Toppers, Sub-Toppers, and Middlers: A Cyclocross Classification

Cycling has its rankings–the CX Heat Check Power Rankings, the UCI Rankings, CrossResults points–and they are certainly helpful, but here in the Media Pit, we have been trying to come up with something more meta. Something that you cannot necessarily put your finger on, something that is more of a feeling.

Last year, we started down this road by posing the question, Is Laurens Sweeck Elite? and whoa boy, what a strange trip that was. [Ed. Note: What a strange trip that still is!] Elite is not a number and not a ranking, but rather a feeling. But as great as those musings were, it’s still kind of limited when you only have a binary Elite, non-Elite framework to work with.

Fortunately, sometimes what the Media Pit pines for, the Belgie media delivers. Earlier this season, our benevolent blog overlord Bill discovered that there exists in the Dutch-speaking media the term subtopper to describe athletes who are not quite at the top, or dare we say, not quite elite.

I cannot find the source, but we were also made aware of a story that referred to Sweeck as a subtopper. It is almost as if they listened to the Media Pit, one time.

Armed with this new term, we have embraced the Topper and Subtopper nomenclature system on the Media Pit this season. Subtopper still covers a lot of ground with respect to the cyclocross peloton, so for good measure, we added a third category: Middler, to describe, not surprisingly, riders who did not quite qualify as a Subtopper.

With Euros done and dusted and the first 6 or so weeks of the 2020-21 season in the books, we convened a Media Pit round table (ie: created a Google Doc) to classify the cyclocross peloton at this juncture in time.

Astute readers will no doubt notice the absence of athletes such as Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, Marianne Vos, and others, and that is because … they haven’t raced cyclocross yet! With several of the sport’s stars with Topper potential planning their returns, if we remember to do this again before Kerstperiode, they seem likely to make the list, if not completely blow up the categories in the case of MvdP (more on that soon).

Classification Classification

While the Media Pit has bandied the terms Topper and Subtopper and Middler about like they are household terms, such confidence has been a ruse with so little to no solid basis to stand on. After all, we are just one month into even being aware of the Subtopper phenomenon!

Before jumping into our rankings, it only makes sense to define the three classifications of riders so we have sound ground from which to assign labels. (It’s only fair, after all).

When I started conceptualizing this blog post, I was planning on going it alone, making up definitions and assigning riders their deserved classifications. After some thought, it only made sense to make it a Media Pit team effort; a. Because three cyclocross bloviators are greater than one; and b. Because it helped make me more immune to criticism. In addition to their classifications, Bill and Micheal also submitted their definitions of the three categories to hopefully help clarify the exact definitions of Topper, Subtopper, and Middler.

Starting with the Toppers, words cited include “favorite” and “elite.” The latter is a bit more uncertain–it has that you know it when you see it vibe– but the former has a firmer meaning. If you are going to head to your local Belgie betting establishment, who are you putting money on week in and week out?

As Bill pointed out, MvdP is the ultimate topper, but after winning 49 of his last 50 races, the Dutch wunderkind kind of blows up whatever frame of reference you might try to apply. Not every rider can win like Van der Poel, but you get the picture–the ability to win bike races is a must for a Topper. Van der Poel is absent from this month’s Topper Chart, but when he does return, it will likely have significant downstream implications.

Mathieu van der Poel is the ultimate Topper, obviously. © Ethan Glading

The Subtopper category is where things start to get a bit dicier. If MvdP is the ultimate Topper, then I am going to go there and say Laurens Sweeck is the ultimate Subtopper. For every win (or two in a row!) these riders have, there is an 11th at Koppenberg or weak 6th at Beringen that really makes you wonder why you ever thought they might be Elite.

Subtoppers have the ability to win races, as Sweeck has shown, but things have to fall into place perfectly for them to do so. Subtoppers are riders who have consistent wide-angle podium potential and are frequently in the conversation at least during the first half of races.

Finally, we get to the Middlers, who are riders who missing something in their game to compete at the front of races. The Middlers are riders who have WAP potential, and might even make the podium of a full field during the season, but are frequently finishing in that 7-8-9-10 or so range. The Middler category is one that definitely has the potential for expanding due to its breadth, but during our round table, we only focused on the upper echelon of the Middler category. You will, of course, want to read on because at least one of the Middlers our panel agreed on will be SHOCKING**.

