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Cyclocross World Championships: Riders who Made History

André Dufraisse, Eric De Vlaeminck, Albert Zweifel, Roland Liboton, Hanka Kupfernagel, Marianne Vos and many other ones… rediscover some of the champions who have contributed to the history of the UCI Cyclocross World Championships.

Success came late for André Dufraisse. The Frenchman, born in Razès in 1926, won the first of his five world titles at Crenna di Gallarate (Italy) aged 28 – before he was even French Champion (a title he would win for the first time in 1955).

After the inaugural UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in 1950, French riders completely dominated the discipline. Jean Robic pulled on the first rainbow jersey, Roger Rondeaux won the next three world titles and then André Dufraisse (who had finished on the podium in 1951, 1952 and 1953) achieved the magnificent feat of winning five times in a row. After his first World Championship success in 1954, Dufraisse won again in 1955 (Saarbrucken, Germany), 1956 (Baumbusch, Luxembourg), 1957 (Edelaere, Belgium) and 1958 (Limoges, France) earning himself the nickname of the “Coppi of the Fields”.

The Frenchman was hampered by sciatica when winning his final title on home soil and was made to suffer, in particular by a 20-year-old German, Rolf Wolfshohl.

By a quirk of fate, the rider from Limousin pulled on his final rainbow jersey in Limoges, the city of his first-ever cyclo-cross race in the winter of 1949-1950.

After his golden years, Dufraisse managed a further three podium places (third in 1961, 1962 and 1963), but ultimately had to yield to the next generation of German and Italian stars.

Erik De Vlaeminck was a record breaker. He was also a groundbreaker. De Vlaeminck, born in 1945 in Eeklo, was the first Belgian to win the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championship, held in Beasain (Spain) in 1966, a month before his 21st birthday. He remains the record holder for the greatest number of world titles: seven, including six consecutive victories between 1968 and 1973.

De Vlaeminck developed a passion for cycling at the age of 15, following in the footsteps of his father. His first world title came in the dry spring climate of the Basque Country in February 1966. While the expected duel between Italian Renato Longo (World Champion in 1959, 1964, 1965 and 1967) and German Rolf Wolfshohl (World Champion in 1960, 1961 and 1963) played out, De Vlaeminck jumped away on the last lap. His talent caught the eye of Firmin Van Kerrebroeck, runner-up in the 1957 Cyclo-cross World Championships, who became the young De Vlaeminck’s coach.

Losing the 1967 race due to a mechanical problem, the baby-faced De Vlaeminck launched his domination of the discipline in Luxembourg in 1968. Nothing could stop Erik. Not the frozen circuit of Magstadt (Germany) in 1969, nor the sprint of Albert Van Damme, whom he defeated by a single centimetre at Zolder (Belgium) in 1970, nor the rise of fellow Belgians in Apeldoorn (Netherlands) in 1971, nor even his supposed lack of form, when he won in London (Great Britain) in 1973 after a poor winter season.

These incredible achievements made Erik De Vlaeminck an ambassador of the discipline. An innovator in terms of equipment, meticulously seeking weight savings, he also transferred his talent to the road, winning the Tour of Belgium (1969) and a stage of the Tour de France (1968). At the end of his racing career, he turned to coaching.

The Grand Prix Erik De Vlaeminck has been held in Flanders in his honour since 2000.
Erik De Vlaeminck died on 4 December 2015.

Born two years after his brother Erik in Eeklo in 1947, Roger De Vlaeminck was briefly a footballer before embracing the family sport of cycling. Although it was mainly on the road that Roger displayed his immense talent, becoming one of the greatest classic riders of all time with four wins in Paris-Roubaix and three in Milan-San Remo, he returned to his first love, cyclo-cross, in the mid-1970s.

Amateur World Champion in 1968, he came second in the elite event at Vera de Bidasoa (Spain) in 1974. The following winter, he embarked on an unbeaten campaign, winning the Belgian Championship and, two weeks later, seizing the rainbow jersey in Melchnau (Switzerland) on a course turned into a quagmire by heavy rain. His brother Erik also started the race but finished fourth.

