The problem with women’s cyclocross in Belgium

Its a yearly topic in Belgian cyclocross broadcasts, the question why there isn’t any female Belgian talent coming through. This year was no exception, with the question being raised in almost every race over the Christmas period. The most heard answer is that ‘the Dutch simply just have a very good generation’. However, there are several reasons to why the Dutch have such a good generation, and the Belgians don’t.

The current situation in Belgium

For years Belgium could tear of the success of Sanne Cant in women’s category. She won three world titles, more than one hundred UCI cyclocross races and dominated the Belgian championships year after year, this weekend she can win her thirteenth consecutive title. Now the talent and hard work of Sanne Cant are undisputed, but even when she was still in her prime, the Belgians were worried about what was going to come after her.

On some parcourses Cant did have backup from older Belgian riders like; Jolien Verschuren, Kim van de Steene, Ellen van Loy and Loes Sels. Verschuren and Van de Steene both won the Koppenbergcross, but unfortunately Verschuren passed away after getting cancer, and Van de Steene suffered from a depression.

Image: Yefri Fotos, Kim van de Steene winning on the Koppenberg

Its also around this time that Laura Verdonschot is seen as the new rising star withing Belgian cyclocross. After the 2017 Belgian championships in Oostende, where she ended second just seconds behind Cant, she was seen as one of the favorites of the U23 world title in Bieles. There she had to settle for fourth, behind Worst, Richards and Noble.

In the following years Verdonschot didn’t live up to the expectations that were created for her by the Belgian media. Her mental problems over this summer certainly didn’t help, but already before that it was difficult for her live up to the expectations, mainly due to the arrival of a new generation.

Despite Verdonschot getting a bunch of good together with the names listed earlier, Belgium was mainly dependant upon Cant for victories at the highest level. Once her performances started to decline, it became clear that there was no (immediate) succession. Cant had been surpassed by a very strong, and talented young Dutch generation.

The Dutch dominate the women’s category in a similar way the Belgians dominate the men’s category. It raises the question why the Belgians can’t do the same in the women’s category. To come to an answer on this question, we need to look at why the Belgians dominate the men’s category.

Image: Yefrifotos, An all Dutch podium at the 2021 world championships in Oostend

The numbers

In Belgium cyclocross is one of the biggest sports there is. For years there have been Belgians competing at the highest level. All the attention the sport and role models get, inspires a lot of children to start cycling. You would expect this motivating factor to also be there for young girls, and in fact it is.

A study conducted by Sport Vlaanderen in 2019 shows that cycling is ranked as sixth amongst children under 18 and is ranked first in the age categories 18-55 and 55+.

This popularity however doesn’t show in the number of girls between 12 and 18 that have a license to ride races. There are more than 17.000 girls in Belgium who are under 18 and do cycling as their main sport, but only 150 of them have a license.

Now, this study talks about cycling in general, so it includes road and track. However, saying that girls don’t want to do cyclocross because they would get muddy is an outdated answer, and its not like there are that many of them racing on the road either.

Image: Cyclocross Social, Boys and Girls racing in Sint-Michielsgestel

The Belgian system demotivates women that want to race

A bigger factor is that the Belgian cycling system is extremely unmotivating for women to step into. In Belgium girls race against boys who are the same age until they become a junior (U19). Due to biological differences between men and women the young girls in Belgium struggle to be competitive in racing. Even the best girls struggle to get good results. Riders who aren’t as talented, or simply flourish later, are left to try and keep up with the peloton on the road, and fight for places in the background of cyclocross races.

In The Netherlands, which is the most dominant country in women’s cycling, the situation is very different. To compensate for the biological differences, girls younger than 15 race against boys who are a year younger than them. This leads to girls being competitive. The best girls can compete for the win, whilst the others can still fight for places in the top 10. This is obviously a lot more motivating then being at the back every week. To further motivate girls to stay in the sport, the Dutch cycling union recently made it mandatory to have a sperate award ceremony for girls in youth races (<15).

Image: Cyclocross Social, A young girl racing in Sint-Michielsgestel

After the youth categories, more is done to keep young women in the sport as well. From the newcomer’s category onwards, girls don’t have to race against boys anymore. They either race in a separate U17 women’s race, and if not, they have a combined race with women junior, but have a separate award ceremony.

In Belgium, newcomer girls (U17) still race against the boys. There are hardly any separate races for them. This year is even the first time there is a separate cyclocross championship for them. For junior women this will be their sixth Belgian championship cyclocross, as last years edition was cancelled. Despite this being a step in the right direction, the fact that these races weren’t there didn’t motivate Belgian girls to pick up cyclocross over the past decades. In fact, it still isn’t motivating to be a Belgian junior doing cyclocross.

Image: Yefrifotos, The men have had their own U19 and U23 championship for a long time on Belgium

A lack of races

There is a big lack of cyclocross races for junior women in Belgium. In total there were only six separate races for junior women that were free to enter, for men this number is 28. The reason for this isn’t that the time isn’t there to organize a race for junior women. Most race organizers in Belgium simply choose to host one, or even two, newcomer races. The two lowest points this season were Zolder, which organized two races for junior men, and Koksijde which organized races for men U17, U19, U23 and elite, but shoved all the women together in the elite race.

This means that the Belgian male newcomers and juniors can race on the same courses as the pros almost every week. They get a taste of the mythical Koppenberg, the famous ‘kuil’ in Zonhoven and many other challenging features. These opportunities are part of the reason why the Belgians are so good on the men’s side of the sport, they simply have more experience that the foreign riders. In the women’s category this is not the case due to the lack of races. There is also a role for the UCI in this, as the UCI mandates races for junior men, but not for junior women races.

Image: Yefrifotos, Junior men racing in the Koppenberg, there has never been a junior womens race there

First steps in the right direction have been made

Now, without a doubt there are more factors as to why Belgium struggles to get women racing, but this is the most obvious one. Cycling Vlaanderen is doing more to get young girls racing by motivating them with their campaign ‘zij aan zij’. This is obviously something good, but if they keep coming into the current system, its only a matter of time before they lose that motivation again.

If Belgium seriously wants to develop female talent, they should relook their entire system. Implementing the Dutch youth category system might be a big change, but it will eventually pay off. But this alone isn’t enough if there are no races to ride for them. That’s why the Belgian cycling unions must make sure there are more races to do for their young girls. Adding a separate championship for newcomer girls is a step in the good direction, but simply adding races at the top doesn’t work without a good foundation. Crucial to this good foundation is investment in ‘normal’ UCI races for junior women, and separate races for newcomer women.

To conclude, the first steps in the right direction have been made in Belgium, but there is more work to be done to ensure there is a foundation that will lead to more female talent coming from Belgium.