The cyclo-cross world championships return to Koksijde, Belgium and the sandy scenery of the legendary championships race of 1994. Back then the Belgians had been without a world champion for five years and on home soil it ought to happen for the desperate 'cross-maniacs.
While it has only been three years since Niels Albert claimed Belgium's last world title, the host country will still be desperate to see one of their own win.
The 1994 edition in Koksijde was a sensational race on a spectacular course through the Koksijde dunes. It included a first-corner crash, an early lead for young favorite Richard Groenendaal and the legendary comeback – including the pat on the shoulder - from a theatrical Paul Herygers.
The Belgian champion got rid of Groenendaal in the final lap and went on to bring the rainbow jersey home while being cheered on by a delirious home crowd. Before crossing the finish line he took his time to hop on and off his bike and eventually even walked across the line with his bike in the air, typical stuff nowadays but unseen in that era.
The massive dune Herygers which conquered was named after him by the Koksijde town council and 18 years later another dune – now called the X-dune - is ready to get a new name.
More than 32,000 tickets have already been sold, and among those in attendance will be the King of Belgium, Albert II, who's said to be a dedicated cycling fan.
The peak attendance will come on Sunday afternoon when the Elite Men battle it out for the title. Czech rider Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) is the reigning champion and he has a good chance to grab a third title, but he will have to battle the home crowd and a stack of Belgians who all have a fair chance to win themselves.
The usual suspects are Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet), Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor) and Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus). Despite his dominance in the sport during the past decade Nys collected only one title in 2005. Albert collected his sole title in his first year as a pro in 2009.
However, during the 2011-2012 season it has been Pauwels who was the man to beat, and the same will hold true in Koksijde, where in November Pauwels was only beaten in a controversial photo-finish by Nys.
Looking for a dark horse? Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor) is the man of the region and teammate Pauwels might play his card if needed in a tactical race. Non-Belgians? Sadly enough there seems to be no non-Belgian rider except for Stybar with a realistic chance to get the X-dune named after him in Koksijde.
There's a good chance that the people in Koksijde will attract many Dutch tourists in the future as they are expected to be the partying nation on day 1 of the cyclo-cross world championships. In the Junior Men category Mathieu van der Poel (Boxx-Veldritacademie) seems outstanding as he didn't lose a single race since November.
The son of former world champion Adrie still has a year ahead of him in the Junior category and that's no good news for his contemporaries. In this category the French often provide most opposition and on a good day Belgian champion Daan Soete (Telenet-Fidea) should be able to get on the podium too.
On Saturday afternoon the Dutch party is expected to continue in the Men Under 23 category where Lars van der Haar (Rabobank-Giant Offroad Team) dominated his contemporaries this season. Van der Haar won every single race this season but he missed out on the win at the World Cup round in Koksijde.
Outsiders are Belgian champion Wietse Bosmans (BKCP-Powerplus) and another Dutchman Michiel van der Heijden (Rabobank-Giant Offroad Team). On a good day USA-champion Zach McDonald (Rapha-Focus) might crack the top 10 in Koksijde. McDonald hopes for more in 2013 when the world championships are held on home soil in Louisville.
Racing continuous on Sunday morning when the elite women race kick off their hunt for the rainbow jersey. Marianne Vos (Stichting Rabo Women) is the top favorite for the win and grab a fourth consecutive title. Vos won 15 out of 16 races this season but just like Van der Haar it's exactly the one in Koksijde where she fell short for the win.
The most important challengers are Daphny van den Brand (AA Drink-Leontien.nl), Katerina Nash (Luna Pro Team) and USA champion Katherine Compton (Rabobank-Giant Offroad Team). Van den Brand won the World Cup round in Koksijde this year while Compton won in 2008 and 2010.
For Van den Brand – world champion in 2003 and technically excellent - it's the last opportunity to add a second world title to her palmarès as she retires at the end of the season. For Compton this season hasn't been one of her best so far but the setting in Koksijde seems to be ideal to fight Vos. If the challengers can't beat Vos in Koksijde then it wouldn't have happened anywhere as the sand reduces Vos' overall capabilities slightly.
Racing starts at 11am and 3pm local time on Saturday and Sunday.
By the numbers:
40,000 fans expected
30000 liters of beer
8 big screens
10km of fencing
2 million euro costs