World cyclocross champion Tom Pidcock may not be defending his rainbow jersey this weekend in Hoogerheide, but the Ineos Grenadiers rider believes he “took a step forward” on the muddy fields of Belgium and the Netherlands this winter, firmly cementing himself within the sport’s so-called ‘Big Three’, alongside worlds favourites Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel.
Pidcock, who has now turned his attention to the upcoming classics season on the road, enjoyed an impressive cyclocross season, taking two wins in the rainbow jersey at Kortrijk and Boom while also – perhaps even more importantly – going toe to toe with the dominant Van Aert and Van der Poel during a compelling and often exhilarating Christmas campaign.
However, the 23-year-old Yorkshireman also admitted to Het Nieuwsblad yesterday that, despite his victory at last year’s world championships victory in Fayetteville last year, he had fallen out of love with cyclocross in recent years and entered this winter “not looking forward” to the season ahead.
A muddy Pidcock at the Dublin round of the UCI World Cup (Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)
“My coach Kurt Bogaerts and I had already decided that [I wouldn’t be riding the worlds] before we entered the winter,” he told the Belgian paper. “Also, because this year's world championships only falls on February 5 and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad [the traditional curtain raiser of the spring classics season] follows twenty days later. I was sad initially because I wasn’t riding. We waited a very long time to announce the decision. Just in case I changed my mind.”
“Honestly, in recent years I loved cyclocross less and less. Especially last winter I didn't enjoy it as much as usual. As a result, I was not really looking forward to this cross season mentally.
“But I understood that a number of races would serve me well in preparation for the road season. And see – this winter I really enjoyed it. I took a step forward. I won a few ‘crosses and was able to compete against Mathieu and Wout in almost every cyclocross race.
“Last year they already talked about the ‘Big Three’, but in reality it was different: you had the ‘Big Two’ and Pidcock. Now I am mentioned in the same breath. And in the rainbow jersey. I will take this positive evolution with me to next winter, which I am already looking forward to. I try to take another step and beat them once in a while.”
Pidcock on the way to second at the Diegem SuperPrestige (Cor Vos/SWpix)
When asked if there was a moment during the ‘cross season that he fancied his chances of defending his rainbow jersey, Pidcock replied: “Yes. After the evening cross in Diegem [where he finished second to Van Aert but ahead of Van der Poel]. A nice course. I was really happy, even though I lost to Wout van Aert.
“I knew where I had made the mistake. With a little more experience I could have won Diegem. Loenhout wasn’t bad either. Last year was different. I was sick too much. Maybe due to Covid. My immune system was also a bit less.”
With the British rider establishing himself in cyclocross’ elite stratosphere this winter, many retired pros, such as former world champion Lars Boom, have questioned Pidcock’s decision to give the worlds a miss.
“Of course I understand why they say that, but it's my decision whether or not I race” he said. “I’ve never thought in terms of ‘I have to defend the rainbow jersey’. I started cyclocross with the big dream of becoming world champion with the big boys one day. And I won that title in America.
“Suppose I do start in 2024, then I will try to take a shot at gold. You don’t defend a title. In my mind you are trying to win a title. Fayetteville was not my last worlds. I can say that with great certainty.”
Pidcock at the 2022 Gent-Wevelgem (Zac Williams/SWpix.com)
So, before Pidcock turns his full attention to the road, where he hopes to hit the ground running at the Volta ao Algarve in two weeks before testing his cobbles legs at Omloop, who does he reckon has the legs to inherit his rainbow jersey this weekend?
“Wout,” he says, unequivocally. “The Big Racer. Wout is the best in terms of pure power, but in the end such a title is decided after one hour of ‘cross. It is not just about strength, but also about the tactics if you want to be world champion.”