The UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup returns to Italy on Sunday, January 6 for the first time since October 2009 with a full compliment of racing featuring elite men and women, U23 men and junior men. After a punishing stint of racing in Belgium and the Netherlands during the holiday season, featuring plenty of inclement weather and taxing, muddy circuits, the 'cross peloton enjoyed warm weather and sunny skies in Rome today as riders had the opportunity to train on the circuit, one day prior to competition.
The Rome, Italy World Cup event is the penultimate race for all categories, the seventh of eight for the elites and the fifth of six for the U23 and junior categories. The elite men's overall World Cup title is still up for grabs with the season's two main protagonists, Belgian champion Sven Nys and world champion Niels Albert, tied on points with 415 each. After Nys's first two World Cup rounds in the Czech Republic were marred by crashes and mechanicals the Belgian champion has been on a tear, winning three World Cup rounds and finishing second in the other. Having written off his 2012-2013 World Cup campaign, Nys is suddenly in the lead with momentum on his side.
Niels Albert, however, is still more than capable of regaining and securing the World Cup lead and the final two rounds in Rome, Italy and Hoogerheide, the Netherlands should see a fierce contest between the powerhouse Belgian duo. Defending World Cup champion Kevin Pauwels holds third overall and trails Nys and Albert by 26 points.
Barring disaster on Sunday, US champion and World Cup leader Katie Compton should achieve one of her season's goals of winning the elite women's overall World Cup title. Winner of four World Cup rounds and runner-up in the other two, Compton has enough of a points cushion over second-placed Nikki Harris that she just needs a top-15 finish in Rome to secure the overall series title. In addition to becoming the first American to win a 'cross World Cup title, Compton would be able to skip the final round in the Netherlands on January 20, 2013 and remain in the United States between its national championships on January 13 and the world championships on February 3.
While Compton enjoys a comfortable overall lead with 340 points, the battle for second is tightly contested between Britons Nikki Harris and Helen Wyman, currently in second and third overall with 235 and 216 points respectively. Former World Cup champion Sanne van Paassen is also in the mix at fourth overall with 210 points.
The x-factor on Sunday will be reigning women's world champion Marianne Vos, who's not in contention for the World Cup title after her usual delayed start to her 'cross season but very much a threat to win on the day. Vos opened her World Cup campaign in Namur, Belgium on December 23 with a third place finish followed by a victory three days later in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium. While Vos can win on any course, a dry, fast circuit should play to her considerable strengths and provide Katie Compton with a strong challenge for victory.
Belgium's Wietse Bosmans has been on a hot streak in the U23 men's World Cup, winning the previous three rounds following a third place finish at the opening event in Tabor, Czech Republic. The 21-year-old Belgian holds a 60-point lead over second-placed rider Corne Van Kessel of the Netherlands. Van Kessel, however, is just one point ahead of Belgium's Wout Van Aert.
In the junior men's ranks the season has belonged to Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel. The reigning world champion and World Cup leader has won every race he's entered this season and he holds a 75-point lead over American champion Logan Owen in the World Cup standings. The Netherlands' Martijn Budding holds third overall in the series with 160 points, just five behind Owen.
Click on the gallery to the right to view photos from Saturday's pre-race training session.