With a home field advantage, the Czech Republic has never been closer breaking its now 19-year drought in the elite men's cyclo-cross World Championships. As favourite Zdenek Stybar seeks to be the second Czech winner after Radomir Simunek, Senior took the crown in 1991, he has the weight of his entire country's expectations on his shoulders.
Though Stybar is from Stribro, about 150 kilomters West of Tábor, he will surely have plenty of hometown support, and he is confident that he can deliver in the face of a tough challenge from the Belgians, especially defending champion Niels Albert and Sven Nys.
"Nys has more experience but I've ridden this course already. I know where I can expect a difficult moment. Nys remains my top favorite, more than Niels Albert who's not super on the snow although the difficult grade might benefit him," Stybar told Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad.
"My season's already a success. I'm very happy with my overall win in the World Cup and if I wanted I could watch the race on Sunday on TV with my legs on the table. I'll do all I can with the benefit that nothing has to happen in that race," Stybar added.
Last Sunday Stybar had to dig deep in order to keep up with Albert, making a last lap error which put him in second place. But he insists that last week's result has no bearing on his current chances.
"I wasn't fresh in that race. I had trained really hard the week before, a little too hard. I misunderstood my trainer and ran up and down 1600 stairs instead of 160. That's why I felt miserable, but now I'm in top form," Stybar said.
Can Nys finally do it?
Even though Belgian champion Sven Nys has won everything there is to win in cyclo-cross, claiming the overall win in every 'cross series at least six times, he boasts just one single rainbow jersey taken in Sankt-Wendel in 2005.
His failure to translate his sheer dominance of the cyclo-cross world is hardly reflected in his World Championship palmares, and he doesn't expect Sunday's race to be any simpler to win than previous years.
"I'll be happy if I can win on Sunday but if I'm not winning I'll be able to put it all in perspective. The title brings a lot of obligations with it," said Nys.
Last year, Nys and the rest of the Belgian team worked together to unseat Dutchman Lars Boom, putting Albert in the gold medal spot. This year, Nys suspects that the course will be the main factor rather than strategy.
"It won't be as tactical as last year. It will be a 'cross for men with form and technical skills; staying upright is the message," Nys said to Het Nieuwsblad. "I'm good in snow - which is an advantage - and this season I showed that I can come back from a lost position during a race."
Defending world champion Niels Albert doesn't mind that many people aren't considering him as top favorite after his fall in the Belgian championship left him with a broken rib. But Albert isn't counting himself out despite what all the fans and pundits say. "Anything goes. If everybody thinks I'm crap in snow then we'll have to wait and see how that turns out in reality."
I'll ride a dark horse to the podium
While all eyes will be on Stybar and the Belgians, fate could deliver a surprise on the ice and snow in Tabor. The Dutch team will look its in-form ace Gerben de Knegt to stage an upset. However, De Knegt himself considers Nys as the favorite for Sunday, while he regarded Klaas Vantornout as the dark horse. "The course benefits Nys and plays a the disadvantage for Niels Albert. Vantornout is my outsider," De Knegt told Cyclingnews.
Jurgen Mettepenningen, manager of the Sunweb-Revor team, agreed with De Knegt and also named his own rider, Vantornout, as the outsider for the podium. "Stybar, Nys and Vantornout are in the advantage since they always performed well in the snow."
American Jeremy Powers picked a different Czech rider to shine on his home turf: Radomir Simunek. "I think Simunek could be a good dark horse," Powers said to Cyclingnews. The US-rider said he didn't expect to play that role although he is benefited by the snow and ice. "Now, I'm hoping for a top-25 result," Powers said. "We have a great team and I hope we get a good result with one of the categories."
Back in 2007, Powers' compatriot Jonathan Page was the biggest surprise of 'cross worlds when he claimed the silver medal. Asked to pick his dark horse candidate for Sunday's race, Page joked about duplicating his '07 result. "I'll take a dark horse to the podium with me if I can get there and someone has one available," Page told Cyclingnews.