The UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships head to Luxembourg this year, across the border from France and not far from the sport's heart in Belgium, to Bieles. Organisers have planned a devious course certain to test this mettle of even the most skilled riders.
Both of the current dominant riders in the men's elite field, outgoing World Champion Wout Van Aert (Belgium) and 2015 winner Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands), have struggled with injury over the past few weeks. Perhaps it was the result of their vicious battles during the December festival period, or perhaps it was slightly feigned to hide their form.
Van Aert skipped the Hoogerheide World Cup due to knee tendinitis. Van der Poel had a crash in December that disrupted his training, and opted to miss Fiuggi to train in Spain. The result was a disappointing final World Cup. These two riders have dominated the past two Worlds, however, and that is unlikely to change this year.
Lars van der Haar won the final World Cup round in Hoogerheide in a fast, tactical race, but according to the now-retired former world champion Sven Nys, there will be little room for tactics on the course in Bieles. The course makes good use of the hills to create a harrowing descent, a tricky climb and off-camber section, according to Nys.
"The parcours for the Luxembourg World Championships is one of the most beautiful courses in recent years," Nys said in a preview video for HLN.be. "Of course we will have to wait and see what the weather will do because it always has the last word.
"But there are definitely three, four or five very technically difficult sections. If someone has problems on off-cambers or descents, they don't need to come to Luxembourg."
The Belgians have the strongest team on paper, with six of the top 10 riders in the world in their ranks. But they will be without Toon Aerts, the European champion who broke his collarbone in Italy, who has been an important foil for Van Aert. Laurens Sweeck is recovering from an illness, but Tom Meeusen and last year's bronze medalist Kevin Pauwels will open up the race for Van Aert and, should it come down to tactics, will provide strength in numbers.
But Nys says that strength and skill will win the race, not tactics. "The best rider will win the race here, that is clear. It will be no tactical race," he said.
Vos back on top form
Marianne Vos has seven rainbow jerseys in cyclo-cross, but for the past two seasons she has been sub-par due to injury or absent altogether. After an increasingly strong showing over the road season, Vos rediscovered her previous form on the 'cross bike, winning all but two of the nine races she's entered this season. Those victories included dominant performances in the Fiuggi and Hoogerheide World Cups, making her a top favourite for an eighth world title.
But there are several riders waiting in the wings to capitalise on any error or mishap, including Dutch riders Lucinda Brand and Sophie de Boer. Defending world champion Thalita de Jong's participation is in doubt after she injured a knee in Hoogerheide.
The Belgian champion Sanne Cant and teammate Ellen Van Loy should find the technical course to their liking, while Czech rider Katerina Nash, Frenchwoman Caroline Mani, American Katie Compton, Italy's Eva Lechner and Luxembourg's home hero Christine Majerus have all put in strong performances lately.
Britons with promise in the youth categories
Great Britain hasn't been a dominant force in cyclo-cross, but recent pushes to develop new talent have paid off. Last year's U23 women's champion Evie Richards put in an impressive performance at the Hoogerheide World Cup in the elite ranks to take sixth, and will face a stiff battle with Ellen Noble (USA) – the U23 World Cup winner – Belgian Laura Verdonschot, Dutch rider Annemarie Worst, Emma White (USA) and European champion Chiara Teocchi (Italy), among others.
In the junior men's race, European champion Tom Pidcock and Ben Turner, fresh off a one-two performance in Hoogerheide, will be riders to watch on the British team. They'll be up against stacks of talent including World Cup winner Toon Vandebosch (Belgium), Pan American champion Denzel Stephenson (USA) and many more.
In the U23 ranks, it is once again the Dutch and Belgians who top the favourites list. Joris Nieuwenhuis (Netherlands) just took a win in Hoogerheide and won the World Cup overall, but Belgium has the top U23 rider in the world in Quinten Hermans, and last year's U23 world champion Eli Iserbyt won handily in Fiuggi, and is in fine form. Italian Gioele Bertolini, Frenchman Clement Russo and American Curtis White have also been on the rise in recent weeks.
The recent cold snap seems to have broken, and the weather forecast is calling for milder temperatures on Saturday for the junior men and women's races, and a chance of snow for the men's events on Sunday.