cyclists and the fans know what a special event it is…and this year’s Cyclocross World Championships did not disappoint!

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© 2016 Matt Stehr

Photographing an event like the World Championships is a unique experience.  While the spectators eagerly await the passing of the riders and many turn to the big screen TVs (or increasingly their cell phone), photographers move around the course looking for vantage points and hoping to be in the right place at the right time.  The PA system at Heusden-Zolder allowed me a unique perspective of the racing as I moved around the course.  While I wasn’t able to stop and catch all the action, the excitement of the fans and the thrill of the riders flying by each lap was an experience unlike any other.

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Saturday’s weather kept many of the anticipated crowd away, but the racing did not disappoint.  Jens Dekker rode strongly and by the midpoint of the race already had the rainbow jersey in his grasp.

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Great Britain’s Evie Richards pulled off the surprise of the weekend in winning the inaugural Women’s U23 race.  I’m sure I was not the only one asking who the rider from GB was leading the race!  These U23 women certainly also had the worst weather of the weekend.  What was a steady drizzle turned into steady rain for most of the race, turning the course to mud and lakes of standing water.

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The Elite Women had a slightly drier race and after a back-and-forth battle Thalita de Jong took the title.  Sanne Cant could not hide her disappointment after the race.  After a season of being the most dominant female racer she will have to wait another year to fulfill her dream of wearing the rainbow jersey.

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The crowds turned out in force on Sunday as the weather improved and the U23 Men took to the course.  Another thrilling race decided on the last lap…with every Belgian fan proud and exhilarated to see their countryman take the top step of the podium.

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My hope was that the Elite Men’s race would be just as exciting, and that we wouldn’t see one of the dominant rides where the race is decided early on by one rider going clear for the rest of the race.  The crowds were more raucous than at any point over the weekend as van der Haar, van der Poel, and Van Aert battled for the front.

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Van Aert’s finish line emotion showed just how much this race means to a cyclist, even after an extremely successful season..  After the race his crew could be seen crying and hugging one another overcome by the emotion of seeing their rider become World Champion.

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© 2016 Matt Stehr

One of the highlights of the weekend for me was the fans’ expressions of disbelief and delight as Sven Nys went to the front of the Elite Men’s race.  I think every fan on the course let out a roar as one of the greatest racers ‘cross has seen regained contact with the lead group.  It seemed too improbable that Sven would be at the front of a race that was supposed to be a showdown between the young guns Van Aert and van der Poel, but there he was.  While Nys was unable to bring home a podium position in his last World Championships, his performance will be a highlight for his legion of fans in Belgium and abroad.  Thank you Sven!

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 More Images from Matt:

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