Roger De Vlaeminck had discovered cyclo-cross aged 17, borrowing a bike from his older brother to prepare for the road season. Throughout his career, the Belgian maintained that the best training for a good summer road season was to work hard on the paths and tracks in the winter.

Albert Zweifel, from Rüti in Switzerland, entered the cyclo-cross history books in January 1976 by becoming the first Swiss World Champion in the discipline, aged 27, at Chazay-d’Azergues (France). Before this success, his main claim to fame was 5th in the Amateur World Championships in 1973.

Despite the return of Erik De Vlaeminck to the World Championships in Hannover (Germany) in 1977, Zweifel confirmed that his victory in the cross-country discipline had not been a stroke of luck: on a dry circuit, in front of a wild crowd, he won convincingly, crossing the line alone. Better still, by his emphatic wins in Amorebieta (Spain) in the Basque Country in 1978 and in the mud of Saccolongo (Italy) in 1979, Zweifel completed an amazing quadruple, confirming the new Swiss domination of cyclo-cross (Zweifel, Frischknecht, Blaser).

At the age of 37, Albert Zweifel competed in the muddy conditions that he so loved in the 1986 World Championships in Lembeek (Belgium) – and won his fifth title. He finished ahead of a promising young Swiss rider: Pascal Richard, who would later become the first professional Olympic Road Race Champion in Atlanta in 1996.

After the Belgian domination of the 1970s and then the Swiss hegemony embodied by Zweifel, cyclo-cross discovered a new champion, the Belgian Roland Liboton, who won the title for the first time in Wetzikon, Switzerland, in 1980. First the Military World Champion, then Amateur World Champion, Liboton, born in Leuven in 1957, braved the snow to snatch the rainbow jersey in his first participation in the professional Cyclo-cross World Championships.

He won again in Lanarvily (France) in 1982, seizing victory in a sprint for the line against Albert Zweifel as over 30,000 spectators looked on. The Belgian again beat Zweifel the following year on a fast, technical circuit in Birmingham (Great Britain). In Oss (the Netherlands) in 1984, Roland Liboton joined an elite group of quadruple World Champions on a frozen course despite a highly partisan crowd supporting their Dutch heroes.

Liboton was at his peak and a career to match Erik De Vlaeminck’s seemed certain. But, against all expectations, the Belgian did not win any more World Championship medals.

Belgium’s Danny De Bie, born in Beerzel in 1960, was a revelation at the 1987 World Championships when, in his first ride in the event, he took silver behind the untouchable German Klaus-Peter Thaler. This performance crowned a highly successful winter, during which De Bie won five times.

De Bie went on to win the World Championships at Pontchâteau (France) in 1989 on a fast circuit that favoured road riders. De Bie, introduced to cycling by his uncle Gust Badts and brother Rudy, bunny hopped the boards while others had to dismount. A high quality field included Richard, Liboton and Van der Poel. However, the Belgian’s technique made the difference and allowed him to beat Van der Poel to claim the rainbow jersey.

Danny De Bie was the precursor of a new era, that of modern cyclo-cross, where technical skills trump the ability to run with a bike on your shoulder.

Amateur World Champion in 1985 and 1987, Germany’s Mike Kluge, born in Berlin in 1965, defied all expectations in Leeds (Great Britain) in 1992, winning the elite race ahead of Karel Camrda and Adri Van der Poel. The bookies’ favourites had been De Bie and the Czech reigning champion Radomir Simunek. But Kluge took control of the race on the very first lap and, despite sliding off, dropped his opponents one by one to dominate the race.

Kluge’s victory came as a complete surprise as the German rider had prioritised mountain bike racing before winning the Cyclo-cross World Championships.

