Although it is not as old as many of the famous European cyclocross races, Namur has established itself as a can't-miss for riders and fans alike. Cyclocross first came to the hills surrounding the Citadel of Namur in 2009 and the race was elevated to World Cup status in 2011.
In that short time, the venue has become known for its steep climbs, incredible descents and the rutted off-camber section that allows riders to show off their bike ballet skills. Grace, power, and guts are all a must for riders who want to succeed at Namur.
Sunday's Elite World Cup races at Namur produced two great storylines. In the Women's race, two women who have had solid results all season in Nikki Brammeier (Boels-Dolmans) and Eva Lechner (Clif Pro Team) joined stalwart Katie Compton (KFC Racing p/b Trek/Knight Composites) off the front early in the race.
Behind them, another Trek rider Evie Richards (Trek Factory Racing) quickly worked her way through the field after a bad grid spot. Only 20-years old, Richards typically starts her cyclocross season late, but this year her start was delayed further by a knee injury. She showed no signs of being hurt on Sunday.
Richards eventually caught the leaders and kept moving right past them. A successful mountain biker in the summer, Richards felt right at home on the Namur course that seems to favor riders who can shred. She rode solo during the last lap to take home a memorable win and her first career Elite World Cup victory.
It was a great day for British Cycling, with Nikki Brammeier joining Richards on the podium and Tom Pidcock (Telenet Fidea Lions) taking the win in the U23 Men's race.
For the Men, there is no question that the season has belonged to Mathieu van der Poel (Beobank-Corendon). Last season, although Van der Poel usually won, Wout van Aert (Crelan-Charles) was often able to challenge the Dutch phenom late into races. This year, Van der Poel has reached another level and has been utterly dominant. Van Aert's few wins against his "Beautiful Duel' rival have come in the wake of Van der Poel crashes or mechanicals.
Most of the top European riders peaced out for warmer climates after the Zeven World Cup and Flandriencross weekend. Van Aert was joined in Calpe, Spain by Stephen Hyde (Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld.com) for some training, and he then extended his time off by another week to spend time with his fiance Sarah DeBie.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and in the case of Van Aert, it appears the time away from racing helped remind him of what he can be. Although he did not win on Saturday, Van Aert gave Van der Poel a tough battle at Scheldecross. Maybe the time away from racing and Hyde's gingsperation had paid off.
On Sunday at Namur, Van Aert looked like a rejuvenated rider. He took the lead early in the race and then wasted no time attacking. He had a massive lead after the first lap and stayed on the gas until his victory was not in doubt.
When the Men's field took to the start line, it had been a tough day of racing for the Belgian nation that prides itself on cyclocross success. In the first three races, only Eli Iserbyt had reached the podium and of the first 30 spots in the top 10s, only 5 went to Belgians. It was a tough day for the home team.
As Van Aert wrapped up his dominant win, the Belgian fans showed their appreciation. Amid a deafening roar on one of the run-ups, Van Aert gave a nod to the fans. The roar got louder.
When the two-time defending champion crossed the finish line, it was a relief for a great rider who has had his fair share of struggles in 2017 and an equally big relief for a nation that has seen a Dutch rider dominate the Elite Men's races for the past several years and an increasingly international group of riders have success at the Junior and U23 levels.
The other day, photographer Bart Hazen provided a gallery of images from the Junior and U23 Men's races. Today, we have a look at his photos from the Elite Women's and Men's races.