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Preview: Cyclocross worlds land in Zolder

HEUSDEN-ZOLDER, Belgium (VN) — For the better part of a decade, cyclocross world championship races have been a study in contrast: a men’s race brimming with so much talent that it is all but impossible to pick a clear favorite, and a women’s race all but owned by a single rider — one who held the title seven times, including a run of six straight years.

The tables have turned.

But when the world championships get rolling on Saturday, it is the women who will arguably meet the opportunity of a lifetime — a wide-open shot at the world title — and the men who face a race whose outcome already seems like a foregone conclusion.

The race, on the former Formula One track in Heusden-Zolder, will be the first championships in Belgium since 2012’s event in the sand dunes of Koksijde. That race attracted some 60,000 spectators. Organizers here have said they anticipate beating that number, making this race very likely the best attended cyclocross race in history.

If they hit that mark, there will be a crush of people alongside the course, which is laid out in a long, narrow, out-and-back loop. The track features a considerable amount of pavement, and the long, straight, start-finish stretch leaves lots of room to set up a highly tactical race. Rain, expected on both Saturday and Sunday, could make things even more interesting, but the sandy soil in Zolder drains well, so while it may be slippery and sloppy, the race tempo will likely be very fast, regardless of the weather.

At the World Cup stop here in late December, a preview of the weekend’s championship races, both men’s and women’s races were decided on the same series of steep climbs near the tail end of the lap. In the women’s race, Belgian champion Sanne Cant was able to ride away from American Katie Compton on the course’s steepest rideable climb, putting enough distance between them for Cant to take an uncontested win. In the men’s race, reigning world champion Mathieu van der Poel did nearly the same thing to his Dutch countryman Lars van der Haar and Belgian Kevin Pauwels, summoning power on the climb that neither of his rivals could produce.

The elite men

If the showdown between Van der Poel, Van der Haar, and Pauwels in Zolder really did offer a preview of Sunday’s men’s race, two elements were missing. First is Belgian champion Wout Van Aert, runner up at the 2015 world championships. Second is Sven Nys, the wildly popular two-time world champion, arguably the greatest rider in the history of the sport, racing his final championship before retirement, and racing on home soil.

Van Aert ruled the early season, while Van der Poel was still nursing a knee injury he sustained at the Tour de l’Avenir in August. But Van der Poel has been decidedly stronger since his return, sweeping the final four World Cup races. After finishing second at the final World Cup stop in Hoogerheide, Van Aert acknowledged that Van der Poel is the clear favorite for Sunday’s race.

“I said weeks ago that Mathieu is the big favorite,” Van Aert told reporters. “It’s very clear, it’s not just me, but all the others as well, we were all distanced quite far today. Will that be the same next week? That’s a different story. I trained on the specific course of Zolder this week. I hope it pays off next weekend.”

But Van der Poel will surely have the throttle wide open on Sunday.

“I said from the beginning on that the worlds are the only thing that can rescue my season,” Van der Poel told VeloNews. “I’ve had a pretty good season after my knee surgery, but then all the classifications are gone and I want to be the new world champion again.”

Nys, meanwhile, is a bigger question mark. His season has not been his strongest, with only one truly shining weekend in late November when he won back-to-back races, but he has been solid and will surely be motivated for a strong finish. He will also have the crowd behind him like no other rider. But will he be able to stay focused in what is surely to be a very emotional race? Will he be able to match the form of men barely half his age? Neither question has an obvious answer.

Then come Van der Haar and Pauwels, both of whom are, on their best days, capable of riding with the favorites, especially on a fast course like the one in Zolder. The 31-year-old Pauwels finished third last weekend in Hoogerheide, and has been the most consistent rider not named Van Aert or Van der Poel this season. Van der Haar, 24, finished on the podium at last year’s championships, and has shown he is capable of a good race in Zolder, but he did not look particularly sharp in Hoogerheide on Sunday.

The wildcard may be a young and very talented Belgian team that is willing to work together to control Van der Poel and win one of their countrymen a championship in front of a friendly home crowd. Zolder features a course that favors team tactics; Laurens Sweeck, Tom Meeusen, and Michael Vanthourenhout have all looked strong at different times in the season. But whether everybody can keep their ego in check and settle for supporting roles in what is usually a sport centered around individual performance is an open question.

Leading the American contingent will be national champion Jeremy Powers, who is also capable of a good ride on a course like the one in Zolder. Among others, he’ll be joined by nationals runner-up Steven Hyde, who was within striking distance of a great result in the December World Cup here before a mechanical knocked him from the front of the race.

“I feel good, I feel like I’m in a good place physically and mentally and I think it’s just about putting it together,” Powers told VeloNews Sunday in Hoogerheide. “To be honest, I think on a perfect day, something in the top 10 is possible…. But I won’t really know until I’m done with the race how I feel about it.”

The Elite Women

In the absence of Marianne Vos — who with seven world titles holds just under half of all the world championships ever handed out to women — and defending champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, who is recovering from an injury and is focused on an Olympic run, Belgium’s Sanne Cant is the obvious favorite.

