On Sunday morning, the elite women will battle it out at their UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships race in Koksijde, a town at the North Sea coast in Belgium. The top favorite for the win is Marianne Vos (Stichting Rabo Women). If she wins, it'll be the third gold medal for The Netherlands at these Worlds.
Vos dominated the cyclo-cross races during the last two months, winning 15 races in a row out of 16 total in which she participated this season. Since the one race she didn't win was held on Sunday's world championship course, the gathered opposition is hoping Vos will again be beatable in the Koksijde dunes.
The strongest challenger seems to be European champion Daphny van den Brand (AA Drink-Leontien.nl) who is riding the last race of her career. US champion Katie Compton (Rabobank-Giant Offroad Team) and Katerina Nash (Luna Pro Team) are outsiders for the gold on Sunday.
According to Vos, there's little chance that someone other than her will grab the rainbow jersey and in her case, it would be her fourth succesive world title. "I'm ready for it. I've won 15 races except for Koksijde. I made a big step forward on the road this season, and then you hope that it reflects in my cyclo-cross season and I've succeeded woderfully. Fifteen wins in a row is really special, but these are the world championships. It's a different race and at the start, we're all equal," Vos told NOS radio.
"The fact that I didn't win in Koksijde makes me sharp," Vos told Cyclingnews. When asked why she was unable to win that particular race, Vos knew the exact reasons. "Because the technical aspect of the course suits Daphny well. Also because riding your first cyclo-cross race of the season is always hard. I'm still happy with that second place because that morning I feared a much worse result. It's a very nice course but it's the uncertain factor for me. It's technically different [compared to the muddy course at the World Cup round in Hoogerheide] with lots of running. It's not specifically my thing. At any moment, anything can happen. You can run into bad luck and lose the race just like that. It's not something I think about. My form is good but I already knew that. Everybody will be 110% ready, just like me. It's nice to head into the world championships with these sensations," she said.
Two weeks before the cyclo-cross world championships, Vos crashed hard during the penultimate World Cup round in Liévin, France. Despite going on to win the race, it turned out the crash did cause some damage. "The first couple of days after the crash I felt sore. The biggest fear was that it would hinder me at the world championships but that's no longer an issue after my win in Hoogerheide," Vos said.
Compatriot Daphny van den Brand will end her career in about a month after the last rounds of the Superprestige series and Gazet van Antwerpen Trophy. In her last season, the 33-year-old won the World Cup, including the win over Vos at the round in Koksijde. Despite the impressive series of victories from Vos following that race, Van den Brand believes in her chances.
"How to beat her? You have to look at yourself and be in top shape. If I'm good, then everybody is beatable. You can't predict how things ought to happen because a world championships race is always a strange race; it never happens as you want to," Van den Brand said.
With 45,000 people expected to show up in Koksijde on Sunday, the atmosphere for the women will be special. Riding through the sand isn't easy and that doesn't get easier when that many spectators watch every move you make. "You need some luck to in the sand because when you have to run where others can ride, you have to close a gap right away. You have to be top class if you want to grab the title," Van den Brand told NOS radio on Saturday.
Outsiders Nash and Compton seem to be the only riders capable of fighting the two strong Dutch women. Especially Compton showed in the past that she deals well with the Koksijde sand, although this year she never managed to show that in the highly-contested European races. Last year she won the World Cup round in commanding style, pushing first chaser Van den Brand more than two minutes back.
"Winning last year doesn't mean anything for this year," Compton told Cyclingnews. When asked about how she felt Vos was riding, Compton didn't have much to say. "I never saw her. I'll do everything I can to ride a clean race in Koksijde. If I had more power, everything would be easier and if I would know the reason [for the lackluster results this season], I would fix it. It's an off-year maybe," Compton said.
In the past, Compton had some issues with travelling and after the World Cup round in Hoogerheide, a journalist asked whether it wouldn't be better to race the whole European season instead of traveling back and forth during the season. "I travel less than last year, but maybe next year we'll do it differently," Compton said.
For Nash, things are going the right direction especially after her third place at the last World Cup round in Hoogerheide. It was a race in which she fought a good battle with Van den Brand for second place, at long distance from Vos. "I'm on the right track. I've never done it [Koksijde] but I've seen it and talked with the Czech people who know it," Nash said. This week, she trained on the course for the first time but a race situation is completely different to a training ride. The US-based Czech rider was confident that her sand-riding skills are good enough to have a good race in Koksijde.
"I probably live closest to any desert of everybody at the start line. I live in Lake Tahoe at the border of California and Nevada," Nash told Cyclingnews. When asked about top gun Vos, the Czech rider realizes her chances for the world title are slim with such a rider on the start line. "During the race, you just see a white flash which is quickly gone. She's got it all, the whole package of skills you need for cyclo-cross," Nash said.
The rider that beats Vos in the dunes of Koksijde will be reaching for a gold medal and the rainbow jersey on Sunday.
Tune in on Cyclingnews to find out about the outcome of the women's race. Racing starts at 11:00 am local time.