Despite attempts this week to downplay his chances of a seventh Belgian cyclo-cross Championship win, Sven Nys will nevertheless head into the 2010 Belgian title race on Sunday in Oostmalle as a hot favourite.
The reigning Champion rang up a 6-out-of-10 record (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009) through the first decade of the 21st century and, alongside current World Champion Niels Albert, is expected to dominate the event north-west of Antwerp. Though already adorned with the rainbow stripes, 23-year-old Albert is yet add a senior national title to his palmares.
It's a record Nys, for one, expects could change as soon as this weekend. "I place myself still one step lower than Albert," Nys told Het Nieuwsblad on Wednesday. "He is the big favourite. I will head to the race on Sunday with one goal: To try to beat him.
"It'll be very different to previous years, when my rivals would invariably take the same sort of approach to me. This time I think it's logical for me not to win."
In spite of Nys's modest assessment of his chances in this year's title race, the distribution of results between the two this season would indicate a tight contest on the technical and likely icy Oostmalle course. The two trading wins over the recent festive period.
Czech Zdenek Stybar has been the only rider capable of interrupting Albert and Nys's share of wins at the Superprestige and GvA series'. However, Sunday's Belgian-only affair will feature a number of riders capable of pulling off a possible coup
His tender age notwithstanding, Tom Meeusen has been tipped by some to challenge the supremacy of Nys and Albert. Second to Nys at the Noordzeecross two days prior to Christmas, the 21-year-old appears to be in the midst of a purple patch of form at just the right time.
"Tom is the surprise of the Belgian championship, even though he is basically still a developing rider," Meeusen's Telenet-Fidea manager Danny De Bie told Gazet van Antwerpen. "It would not surprise me if he is on the podium come Sunday."
Meeusen's technical skills have also been pointed to as a potential game-breaker by Nys, who told Het Nieuwsblad that conditions on Sunday could fall in favour of the youngster. "In snow and ice [Meeusen] is a podium candidate," he said. "I've ridden on the course and although I've searched for pure snow, all I've found is grainy, sandy snow."
Indeed, Telenet-Fidea's Belgian roster promises to mount a solid challenge. Still working his way back from early-season illness, two-time Belgian Champion Bart Wellens (2004, 2007) has pledged his support to both Meeusen and Kevin Pauwels, who claimed the most recent World Cup round in Zolder.
Wellens told Sporza that although Nys and Albert will present a formidable challenge, his team will bond together to hopefully break the perceived stranglehold of the two.
"In previous years I've faced the stress leading up to the Championships," said Wellens. "But this year the pressure is off me, because after the [disrupted] season I've had, and in my current condition, I do not have a chance of winning. The best I can do is to play super-servant to Kevin Pauwels and Tom Meeusen, our two candidates for the win."
Belgium's depth will also be on display, and although riders such as Dieter Vanthourenhout, Sven Vanthourenhout, Bart Aernouts, Klaas Vantornout and Erwin Vervecken are not being touted as likely winners, all are capable of forcing their way onto the podium.
In the women's event Joyce Vanderbeken will return to defend the title she claimed in Ruddervoorde last year. However, once again she will have to hold off the challenge of Sanne Cant. Last year's runner-up has shown strong form recently and firmed as the 'woman-most-likely' to deny Vanderbeken successive wins. Belgian national road race champion Ludivine Henrion and Veerle Engels will be the dark horses for the race.
With Tom Meeusen to race in the elite category, the Under-23 men's title slips much closer to the 'up-for-grabs' column. With a string of high finishes, including victory at the Koksijde World Cup round, Jim Aernouts will have a golden opportunity to add a second tricolore to his 2007 junior win. Consistent results make Joeri Adams another firm favourite for the event.
Reigning Under-23 Champion Vincent Baestaens outwitted his opponents with brave solo move on the final lap of last year's race. Though his results this season would suggest a repeat is unlikely, with yet another icy course expected twelve months on from his triumph, Baestaens can't be counted out.