The Complicated Case of Laurens Sweeck’s ELITEness

What started with a simple question on an episode of Cyclocross Radio’s The Media Pit ended up becoming one of the most intriguing recurring gimmicks on the show’s inaugural season.

“Is Laurens Sweeck ELITE?” Micheal Boedigheimer innocently asked on one of the season’s podcasts. (He did not shout it, rather ELITE is used here to distinguish it from the age-based classification we use in cycling)

Is Laurens Sweeck ELITE? Good question. © Micheal Boedigheimer
Is Laurens Sweeck ELITE? Good question. © Micheal Boedigheimer

In the literal sense, Laurens Sweeck is decidedly Elite. Sweeck has been a professional cyclocross racer dating back to his days as a U23 rider, and he is now one of the key pieces of the Pauwels Sauzen – Bingoal team. Sweeck won the 2019/20 Superprestige series and also captured his first Elite Belgian National Championship at Floaty Cross last month.

So that settles it. End of blog post, no need to write more words. Laurens Sweeck is ELITE.

Laurens Sweeck is ELITE, case closed?. © Micheal Boedigheimer
Laurens Sweeck is ELITE, case closed? © Micheal Boedigheimer

However, that would not be as much fun, and also, as regular listeners of The Media Pit can attest, any episode where some kind of resolution was reached was soon followed by indecision during the next.

The Meme is Born, Again

To better understand why the “Is Laurens Sweeck ELITE?” gimmick had legs this year, it helps to understand where it came from. All gimmicks are borrowed and nothing is original in the podcasting world, and this gimmick dates back to the mid-2010s NFL.

In 2013, quarterback Joe Flacco led the Baltimore Ravens to a win in Super Bowl XLVII and then signed a huge contract extension. As they questioned whether Flacco deserved his big contract, they asked, “Is Joe Flacco Elite?” Before long, as the Ravens struggled to even make the playoffs again, Is Joe Flacco Elite? became a pervasive meme.

Even though he could not repeat his success, Joe Flacco was a good NFL quarterback. Asking if he was an “Elite” signal-caller was essentially asking if he was one of the best in the league who could single-handedly carry his team to success when the rest of the team was not very good the way a Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Russell Wilson could at the time.

IMO, asking if a cyclocross rider is ELITE is asking if they are capable of being a top team’s centerpiece rider.

On a recent episode of his podcast Yeah You Ride!, Media Pit co-host Micheal described how he would define ELITE. “Win 🌈, win World Cups, win Nationals, win Euros, win series,” he transcribed, obviously (as talented as Micheal is, he cannot speak in emojis).

Sweeck won at the Trek CX Cup in September. © Micheal Boedigheimer
Sweeck won at the Trek CX Cup in September. © Micheal Boedigheimer

To properly assess Sweeck’s status as “ELITE,” it is probably helpful to establish exactly who in the Elite Men’s cyclocross peloton can currently be classified as ELITE. When asked, Micheal offered up MvdP, Wout, Toon, and Eli before pausing to let that potential fifth spot linger before including our guy Sweeck. (For the record, I do not think Iserbyt has yet proved his ELITEness, but c’est la vie)

Micheal paused before offering up Sweeck’s name, and perhaps for good reason. A deeper dive into the broad-shouldered Belgian’s history shows his is a case most complicated.

A Case Most Complicated

Laurens Sweeck has been racing top-level cyclocross since he was a wee Belgie Junior. Sweeck had his breakout season in 2014/15 during his final year of U23 eligibility when he won 11 races and finished second in 9 more and took silver at the 2015 World Championships behind Michael Vanthourenhout.

During his first four seasons as an Elite, Sweeck was a consistent performer, albeit one without many of the markers Micheal identified as a qualification for ELITE status. During that time, Sweeck won 10 races, turned in an OPP of 0.34, and scored a 0.56 WAPP. He finished as high as 2nd at Belgian Nationals in 2016 and 5th at Worlds last year in Bogense.

Despite his success during the “regular season,” Sweeck still lacked a World Cup win and Belgian jersey, and other peers such as Aerts and Vanthourenout had turned in podium rides at Worlds.

The 2019/20 season marked Sweeck’s 5th as a Elite-categorized rider. Elite-categorized, not ELITE. The verdict on the latter designation will have to wait.

This season was perfect for assessing Sweeck’s ELITEness on my significantly vaguer metric of being a team’s flagship rider. During the offseason, the Marlux-Bingoal team merged with Sweeck’s Sauces, meaning the young gun Iserbyt would turn from rival to teammate, at least in the “wearing the same kit” sense.

We will probably never be privy to the inter-team dynamics, but the Jingle Cross World Cup made it clear there would be a struggle for the Supreme Sauce designation. In that race, Iserbyt made his displeasure at Sweeck bridging to his two-man breakway known in emphatic fashion and in turn, birthed the IserBEEF.

The IserBEEF would again rear its head at Diegem, when Sweeck again bridged up to Iserbyt, this time at a race where the young Belgian star thought he had a chance at catching up with Mathieu van der Poel and knocking off the ELITEest rider out there.

It is, of course, worth noting that in both of these cases, it was Sweeck chasing his younger teammate…

Sweeck ended up finishing fifth at the Jingle Cross World Cup—good, not great—and then after going solo against a largely B Team field at the Trek CX Cup, followed up his Jingle result with a disappointing 16th at World Cup Waterloo.

