Last year’s World Championships in Bieles turned into a flat-fest on Sunday after thawing conditions exposed sharp rocks in many parts of the course. The rocks directly affected the outcome of the Elite Men’s race, with Mathieu van der Poel’s hopes of a second title deflated by multiple flat tires. Wout van Aert’s win was in part attributable to his use of green Michelin Mud treads from Niels Albert’s collection mounted on Dugast casings.
In 2018, riders were fully occupied with the thick mud that permeated the Valkenburg-Limburg course, and the biggest tire news was Sanne Cant and Mathieu van der Poel opting for Challenge Limus tubulars and Wout van Aert running narrow 30mm tires. Post-race talk was mostly about how brutally hard the course was, so there was little indication flats played an important role at the pointy end of the races.
Even Van Aert agreed 2018 was not the year of the tire as it was at some previous Worlds. “I don’t know, but I think it wasn’t a story about tires this year,” he said. “It was more a story about strong legs.”
One Sunday racer, however, had his podium bid deflated by multiple flat tires. Laurens Sweeck was arguably the second-best rider in the world in September and at times showed flashes of brilliance throughout the season. At worst, he was considered a contender to finish in the top six or seven in the Elite Men’s race Sunday.
Belgian news reported Sweeck suffered multiple flats that dashed his podium hopes and dropped him to an eighth-place finish. According to this article in Nieuwsblad, Sweeck flatted five times during Sunday’s Elite Men’s race. “All the bad luck of a whole season happened to me at this World Cup,” he said (translated). “It was even worse than at the previous world championship.”
Sweeck typically runs Dugast tubulars, and during the race broadcast, the announcers suggested he may have been running tubeless tubular models. Sweeck’s first flat occurred at the end of the second lap when he was racing with eventual fourth-place finisher Toon Aerts. As we saw during the U23 Women’s race when winner Evie Richards’ derailleur got stuck in the biggest cog, forcing her to spin furiously to get to the pit, there was a decent distance from the start/finish to pit one.
When Sweeck did get to the pit, he said his pit crew only had a bike set up with intermediate tires, adding to his struggles in the mud. “In the exchange zone at that time, they could only provide me with a bicycle with grifo [intermediate] tires, and I had to go through the mud for one round. This was really all the bad luck of a whole year all at once.”
Sweeck fell back to ninth after his first flat and then suffered several more before finishing eighth. He said the flats came in both open areas and thanks to mistakes on the descents. “There were some stones in the meadow here and there, and I was stupid twice in the descent.”
Sweeck finished seventh at Worlds in 2016 and sixth in 2017, so a top five would have been an Elite career best. Unfortunately, as any cyclocrosser knows, bad luck has a way of coming at the worst times. Fortunately for Sweeck, he gets another chance to race on Wednesday at the Brico Cross Maldegem.
For more from Valkenburg-Limburg, see our dedicated 2018 Cyclocross World Championships page.
Brandon Grant contributed to this report.