Niels Bastiaens
Wednesday January 10, 2024 at 8:00 AM

Special Belgian Cycling will apply new rules for participants in the Belgian Cyclo-cross Championships from 2024. The general rule in recent years has been: when a rider signs a professional contract, he must start with the elites. This is now being addressed, which means we will see a better U23 championship. But what do the riders think about that? We asked BK favorites Emiel Verstrynge, Jente Michels and Arne Baers.

The previous regulations sometimes raised eyebrows. Boys like Thibau Nys, Emiel Verstrynge and Joran Wyseure were allowed to compete in the U23 category at the European Championships and World Cup last year – because there is simply an age limit at those championships – but in their national championship they suddenly had to cross swords with top players as Michael Vanthourenhout, Laurens Sweeck and Eli Iserbyt.

Different view
“We have always had a different view within the federation than UCI and UEC, where the regulations are that riders belonging to the U23 age category can always start with the promises. Regardless of their team or contract,” Xavier Vandermeulen, the sports secretary of Belgian Cycling, explains to us. “But we now also have to admit that the cycling landscape has changed, with riders signing a professional contract earlier and earlier. Our regulations became less relevant.”

And so Belgian Cycling will apply new rules from this year. “If a rider under the age of 23 signs a professional contract with a continental team or a cross team, he is welcome at the Belgian Championship for promises. But if someone becomes a professional with a World or ProTeam, he belongs at the Belgian championship among the pros. That is the rule that we also apply on the road, and from now on we will extend it to all disciplines.”

Verstrynge en Michels – Photo: Cor Vos

Mixed feelings
That brings strange scenes. Emiel Verstrynge – officially already a professional cyclist at Crelan-Corendon – is moderately enthusiastic. “I thought it was a bit bizarre that that rule suddenly changed halfway through the year. Last year in January I was forced to start cross-country with the pros. But in June I was told that we could ride on the road with the promises. Somehow, boys may now be less likely to hesitate about turning pro, but on the other hand, it is also good to be able to participate in your own age category for another year.”

Although the 21-year-old West Flemish native saw a possible title slip through his nose, because he had to participate in the pros last year. “That is a missed opportunity, but I was able to put it into perspective because I had already become Belgian U23 champion in Middelkerke. I actually thought: now it’s time to make the step to the pros. Unexpectedly, I can now try again, but the BC is not a big goal.”

European champion Jente Michels (20) – who also has a professional contract with Alpecin-Deceuninck Development Team – still lacks a Belgian U23 title and is therefore perhaps the biggest winner in this story. “I therefore welcome the fact that we can start again with our peers. Riders like Emiel and I may be paid as professionals, but in terms of age we still belong to the U23 category. Then I think we should also have the right to start in the Belgian Championship in our own category.”

Extra spanning
21-year-old Arne Baers – who, like fellow favorite Ward Huybs, still has promise – sees two major competitors emerging. “That is a disadvantage for me personally. The fewer competitors, the better. But on the other hand, I think their presence makes the title fight better. If everyone is present, you have a championship with all the promises. Otherwise it is strange that you compete against each other for an entire season, but suddenly have a different line-up at the Belgian Championships. This creates a more exciting battle for the public,” concludes the rider of Charles Liégeois Roastery CX.


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