The weather in Hoogerheide, Holland, has improved over the last few days … and that may have as much to do with the outcome of this weekend’s world cyclocross championships than the relative fitness of individual riders.
“We’re by the ocean,” said British Cycling Federation manager Simon Burney. “Every time I come here the course is different and it’s largely due to the weather.
Skies have cleared, the snow is gone and temperatures hovering around the freezing point have turned what a week ago was a nearly unrideable mud bog into another fast worlds course.
“It may be as minor as the time of day,” U.S. manager Marc Gullickson said. “Tomorrow’s juniors race may offer up a much harder and faster course than what the U23s ride in the afternoon.”
Beginning Saturday at 11:30, the worlds kick off with the junior men’s race, followed by the U23s at 2:30. The men’s and women’s races follow that same schedule the next day.
As teams arrived on the course to test their legs on Friday afternoon, committed fans picked out prime spots the route hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite riders. Here in southern Holland, just 15km north of the Belgian border, the biases are clear.
Locals treat reigning world champion Lars Boom like a rock star, with Dutch hopes. The Belgian contingent has a broader selection to choose from, with fan clubs representing Sven Nys, Bart Wellens, Erwin Vervecken and young phenom’ Niels Albert, all arriving by the busload from Holland’s next-door neighbor.
Boom is an odds-on favorite to take the rainbow jersey on Sunday, but Nys has been performing solidly all season, capping of his World Cup series title with a win in the finale last week in Milan.
While Boom and Nys may be favored, there is a deep field of talent from both of their respective countries and plenty of room for a surprise winner from another.
Topping the list of potential “sleepers” is Czech rider Zdenek Stybar who lives in the Flemish region of Belgium and has been training in Hoogerheide throughout the season.
“He knows this course,” Gullickson said. “He’s been coming up whenever he has the chance and, this morning, we saw him motor-pacing portions of the course just to crank up his speed. If the course stays as fast as it is today, he could do it.”
Gullickson said he remains confident in the U.S. team “and we may see some strong performances here.”
How the last-minute inclusion of former U.S. champion Jonathan Page will affect U.S. chances, said Gullickson, remains something of an unknown.
“Ryan (Trebon) is riding really well right now and he has a good shot at a top-10 finish,” Gullickson said. “Jonathan … well, I’m not sure. He’s only really known for a week that he’s riding. When he won the silver (in 2007) it came after a season where he didn’t ride a lot.
“Jonathan has had a busy year, but he’s been off the bike for a bit, although flying to the U.S. to make a case in front of USADA isn’t exactly down time,” he added. “We’ll just have to see.”
Boom: No pressureMeanwhile, Boom arrived to ride the course on Friday and spent almost as much time chatting with reporters and fans as he did reconnoitering the route.
“I’ve already won the (world) title,” said the 23-year-old Boom. “I don’t really have a lot of pressure on me here.”
But Boom, like others in Hoogerheide, is checking the weather to see just how the course will be when he rides in defense of the world championship.
“I hear it will freeze,” Boom said. “That could make things fast … but by 2:00 in the afternoon, who knows? I’m ready either way.”
A three-way race for the women
Currently the forecast calls for the sunny and cold weather to continue through Sunday.
Former world champion Daphny van den Brand said Friday that would suit her well in a contest most observers say will be a three-way race for the world title between Van den Brand, world champion Hanka Kupfernagel and American champion Katie Compton.
“It’s good for me when it’s this fast,” Van den Brand told VeloNews. “I don’t know if it’s good for Katie, though.”
Gullickson agreed, noting that Compton “really shines when she can power away from the field in tough conditions … but she has beat both (Van den Brand and Kupfernagel) in outright sprint, too. She’s clearly our best hope for a medal.”
As defending women’s champion, Kupfernagel says she knows that she will be “the focus of attention on Sunday.”
Like Boom, Kupfernagel easily won her most recent title in Treviso, benefiting from course conditions that were probably faster than they are this year in Hoogerheide. If conditions remain unchanged, Kupfernagel says she’ll be especially happy.
“I just need to stay relaxed,” she said after riding the course on Friday. “If it stays this way, it should be good for me … it was fun out there today. I hope it is on Sunday, too.”
While Compton tops the list of American medal hopefuls in Hoogerheide, U23 and juniors coach Geoff Proctor says the U.S. team has some real depth in both categories.
“We’ve a couple of guys and who’ve just been outstanding this year,” said Proctor. “In the juniors, Zach McDonald and Luke Keogh have just been amazing.
“Zach this year is something of a revelation,” Proctor added. “He finished third in (the World Cup) in Roubaix and sixth in Zolder. He and Luke finished ninth and tenth overall in the World Cup.”
Despite the strong season-long campaigns, the two Americans will not benefit from prime starting positions. Those will go to the top eight finishers in the series.
“They can overcome that, but it’s going to be tough to move up, especially if the course stays as fast as it is,” Proctor said.
Proctor said he expects strong performances in the U23 race, particularly from Danny Summerhill and Bjorn Selander.
“A lot of these guys have been racing in Europe quite a bit this year,” Proctor said. “When they get to the line tomorrow, they shouldn’t be surprised by anything. They know the course, they know the riders … they can just race their bikes.”
U.S. Team – World cyclocross championships
Laura Van Gilder