10 riders to watch at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships

Expect a Van Aert, Van der Poel shoot-out; can Cant win?

The UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships mark the highlight of a season that has seen intense rivalries from the top riders of the sport, both men and women. The races take place in Heusden-Zolder, on the same circuit used for the World Cup in December, but heavy rains are expected to create a dramatically different challenge compared with last month's race. Cyclingnews looks at 10 riders who can challenge for the podium in either Saturday's elite women's event or Sunday's elite men's race.

Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands)

Defending world champion Mathieu van der Poel came into the season a bit of a question mark, having had knee surgery to treat an injury sustained on the road. The recovery kept him from racing until the end of November.

Whatever doubts surrounded his ability to push to his maximum were quickly dispelled when Van der Poel surged to a podium position in the Koksijde World Cup in his comeback race. His first victory came two weeks later in Overijse, and by the Namur World cup he began a winning streak that was only interrupted by a tactical race in Loenhout.

Since Namur, Van der Poel has won all of the World Cups, including Zolder, which was contested on the world championship course. There, he faced a difficult battle with Lars van der Haar whose untimely puncture in the final lap scuttled his hopes to out-sprint his young compatriot. It was left to Kevin Pauwels to challenge, but the Belgian fell short.

Van der Poel demonstrated his diverse talents by trouncing everyone on a fast Lignières-en-Berry World Cup and a heavy, slippery Hoogerheide round, leaving all of his competitors puzzling for ways to defeat him. Only flawless team tactics from the stronger Belgian squad could prove his undoing on Sunday.

Mathieu Van der Poel (BKCP-Corendon)
Photo: Tim De Waele

Wout Van Aert (Belgium)

Belgian champion Wout Van Aert started out his 2015-2016 season on fire: after being denied the rainbow jersey in last year's Worlds, he seemed untouchable, and destined to sail through the season on top straight through to Zolder.

The 21-year-old soloed to victory in the first World Cup in Las Vegas, in Neerpelt, Erpe-Mere and the Gieten Superprestige race and Ronse BPost Bank Trofee all in impressive fashion. While his streak came to an end at the hands of Lars van der Haar in the Valkenburg World Cup, he won eight races and finished no lower than second until the Zolder World Cup - the preview of the world championship course.

But don't expect Van Aert's eighth place in December to have any bearing on Worlds. He was sick in December, and once well, he trounced his competitors in the Belgian championships on January 10.

Though he fell just short of Van der Poel the last two World Cups, one has to wonder if Van Aert held something back. He only had to hold his lead over Van der Haar in the Hoogerheide to ensure his overall World Cup victory gave him an extra teammate for Worlds.

While Van der Poel will go in as the hot favourite, Van Aert will be a close second and will be hungry to turn around his misfortunes of last year.

Wout Van Aert wins the 2016 Belgian championships
Photo: Getty

Lars van der Haar (Netherlands)

Van der Haar has not been the prolific winner of previous years, and indeed his Valkenburg victory was just one of four wins for the year, the other being the European Championship in November, and two C2 races.

Still, the Giant-Alpecin rider has been so consistently strong that he finished only second to Van Aert in the World Cup final standings. Had it not been for the puncture in Zolder, he very likely would have been sprinting for victory there.

On any fast course, Van der Haar can challenge for the win, but with heavy rain in the forecast he will need luck on his side for Worlds on Sunday.

Lars van der Haar (Team Giant-Alpecin)
Photo: Tim De Waele

Kevin Pauwels (Belgium)

Pauwels' season has been as understated as his post-race interviews, but behind Van Aert he remains Belgium's best hope for the rainbow jersey on Sunday. Third in the World Cup overall and third in the UCI rankings, he is always there or thereabouts, but a muddy Zolder course will not suit him as well as the hard packed December circuit. Though his skills have improved markedly in recent years, he's less of a mudder than his compatriot Nys.

Kevin Pauwels finished the Hoogerheide World Cup in third place
Photo: Tim De Waele

Sven Nys (Belgium)

Nys' final season before retirement has not exactly been a triumph, but his victory in Koksijde was one of the most scintillating battles of the season to date. One can never count out Nys when it comes to an important race, and the expected rain will play right into his strengths - patience, experience, and a keen eye for the fastest line through the thick stuff.

Nys may not have the top end of his younger rivals, but he will be an important key for the Belgian team tactics. Certainly no one will be willing to let him ride away unchecked - after all, they don't call him 'the cannibal' for nothing.

Sven Nys enjoys his victory at Koksijde
Photo: Tim De Waele

Sanne Cant (Belgium)

World Cup winner Sanne Cant had a brilliant season. She was especially dominant in November, winning the European championships, the Superprestige and BPost Bank Trofee events and the Koksijde World Cup before some of the other competitors caught up.

Though she lost the Superprestige to compatriot Jolien Verschueren after skipping Spa-Francorchamps, Cant was by far and away the best rider of the season. However, few other riders endured the length of season she has, and whether her fifth in Hoogerheide was fatigue or simply holding back on a heavy, taxing course remains to be seen.

Sanne cant carries her bike across the line at the 2016 Belgian championships.
Photo: Tim De Waele

Nikki Harris (Great Britain)

Nikki Harris made enormous strides this season - before trading up from Telenet-Fidea to Boels Dolmans she won her first World Cup in Namur and then went on to defeat Helen Wyman for the British title.

Harris is the second best rider in the UCI rankings behind Cant, and has finished on the podium 15 times this season - the most recently in Hoogerheide. With some luck and perfect form Harris is a prime podium contender who could well win the rainbow jersey.

Nikki Harris (Boels Dolmans CT) celebrates victory at the 2016 British National Cyclo-cross Championships.

Ellen Van Loy (Belgium)

Ellen Van Loy, the number three rider in the world, has had her best season yet. At 36, she is found her stride with a high profile win at the Superprestige Diegem, and podiums in Lignières-en-Berry, the Zolder World Cup and the Belgian championships. Should Cant fail, Van Loy could well carry the Belgian flag to the podium on Sunday.

Ellen Van Loy (Telenet Fidea)
Photo: Tim De Waele

Eva Lechner (Italy)

The Italian mountain biker is one of the riders racing only a fraction of the cyclo-cross circuit, and will have freshness on her side. Lechner began her season with a second place to Katerina Nash in Las Vegas, then won the Valkenburg World Cup. She put Cant under pressure for the World Cup overall by taking third in Namur and Lignières-en-Berry, and top 10s in Zolder, Koksijde and Hoogerheide.

Lechner may not be an outright favourite, but Lechner is an opportunist who is comfortable in the mud and will find the Zolder circuit to her liking.

Evan Lechner (Luna) in third
Photo: Tim De Waele

Katie Compton (USA)

There are many other riders who have performed better this season, but US champion Katie Compton cannot be counted out after finishing on the podium four times at the World Championships - three times second and once in third.

Although Compton has lacked top speed after a summer spent reeling from illness, a heavy, muddy Zolder circuit would slow the race down and play into her superior technical skills.

Without Marianne Vos or Pauline Ferrand-Prevot in the picture, this could be Compton's year if she can put her health issues behind her once and for all.

Katie Compton (Trek Collective) leads the field to the base of Mt. Krumpit during the opening lap of the race

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