** Not really shocking, shocking given this season’s results, but shocking in a recent history sense.

Before we jump into the rankings, a bit about how the voting worked. As mentioned above, the Media Pit round table of your humble cyclocross blogger, Bill Schieken, and Micheal Boedigheimer convened and submitted our lists of Toppers, Subtoppers, and Middlers. We considered giving Bill three votes since he is the one letting us use his blog, but we settled on a one bloviator, one vote approach. To make the higher of two categories, a rider had to score 2 or 3 votes. As we will see, and maybe this reflects too much time podcasting together, all but one of the classifications were unanimous.

For each of the categories, the riders are not necessarily listed in any particular order, but if we are being honest, they probably are.

Elite Women

Toppers

Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado

The top Topper for the Elite Women’s field right now is a no-brainer. The rider the Pit has dubbed “Prime Time” after her MTB Worlds / SP Gieten double weekend has proved a worthy rainbow champion, winning 4 races and finishing second in 2 more thus far this season. The only blemish for Alvarado was a forgivable off-day on the unforgiving Koppenberg.

Alvarado has shown she can win by going early at Gieten, making a decisive late move at Ruddervoorde, picking her spot at the Euro Champs, and winning a two-up sprint Saturday at GP Leuven. If you are looking for the definition of Topper in the Women’s field right now, Alvarado is it.

Annemarie Worst

By all accounts, Annemarie Worst is at the top of the cyclocross game right now. She won 11 races in 2019-20 and finished second in 10 more. This season she scored a win on the Koppenberg and finished second 3 times behind, spoiler alert, Alvarado.

Worst has achieved success this year while recovering from a horrific mountain bike crash during the summer. It is a testament to how well she has progressed as an athlete that she has been able to be so competitive despite the setback. Even though she had an off week at Niel and Leuven, at least podium-wise, Worst is definitely a Topper in the Women’s field.

Ceylin Alvarado and Annemarie Worst are the top two Toppers. © Bill Schieken

Lucinda Brand

This season was a big one for Lucinda Brand, with the 31-year-old road and cyclocross standout deciding to go all-in on cyclocross after rainbow near-misses at the last two world championships.

The choice, thus far, has been validated. While we still search for the appropriate nickname for the Dutch powerhouse, one can probably call her Naughty by Nature, as Brand has scored a perfect 100% OPP so far this season. She outkicked Prime Time to win at Niel and took the top step earlier this season at Kruibeke to show she has regular top-step potential.

With the classic battles between Worst and Alvarado drawing a lot of attention, Brand has calmly made her claim as a worthy inclusion in the Topper discussion with her two Dutch counterparts.

Sub-Toppers

Denise Betsema

Now racing in her first full season since serving a doping suspension, Betsema has been the top non-Topper Dutchie so far this season. With a skillset that includes exceptional climbing and very good bike handling, Betsema has had days where she has excelled. She climbed away from the world at Slag Heap Cross and rode a strong second on Saturday on a climby, technical Leuven course.

Since finishing 7th at Ruddervoorde, Betsema has gone 4-4-3-2 in her next four races, perhaps suggesting she wants to make a play for a Topper classification.

Yara Kastelijn

One of the big revelations of last season was Yara Kastelijn, and by and large, the 2019 Euro Champ has shown that her success was not really a fluke. Despite that success, Kastelijn admittedly snuck into the Subtopper category here as the only one of our Toppers or Subtoppers to not garner a unanimous selection.

Per our definition above, Kastelijn has a near-perfect Subtopper resume. Her WAPP (Wide-Angle Podium Percentage) is 78% but her OPP is only 22% on the heels of 5 finishes in the Podium Scrub Zone (4th – 6th). With the specter of some top winter riders kicking off their cyclocross seasons soon, Kastelijn definitely has some work to do if she wants to hold onto her Subtopper Status.

Middlers

Sanne Cant

Sanne Cant’s third World Championship in Bogense in 2019 was her toughest yet, but she was still one of the top riders in the game despite the coming Dutch dominance. Less than two years later, Cant has been in a free fall. Down through the Subtopper zone and landing as a Middler.

Cant has had some fast starts, but she has not been a factor at all in this year’s racing. Her OPP is 0%, her WAPP is 0%, and her best finish of the season thus far is a couple sixth places. Everyone is hoping Cant will return to her rainbow-run form, but right now, her stock is much more of a stonk.

Manon Bakker and Aniek van Alphen

The Dutch have taken over Elite Women’s cyclocross, and they have also taken over the U23 and Junior levels as well. Two young riders who have excelled so far this season are Manon Bakker and Aniek van Alphen.

