Who can challange the star duopoly at the head of proceedings?
Telenet-Fidea's Zdenek Stybar and Landbouwkrediet veteran Sven Nys have have enjoyed a virtual duopoly of the podium in this season's most important European cyclo-cross races thus far and the pressure is increasing upon the challengers behind.
Highly-rated former world champion Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus), Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor) and Bart Aernouts (Rabo-Giant Offroad) have missed out on the victory so far and questions are being asked as to whether they pose a serious to the two frontrunners.
By this time last year Albert had already collected 11 wins as world champion whereas this season he's still searching for that elusive first. "I'm doing all I can to finally get that first win but I carefully have to watch how Sven collects the wins nowadays," explained Albert.
The 24-year-old was injured in September and feels he's still recovering from that setback. "I wasn't allowed to do running training since then and I've only started doing them 10 days ago. I'm happy that despite the lack of training I was still there in a race with a huge amount of running featured in it.
"Every week it's going better and better but a course like this comes a little bit too early for me. To win a race you have got to be in super form and I'm not there yet. I'm satisfied that I did a good job in the overall classification of the Superprestige series," Albert said. The young Belgian moves up from sixth place to third, level with Bart Wellens (Telenet-Fidea).
Vantornout finished on the podium in Dinant at the start of the season but since then has failed to live up to expectations. Combined with his own lack of recent results his teammates aren't finishing near the podium at all either.
The Sunweb-Revor team has a history of high investments and few results and before the season team manager Jürgen Mettepenningen stated he expected 50 podium results. Two months later Mettepenningen can't but notice that many of his riders are underperforming as they weren't even spotted on the podium on most occasions.
The boss isn't happy...
Before the race in Zogge, Mettepenningen told Het Nieuwsblad that he has run out of patience, requesting good performances or the evaluation on Monday could result in a team shake-up. And Vantornout agreed that he hasn't been up there over the last few weeks.
"I didn't go well due to illness and bad luck. I aimed to be well in this race as it's an important race for my team boss. Today's performance was morale-boosting," said Vantornout, adding that Mettepenningen wasn't aiming his comments at him.
"I think he's talking about other riders. Due to circumstances all pressure ends up on my shoulders but I tend to cope well with pressure so I don't mind about that. It can't continue to go on like that though," said Vantornout.
The slightly-built Belgian almost captured the win during the race organised by Mettepenningen on Sunday when he stormed forward through the flooded meadows during the last lap of the race. "I actually thought that it was the winning move. When I looked back I was surprised to see Nys still running right behind me; his form is fantastic," Vantornout explained.
Early on this season Bart Aernouts seemed to be in position to start grabbing the wins after claiming four podium results but the last few weeks have been less impressive for the 28-year-old Belgian. In Niel, Aernouts abandoned the race and in Zogge he finished on a distant tenth place. In the overall classification Aernouts dropped from second to fifth place.
"Today I'm happy that I was able to score some points after what happened this week because I almost didn't start the race," Aernouts said after finishing 10th in Zogge. On Thursday Aernouts crashed on his head during the stormy race and he was diagnosed with minor concussion. It might have interfered with his tactics in Zogge as he didn't judge his abilities to perfection on the demanding course.
"Early on I felt very good but maybe too good. I thought I wasn't overdoing it but I quickly struggled with completely lactate legs. By the end of the race I was completely dead. The running bit didn't work out for me," he said.