Mario De Clercq is the son of the Belgian professional road rider René De Clercq. Born in Oudenaarde in 1966, Mario followed in his father’s footsteps by riding the road in the early 1990s. But it was in cyclo-cross, the discipline to which he devoted the second half of his career, that he displayed his world-beating talents.

He won his first world title in Middelfart (Denmark) in 1998 ahead of his compatriot Erwin Vervecken – who he would also get the better of a year later in Poprad (Slovakia). Finishing second in 2000, 2003 and 2004, third in 2001, he won a third and final rainbow jersey in Zolder (Belgium) in 2002. Mario De Clercq was such an important figure in Belgian cyclo-cross that an event, the Grand Prix Mario De Clercq, was established in his honour in 2000. The race featured as a round of the UCI World Cup in 2001-2002 and 2004-2005.

Born in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 1971, Dutch rider Richard Groenendaal came from a cycling family. His father Rein was a professional rider in the 1980s and Dutch Champion in 1985.
Richard Groenendaal made a name for himself in the 1994 Cyclo-cross World Championships when he snatched second place in Koksijde (Belgium) and won another silver medal the following year at Eschenbach (Switzerland). Groenendaal won the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup in 1998 but had to wait until 2000 before he could finally pull on the rainbow jersey, finishing ahead of two Belgians (De Clercq and Nys) on home ground in Sint-Michielsgestel (the Netherlands). A last lap attack allowed him to solo to victory.

Groenendaal again won the World Cup in 2001 and 2004 but never returned to the podium in the World Championships. He was the last non-Belgian to win the title for a seven-year stretch until 2008.

Germany’s Hanka Kupfernagel, born in Gera in 1974, was the first Women’s Cyclo-cross World Champion. She took nearly a minute out of Great Britain’s Louise Robinson at the inaugural women’s event at the 2000 World Championships in Sint-Michielsgestel (the Netherlands) to write her name in the history books.

Excellent on the road (ranked UCI number one in 1997 and 1999, silver medallist at the Olympic Games in Sydney), Kupfernagel was also terrific off-road, ending her career with four world titles and climbing on to the World Championship podium eight times in a row.

In Tábor (Czech Republic) in 2001, she beat a Dutch duo, Corine Dorland and Daphny Van den Brand for her second rainbow jersey.

An extremely versatile rider (World Champion in the Junior Pursuit and Mountain Bike National Champion in 2007), Kupfernagel was beaten by just two seconds in 2003 and had to concede to France’s Laurence Leboucher in 2002 and 2004. But she bounced back in Sankt-Wendel (Germany) in 2005, winning her third world title.

A fourth rainbow jersey was hers in Treviso (Italy) in 2008, winning just a few seconds ahead of a certain Marianne Vos.

Marianne Vos is one of the most prolific champions in the history of women’s cycling. Her precocious talents date back to her initiation into cycling at the age of six when she was desperate to emulate her brother. Vos is sometimes described as the female “Cannibal” after Eddy Merckx.

Born in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in 1987, the Dutch rider has been equally dominant in road, track and cyclo-cross events. In 2006, aged just 19, she won two rainbow jerseys in the same year.

In cyclo-cross, her success continued to grow after her first world title at Zeddam (the Netherlands) in 2006. In that first triumph, she overcame the previous queen of the cross-country event, Hanka Kupfernagel. Then, from 2009, she completely dominated the discipline with six consecutive victories in the World Championships: 2009 (Hoogerheide), 2010 (Tábor), 2011 (Sankt-Wendel), 2012 (Koksijde), 2013 (in the snow at Louisville) and 2014 (Hoogerheide). Hampered by injury in Tábor in 2015 she had to settle for bronze, with victory going to the French rider Pauline Ferrand-Prévot. Her seven titles equal the record for men held by Erik De Vlaeminck.

Seven titles… for the time being. After a terrible 2015 beset by injuries, the Dutch champion plans to return in 2016, with the Rio Olympic Games a major objective. And more than likely further successes on muddy cyclo-cross courses…

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