Bakker’s star has been on the rise since she was a Junior, and this season she has a couple of Elite podiums and a fifth-place statement (listen to the Pit for more on statement-gate) at Ruddervoorde to show for her efforts. When on a good day, Bakker has shown she has the potential to ride at the level of a Subtopper, and now as is the challenge for many young riders, she needs to figure out how to do so consistently.

Bakker’s teammate Van Alphen is another young rider on the rise. She turned heads in the first race of the season by taking the win at Lokeren and has had 4 finishes in the 4th to 6th Podium Scrub Zone. While the young rider’s palmares have been marred by poor finishes in this week’s races, her upside earned her mention as a Middler of note.

Eva Lechner

Our final Middler of mention for today is Italy’s Eva Lechner. Despite being an elder stateswoman of both the MTB and cyclocross fields, Lechner has shown she dialed her quarantine training in just right. Lechner finished second at mountain bike Worlds and has been a regular threat to spoil the ongoing Dutch Women’s Wide-Angle Podium prop bet. BikerEva finished third at Slag Heap Cross and took fifth at the Koppenberg, showing she still has WAP and even podium potential if things shake out right.

Elite Men

Toppers

Eli Iserbyt

The top dog in the Elite Men’s field thus far this season has been the Sauces’ Eli Iserbyt. Iserbyt has won 4 races so far this season, including the season opener at Lokeren and probably the biggest win of his Elite career at the Euro Champs last weekend.

Iserbyt has emerged as the most savory sauce and appears to have taken over the lead role for the team after the IserBEEF with teammate Laurens Sweeck last season. After a hot start in 2019, Iserbyt faded hard when MvdP returned to cyclocross, so he now has his work cut out for him in proving he is a true Topper and not just a Topper*.

Eli Iserbyt is the top Topper, for now. © Bill Schieken

Toon Aerts

As Iserbyt’s star faded late in the 2019-20 season, Aerts roared forward and established himself as a Sub-MvdP-Topper (or whatever). After a rough first race, Aerts exploded to three-straight wins at Kruibeke, Gieten, and Slag Heap Cross. In all honesty, if we had compiled these rankings in mid-October, Aerts likely would have been our top Topper.

Since the Heap, Aerts has been noticeably off his game. The Lion has not won in 5 outings, and he even finished two-straight races as Second Lion at Koppenberg and Euros. Despite a bad stretch here, Aerts still has an 89% OPP, which is the same as Iserbyt’s. There was some discussion about Aerts worthiness as a Topper at our round table, but if you are looking for proof he is a Topper, one need to look no further than that 89% OPP despite not riding at the top of his game.

The Elephants Not in the Room

I have alluded to it several times now, but the Men’s Topper chart could look completely different a month from now after Van der Poel, Wout, and Tom “Pidders” Pidcock join the ‘cross peloton.

MvdP is a no-brainer as a Topper, and both Wout and Pidders seem likely to earn at least Topper* status based on their achievements on the road and mountain bike trails this year.

Topper* meaning “Topper if MvdP didn’t exist.”

Sub-Toppers

Laurens Sweeck

I mean, does anything more need to be said about Sweeck at this point? Sweeck is obviously very good at cyclocross, but in recent years, he has proven wildly inconsistent to the point that one can get a neck injury watching him bounce from Elite to not-Elite.

To wit, just this week SWEECK WON TWO RACES. Like, wtf? After a third at Gieten, the dude missed four straight podiums and then he turned around and dominated teammate and IserBEEF nemesis Iserbyt in the sand in Niel and outsprinted Lion rival Aerts to win at Leuven. I honestly don’t even know what to say except that if past is prologue, we will be asking, Is Laurens Sweeck Elite? for the remainder of his cyclocross career.

Michael Vanthourenhout

Vanthourenhout’s entry at this spot is certainly interesting. The same age as Sweeck and Aerts, Vanthourenhout has shown Elite potential, as evidenced by a silver at Valkenburg Worlds. However, as the IserBEEF raged between Iserbyt and Sweeck last season, Vanthourenhout seemed content to play the role of good teammate, often attacking early to help Iserbyt in his battles against Aerts.

This season, Vanthourenhout has found a way to be a good teammate and score some accolades of his own. His second at Euros and third on Saturday at Leuven show his potential, and he has garnered a 67% WAPP so far in Low Country races (he also poached a win at EKZ Bern).