Cant has won more often than not this season, with three World Cup wins and the overall title, including that victory on the worlds course in Zolder just over a month ago. She did not look nearly so invincible in Hoogerheide last week, but it is hard to imagine she is coming to the championship race in anything less than top form. She said after Hoogerheide that a championship this year, after barely missing out on the title in 2015, has been a focus since the beginning of the season.

“The European championships were also important, and I won that. I won 15 races,” Cant told VeloNews. “I think that’s the same as last year. But there was always the world championships in my head. I hope I can do it.”

She said she felt the pressure of being the favorite, but was confident ahead of the race.

“It’s the first year I’m the big favorite I think,” Cant said. “It’s in my home country. I trained really hard and worked really hard for [this] week. I will do my best and that’s all I can do.”

Behind her is a field that defies prognostication. American Katie Compton, a perennial contender for the championships, was strong in Zolder in December and has shown glimmers of brilliance all season long. But she has not been consistently as good as in years past.

“I don’t know. I had a good race [in Zolder] earlier this season, but worlds is always so different, and you never know,” Compton said Sunday. “It’s totally different next weekend. I like the course a lot, I think it has really good features. It’s a fun course. It’s hard, but it’s fun, technical and fast. I think it’s supposed to rain all week, and that will be good.”

Other riders to watch include Italian champion Eva Lechner, runner-up in the World Cup, who was strong early on but has shifted focus a little recently, targeting a run at the Olympic mountain bike race later this summer. Rounding out a very talented field are Belgian Ellen Van Loy, who finished third in Zolder in December, Dutch riders Sophie De Boer, Thalita De Jong, and Sabrina Stultiens, and Britons Helen Wyman and Nikki Harris.

Americans Meredith Miller — who says she is riding her final world championship this year — Kaitlin Antonneau, Amanda Miller, Elle Anderson, and Crystal Anthony are all capable of very good rides in Zolder, especially if they can break into the lead group early on. But at the end of the day, with several of the sport’s most successful riders absent — in addition to Vos and Ferrand-Prevot, American-based Czech Katerina Nash will skip the race — this is the most wide-open race of the weekend.

The Youth Categories

There is more on offer, too. On Saturday, between the junior men’s race and the elite women’s race, Zolder will host the first-ever under-23 women’s championship. The UCI ran its first women’s championship in 2000, and since then there have been few opportunities for young women riders to shine at worlds, so the addition of the new event is a major step that the UCI hopes will help further boost the overall growth and development of the already highly competitive women’s cyclocross field.

Just who the U-23 race favors is hard to define. The overall top-ranked woman on the entries list is 22-year-old Italian Alice Maria Arzuffi, currently ranked 13th in the world thanks largely to a terrific ride in the elite women’s race at last year’s championships in Tabor, Czech Republic. Belgian U23 champion Femke van den Driessche has posted impressive results all season, capped by a second-place finish at the Koppenbergcross, one of the hardest stops on the Belgian race calendar. American U23 champion Ellen Noble has posted multiple top-20 results in elite World Cup races, but has only rarely gotten the better of Van den Driessche in the handful of head-to-head matchups the two women have shared.

The Netherlands’ Maud Kaptheijns has also posted strong results this season, including a third place finish in the elite Dutch national championship, and has topped both Van den Driessche and Noble in most of the meetings they’ve had. She also posted one of the best results by a young woman at the World Cup in Zolder last month. If there is a favorite for a championship, she may be it.

In the men’s U23 race, Belgians Eli Iserbyt and Quinten Hermans are clear favorites, while Danish rider Simon Andreassen, who upset Iserbyt for the junior title a year ago, is an important wildcard. Iserbyt and Hersmans, teammates on the Telenet-Fidea squad, have traded wins for much of the year, but Andreassen is a strong, savvy rider who has not focused as much on cyclocross.

The American team will be led by Logan Owen, fresh off a third-place finish in the elite category at the national championships a few weeks ago. Owen was eighth in the final World Cup last weekend and has an outside shot at a place on the podium if the chips fall his way.

But American hopes might have to be pinned on the junior men, where Colorado-based Gage Hecht may have the best shot for a win of any American rider this weekend. Hecht just missed out on a podium place at the championships last year, and he did the same in Hoogerheide last week. He will surely be a factor in the race, while his teammates — particularly Spencer Petrov — all have a shot at a top-10 finish.

Battling with Hecht for the rainbow stripes will likely be the Netherlands’ Jens Dekker and Belgium’s Jappe Jaspers, whose finish in the World Cup overall was decided by a first-place tiebreaker. Other riders to watch include France’s Tanguy Turgis and Mikael Crispin, and Dekker’s Dutch teammate Mitch Groot.

And while forecasting race outcomes is more or less fortune telling, forecasting weather is hard science. This much is clear: it will rain this weekend. The course is technical, fast, and very difficult. And if there is one thing Belgium has consistently delivered when it comes to world championships, it’s dramatic, dynamic racing.

Start your engines, ladies and gentlemen. The world championships are here.