Yes, he went home with a hockey jersey courtest of the Slow Ride Boys, but as any Upper Midwesterner knows, associating with the Gophers definitely does not merit ELITE status. (Sorry not sorry, Bucky >> Goldy)

16th at World Cup Waterloo earned Sweeck a Gophers hockey jersey, but not ELITE status. . © Micheal Boedigheimer
16th at World Cup Waterloo earned Sweeck a Gophers hockey jersey, but not ELITE status. © Micheal Boedigheimer

Sweeck won the first race of the year at Cross Eeklo and then won GP Pelt after returning to Belgium, giving him three wins in his first five races of the season. With Van der Poel recovering from his Road Worlds bonkering and Van Aert still seemingly out for the season, Sweeck’s road to ELITE status was there for the taking.

Another aspect of the Is Laurens Sweeck ELITE? saga is that at least in Sweeck’s mind, he is ELITE. I remember reporting on his excuses for a poor result at Valkenburg Worlds, and after he (spoiler alert, at least vis-a-vis this narrative) won Floaty Cross Belgian Nats, he said he expects to win Worlds during his career.

Come early October, Sweeck controlled his ELITE-status destiny. And you know what? It did not go so well.

The first two months of the season belonged to Iserbyt, as the young Belgie won nearly ALL THE THINGS before Van der Poel’s return. Sweeck did good not great, taking a tough eighth at World Cup Bern and DNFing at Koppenbergcross in the last race before the Van der Return. He did finish second to Van der Poel at the Dutchman’s Ruddervoorde return, but his third at Euros played second fiddle to Iserbyt’s Silvelle silver.

Sweeck’s results following the European Championships follow a pattern that seems intentionally constructed to get the Media Pit hype machine going in overdrive.

He followed his third at Euros with a ninth at World Cup Tabor. NOT ELITE!

The next week the noted sand devil finished second at World Cup Koksijde. ELITE!(?)

Then, a few weeks later, another second in the sand at Zonhoven. ELITE! Which of course was followed by a ninth at World Cup Namur. NOT ELITE! But wait, a second at World Cup Zolder. ELITE! Only to be followed by a bad 11th at the Van Aert return race at Azencross. NOT ELITE!

Despite rekindling the IserBEEF at Diegem, Sweeck could not put his younger teammate in his place and make his case for Belgium’s Next Top Sauce. NOT ELITE! Throw in a seventh at GP Sven Nys on New Year’s Day, and the needle was definitely tilting NOT ELITE! come Belgie Floaty Cross Nats.

Despite entering Floaty Cross on a cold streak, the sandy course suggested the potential for a BAH GAWD THAT’S LAURENS SWEECK’S MUSIC moment, and the broad-shouldered Belgie delivered. Sweeck attacked early in the race and reduced Iserbyt to the role of dutiful teammate while capturing his first Elite National Championship. Dare we say, ELITE!?

Perhaps more importantly, Sweeck had a real jersey—and one of the toughest in the sport to obtain, at that—to fulfill my colleague Micheal’s definition of ELITE.

Dare we say, ELITE? © Bill Schieken

From a results standpoint, Sweeck raced well in his first World Cup wearing the Belgie tricolour, finishing third at World Cup Nommay. However, as we noted on the Media Pit, Sweeck was sitting second wheel when Van der Poel unleashed his latest massive attack, and the new Belgian champ had nothing to offer in return. (Probably) NOT ELITE!

Sweeck had another middling result at World Cup Hoogerheide, barely finishing in the top 10. However, as our Nate-Silver-but-for-Cyclocross analysis showed, racing poorly at Hoogerheide is kind of a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ situation.

Entering the World Championships, Sweeck’s CrossMetrics told the story of an ELITE! NOT ELITE! ELITE! NOT ELITE! season. He sported a 4th-best 0.44 OPP but 9th-best 0.54 WAPP. Even with a not-ELITE median finish of 6th, his Bad Legs Day Percentage of 0.22 was bested (worsted?) by only Marcel Meisen among the top riders. Throw in an Average Placing Difference of a very-high 4.0, and it was very much a season that was all over the place.

In a story that will surprise exactly nobody at this point, Dübendorf Worlds also fit into the narrative darn near perfectly.

No one was going to beat Van der Poel on a day when the champ of champs was on a mission to go wire-to-wire. However, the struggle for First Belgian was very real, and a second-place finish was very obtainable. Even better for Sweeck, his frenemy Iserbyt blew up after Tom Pidcock’s early attack. Set, the stage was.

And Sweeck could not get it done, finishing fifth behind two men in Aerts and Van Aert who have already achieved ELITE status and a third in Tom Pidcock who seems to have ELITEness in his future. Fifth on that muddy Swiss day was good, not great, but good, not great does not cut it for a rider who has ELITE aspirations.

Despite Worlds being in the rearview, the Sweeck saga was not complete after leaving Switzerland for Belgium. Despite not winning a major-series race heading into the Superprestige finale, Sweeck held a slim one-point lead over his Saucy nemesis Iserbyt. Nevermind Iserbyt had skipped one of the races, Sweeck had one last chance to assert his claim for ELITE status.

And you know what, because our story, he went out and won at Superprestige Middelkerke to secure his first major-series win of the season and take the Superprestige overall. The win also gave him a chance to show off his dapperness at the series awards ceremony.

All told, this was probably Sweeck’s best season as an Elite racer. He won a career-best 5 races and finished second another 7 times. He won Belgian Nats and the Superprestige overall. Despite his success, he has still never won an Elite World Cup nor podiumed at Elite Worlds.

So is Laurens Sweeck ELITE? If we are being honest, the debate will continue in 2020/21, as the Belgian seems poised to provide plenty of chatter fodder for The Media Pit podcast crew. And if we are lucky, maybe the president will even weigh in with their opinion on the key issue.


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