Will the battle for top Sauce heat up again after Sweeck’s two-straight wins? If there is an IserBEEF 2.0, can Vanthourenhout navigate it to remain a Subtopper? These are all intriguing questions at a time Mikey V’s stock appears to be on the rise.

Lars van der Haar

If you have read the blog recently or followed the Media Pit, you are more than well aware that yes, Lars van der Haar is BACK.

Somewhere in one of her many contributions to the most recent episode of the Media Pit, friend of the pod Rebecca Fahringer posed the question, back to what? Well, it appears, based on our voting, back to Subtopper status.

After some down years, LvdH has racked up an 89% WAPP and 44% OPP so far this season, highlighted by a silver at the European Championships. Interestingly, his numbers are better than Mikey V’s 67% and 22% for those same metrics, but one of our panel members suggested LvdH is a Mid-Subtopper. One could argue that you cannot create your own category, but that panel member, we’ll call him Bill S., no wait, that’s too obvious, B. Schieken, is kind of a big dill around here, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Either way, Van der Haar lands in the Subtopper category through the first month and a half of the 2020-21 season.

Middlers

Daaaaaaaan Soete

As with the Elite Women’s field, there is kind of a drop off after the top 5 and thus the reason we needed to create the Middler classification. One rider who has been knocking on the door of the Wide-Angle Podium is a former Sauce and current Container in Daaaaaaaan Soete.

Soete turned some heads with some big early climbs at Slag Heap Cross and scored finishes just off the podium at Ruddervoorde, Euros, and again at Leuven on Saturday. Daaaaaaan is one of those riders who has been knocking at the door of relevance for a few years now, and this season, he has gotten our attention as a Middler of note.

Quinten Hermans

Quinten Hermans is another young rider (he’s still only 25) who has had some results as a young rider and is looking to establish himself as something more than a Middler. Hermans has gotten out to some blazing starts this season and even made it stick at the Koppenberg with a 4th-place finish. As it is with fellow Middler Soete, the question for Hermans is if he can make that leap and ride full races more consistently and level up from his Middler status.

Corne van Kessel

When we launched the Cross Metrics at the end of last season, Van Kessel had a very solid Middler profile with an OPP of 19% and a WAPP of 42%. Van Kessel was always consistent and seemed to be in the mix for that Wide-Angle Podium.

This season, Van Kessel has been much more inconsistent, with no podium finishes and a WAPP of just 25%. Van Kessel probably makes this list based largely on last year’s riding and some uncertainty about what’s going on with the younger stars such as Ryan Kamp, Niels Vandeputte, Thomas Mein, and Toon Vandebosch. Van Kessel seems like a likely candidate to drop out of the Middler of Note category, but who knows, maybe he can return to that Podium Scrub Zone consistency he showed last season.

We’ll Be Back

If they keep racing cyclocross in Belgie, we will be back with the Topper Chart again a month from now before Kerstperiode. With some new riders entering the mix and perhaps REAL CYCLOCROSS CONDITIONS becoming more prevalent, a lot can change between now and then. For now, let us know what you think about the first classification.

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One thought on “Toppers, Sub-Toppers, and Middlers: A Cyclocross Classification

  1. Just got round to reading your Topper/Subtopper/Middler diatribe..really pleased that three responsible and knowledgeable grown men found the time and dedication to do this piece of fine analysis. Firstly – it’s great that the terms sub topper and middle rare so damning and condemnatory- as though you are wasting your time and effort pursuing an athletic career – Secondly…Anna Kay..Laura Verdonschott..surely middlers of note..and if we’re heralding the return of male CX royalty then why no mention of Voss, Eeeeeevie Richards, PFP and YOlanda Neff? All 4 likely to be a podium factor in any race they ride ( On the CX/MTB crossover could you people in the USA encourage Kate Courtney to mix some CX in with her gymnastic feats). Thirdly- I realise DB has to be in the discussion and maybe like me you cross your fingers before every race hoping she will not win but… what isn’t often mentioned – which seems highly relevant in her case given her product of choice that a Belgian Pharmacist accidentally mixed in with her supplement- is that it’s two key properties are the creation of lean muscle mass and strength endurance. These effects are not temporary – they are long lasting and it could be 3-5 years before the benefits gained are ‘lost’. So possibly create a sub sub topper category – in brackets ( former doper).
    Thanks for all the entertainment and treating CX like a really important sport – because it is..looking forward to the next rankings whatever form they take.
    Take care.
    John

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