The UCI's Cyclo-cross World Cup reaches its midpoint on December 6 in Igorre, Spain, the location for the fifth of 10 World Cup events this season. In contrast to the full World Cup schedule in Koksijde, Belgium last weekend, where Elite men, Elite women, U23 men and Junior men competed, there's only an Elite men's race scheduled in one of Spain's most cycling-crazy regions, the Basque Country.
World champion Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) aims to defend his lead in the World Cup standings in which he lost some ground, or sand, rather, in the dunes of Koksijde to an on-form Zdenek Štybar (Telenet Fidea Cycling Team).
The Czech champion, who'll turn 24 on December 11, is trailing the Belgian by only 15 points, so one might expect that 'Stybi' will be shooting for an early birthday present. For that to come to fruition, Štybar will have to get past the 'cannibal' from Balen, Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago). The experienced Belgian champion has four Igorre World Cup wins under his belt, including last year's mud bath.
The weather forecast is calling for a week full of rain in the Basque Country so it's likely that the course will soak up the riders' energy once again. That would be an advantage for a strongman like Albert, but during the last couple of weeks the world champion's domination has waned. Stybar won three consecutive races, including the Koksijde World Cup, and Nys dispatched Albert to secure his 50th career Superprestige victory.
While it is likely that one of the Albert-Nys-Stybar triumvirate will grab the win in Igorre, there's always a chance that a dark horse storms forward and picks up the txapela. Among the outside candidates for the win is Klaas Vantornout, runner-up to Nys in Igorre last year. Vantornout was the only rider to remain with Nys in 2008's Igorre World Cup endgame, but a crash by Vantornout on the penultimate lap enabled Nys to win comfortably on his own. Vantornout has been a consistent performer at the World Cups - he currently holds fourth place on the overall World Cup standings - but the skinny Belgian would be more than happy to exchange those steady top-five results for a first-ever World Cup win.
Also waiting for that first World Cup win is Kevin Pauwels (Telenet Fidea Cycling Team), who's also a major challenger when the conditions turn sloppy. Stybar's diffident teammate excels when it's a man-to-man battle in the mud, and if needed he's got a good sprint ready as well. His second place behind Nys in Gieten's Superprestige race last Sunday will certainly boost his confidence, too.
French champion Francis Mourey (Française des Jeux) has racked up four[!] consecutive fifth place finishes in World Cup rounds thus far, placing him third overall on the overall standings, but mud has wreaked havoc with Mourey in years past at Igorre.
Three-time world champion Erwin Vervecken (Baboco-Revor) hasn't cracked the podium in Europe so far this season, but his running skills might get him back on the podium once again, like he did last year.
While Spanish riders hope to figure prominently at the only World Cup race on home soil, it's unlikely that they'll be a factor on Sunday. Only two Spanish riders have scored points in the World Cup thus far and the first is Egoitz Murgoitio Rekalde at position...51, grabbing all his points at the dry, fast World Cup opener in Treviso, Italy.
National champion Javier Ruiz De La Larrinaga Ibanez is a few spots further back in 54th and he didn't crack the top-20 at any international race this season.
Last year, winner of the 2005 Classica San Sebastian, Constantino 'Tino' Zaballa had a good cyclo-cross season. He had high hopes of becoming the first-ever Spaniard to get on the podium, or even win, a World Cup. Zaballa finished twelfth in Igorre last year and appears on the start list again this year, but according to our information he hasn't yet started any cyclo-cross races yet this season. So, no, don't expect any miracles.
Only one American is traveling to the Basque Country this week, European-based Jonathan Page (Planet Bike). So far, things haven't gone as planned in Europe for the 33-year-old rider, who's hoping luck will find him again one day. Last year Page finished one spot behind Zaballa in 13th place, and we're guessing that this year a similar result would be well-received in the Page camp.
"That's true," Page told Cyclingnews. "My goal is to crack the top-10 of course. That would boost the morale and it would mean that it is possible for me to battle along with the best. I feel that I'm lacking just that little extra to hang on with the best guys during the first laps, because after a while they're also taking a breather."
That theory is supported by his sixth lap in the World Cup in Koksijde where he pulled off the second-fastest lap time. "Nowadays I'm always riding in no-man's land, still trying to make the best of it but it's not fun like that," Page said. "After Igorre we're flying over with the family to the US to get ready for nationals. I'm hoping for the best out there but it doesn't help my confidence that I'm getting hammered in Europe."