In an effort to counter icy conditions for this weekend's Cyclo-cross World Championships, the International Cycling Union (UCI) has introduced sand to sections of the course in Tabor, Czech Republic. The decision has drawn mixed reactions from the Elite men's field, with opinion within the US men's team particularly divided over the virtue of alterations made.
The course, located at a park in the suburbs of Tabor, has been covered with huge packs of snow after several weeks of freezing conditions in the Czech Republic. The UCI's cyclo-cross co-ordinator Peter Van den Abeele had taken the decision to add sand earlier this week. "It can snow every day," Van den Abeele told cyclo-cross.info. "If that happens we'll have to remove it and the remaining bits will be covered with sand, to make it less slippery."
While the predicted snowfalls had failed to materialise on Saturday, low temperatures have ensured that the course has remained unpredictable. Riders exploring the course this week witnessed the changeability of conditions; morning sessions marked by a mixture of snow and ice, before turning into an ice rink in the afternoons. Czech champion and top favourite Zdenek Stybar tested the course earlier in the day mid-week and explained that the track was likely to suit riders best equipped for mud-like conditions.
"It's not comparable with the Czech championships [held on the same course]. Because of the snow one has to work hard, just like in a muddy race," Stybar said.
However, with the Elite men's race to begin at 2pm CET on Sunday, Stybar and his colleagues are likely to race in slicker conditions. Photographers witness to afternoon training sessions throughout the week captured countless riders who hit the ice after losing traction in one of the multiple corners of the twisting course. The difficulty was not restricted to junior riders, with Elite riders including French champion Francis Mourey, US rider Jeremy Powers and experienced ice specialists like Czech Radomir Simunek also coming down.
With his riders arriving in the Czech Republic on Thursday night, Belgian coach Rudy De Bie was the only member of the Belgian camp at the course on Thursday afternoon. While Belgian riders Sven Nys and Niels Albert will enter the race as favourites, De Bie was only too aware of the role conditions would play in the final result. "It's not impossible to ride on this course but the packs of snow that are spread out over the course create some difficult passages," De Bie told Belgium's Het Nieuwsblad. "It improves after riders have created tracks, but then you get ice. It'll be super technical. The rider who dares to go fast through the multiple corners can make the difference."
Opinion split in the US camp
Reactions to the course from within the US team were varied. After struggling in the mud of Hoogerheide last week, US champion Tim Johnson expressed his desire to race on snow and ice, similar to the circumstances in which he grabbed his national title in December.
However, Johnson's teammate Jeremy Powers was less enthusiastic about the slick conditions he had experienced during training runs this week. "It was a sheet of ice, dangerous. Some riders were training with the new studded Dugast tyres and they were flying," Powers told Cyclingnews.
Despite the clear advantage of studded tyres, riders will be unable to rely on the extra grip after the UCI earlier this month passed new regulations ea banning their use.
Former US Champion Ryan Trebon spent a night in Prague before arriving at his base for the Championships, outside of Tabor on Friday. At 6'5", Trebon's height would appear to be a disadvantage on the Worlds course, but he has proven his ability on ice in the past with fifteenth place at Sankt-Wendel in 2005. He told Cyclingnews that although he hadn't seen the course, he was against changes being made.
"Even though making the course less slick would help me I don't believe they should change it. When the courses are extremely muddy they don't try and make them less muddy or faster, do they? I think the course should be what it's going to be. Of course, if it's a safety factor for the riders then I don't mind a change but making the snow less slick is a bad idea," Trebon said.
Echoing Trebon's comments, a confident Jonathan Page was more than happy with the cold weather and conditions. The first US male to claim a World Championship medal (2007) would prefer the course to remain untouched.
"I rode the course and I like it; I like the snow. If they throw sand on the snow it's going to make a big mess. It will still be fun but I think it would be a waste of their time and not necessary," Page told Cyclingnews.
One week earlier after the World Cup in Hoogerheide, Page referred to the 2005 course and pointed out that it was his cup of tea. "Normally it's great for me. The World Championships in Sankt-Wendelhad a similar course and that would have been the start of the JP-special but I flatted out of the front group. Anything is possible [next weekend]," Page added.
The US rider is a dark horse for the podium on Sunday afternoon and said up until now his preparation has been perfect, though technique would be the key to success. "I feel like this is my best opportunity ever and I hope to capitalize on that," Page said. "On a course like this, braking will be critical."