The 2015 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships get underway on Saturday with the junior and under-23 Men's races, followed on Sunday by the elite men and women, all on the same course in Tabor, Czech Republic. The course is well known to the elite ranks, who have battled here in World Cups and in two other World Championships over the past 20 years, and is sure to produce worthy champions. With a constantly changing mix of snow, ice and mud, the course is sure to bring about some unpredictable results. Cyclingnews has selected some riders who are poised to produce rides of a lifetime in Tabor.
None of the Belgian or Dutch riders can be considered underdogs, and few would ever dare call Sven Nys anything less than a favourite. But after two months of taking a beating at the hands of young guns Wout Van Aert (Belgium), Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands), and World Cup winner Kevin Pauwels among others, the two-time world champion can hardly be considered as a top contender for the rainbow jersey.
Both Van Aert and Van der Poel have put in vicious early attacks which they parlayed into victory, but this rarely succeeds at the World Championships when it's every man for himself. While all eyes will be on the young guns, there is still a chance for old age and treachery to get the better of their enthusiasm. It has been since November 11 since Nys last stood atop a podium in cyclo-cross, and his dry spell is the longest we've ever seen. He seems to have begun to return to some of his previous spark, but he's left it a bit late in the season for a comeback. If Nys wins, it would be a small miracle.
US champion Jeremy Powers has to be the one to watch for a non-Dutch speaker to break into the podium. In the absence of defending champion Zdenek Stybar, Powers has moved into the sport as top rider from outside of the Netherlands or Belgium in the world at 8th, and Tabor is a course that has treated him well in the past. He was 7th place here in the 2012 World Cup round and 15th in the previous year.
Powers' European races have previously been hampered by weak running and technical skills that aren't quite up to par with the best, but he has made great strides this season by racing more days overseas and focussing on improving his skills. He's still an outsider for the podium, but could benefit from a tactical battle by the more dominant nations.
Czech champion, Olympian and Colorado resident Katerina Nash has a large fan base on both sides of the Atlantic, and will be a top favourite for both her native fans in Tabor and for the rainbow jersey. Nash has spent decades near the top of elite sports, from cross-country skiing to mountain biking and cyclo-cross, and while she has a number of World Cup victories on the bike and a bronze medal from the 2011 World Championships, Nash has never donned the coveted rainbow bands.
Nash beat seven-time 'cross world champion Marianne Vos in Namur outright in December, and with the Dutch woman affected by a hamstring injury, this could be the year for Nash to finally make her breakthrough to the gold. With recent victories in the World Cup in Namur, and at Loenhout and Baal to go with her eight victories in the US this season, she has shown she has the form and the skills in the mud to make the leap to the top step. In addition to Vos, she will have to match and better Frenchwoman Pauline Ferrand-Prévot and American Katie Compton, among others.
The European and Belgian champion traded in her stripes for the white kit of World Cup overall winner through a consistently strong season, punctuated by well-executed victories in the Koksijde and Milton Keynes World Cups, in addition to four Superprestige and two Bpost Bank Trofee rounds.
With 19 victories to her name this year, it would be hard to count Cant out for the victory in Tabor. She rode well in the last World Cup in Hoogerheide, but missed a chance for the podium when she clipped a barrier and crashed dramatically in the finale.
Aside from Katie Compton, junior Gage Hecht represents the USA's best chance for a medal at the World Championships, and the Colorado native doesn't even turn 17 until February. Because of UCI rules which set a rider's age group based on the calendar year, Hecht is among the youngest of the junior men, but still came third in the final World Cup in Hoogerheide behind the dominant Eli Iserbyt (Belgium) and Dutch rider Roel van der Stegen, both more than a year his senior.
The current US and Pan American champion has the skills and speed to make the podium. A medal here would be the USA's first for the men since Jonathan Page and Danny Summerhill each earned silver in the elite men and junior races, respectively, in 2007.