Only one week after the final World Cup round in Hoogerheide, The Netherlands, the cream of the cyclo-cross peloton will travel to St. Wendel, Germany, a town of approximately 27,000 in the country's southwestern corner, to contest the world championships.
St. Wendel has hosted the Worlds once before, in 2005, and while the parcours may not be ensconced under a sheet of ice and snow as it was six years ago, equally frigid temperatures will welcome those seeking a rainbow-striped jersey on the challenging, 2.8km circuit.
The world championships have been dominated by Belgium for the past decade, with eight of 10 elite men's rainbow jerseys being claimed by the 'cross powerhouse. While Zdenek Stybar claimed the rainbow jersey for the Czech Republic in 2010, a trio of Belgians are poised to return their nation to its winning ways and quite possibly a sweep of the medals, a feat last accomplished by Belgium at the same venue of St. Wendel in 2005.
Niels Albert started the 2010-2011 season slowly, having to recover from a knee injury sustained in training, but the 24-year-old Belgian could seemingly do no wrong once he returned to health. Albert is the top-ranked rider on the UCI standings and won three World Cup rounds, including the finale in Hoogerheide, The Netherlands last weekend, en route to overall victory. And perhaps even more important for any Belgian, Albert captured his first elite national championship earlier this month to round out a dominating season.
Albert is no stranger to success at the world championship level, as he's one of the rare few to win rainbow-striped jerseys at each level: a junior world championship in 2004, a U23 championship in 2008 and an elite world championship in 2009. Albert has found the best form of the season as of late and is a heavy favourite to add another world title to his collection on Sunday.
Perhaps the one chink in Sven Nys's armour is his relative dearth of world championships in relation to the way he's dominated the rest of the season's contests throughout his career, but Nys knows how to win in St. Wendel, Germany, the location of his one-and-only elite world championship in 2005. Nys's season has been frustrating at times with very public miscues in the pits as well as with his equipment, but nonetheless the 34-year-old Belgian has won 10 races and is currently ranked second overall on the UCI standings.
For the first time since 1999 Nys failed to win at least one World Cup event, but earning a second elite world championship would surely be an acceptable capstone to his season.
Kevin Pauwels isn't the prolific winner like compatriots Niels Albert and Sven Nys, but the 26-year-old Belgian has shown considerable strength of late, highlighted by his World Cup victory in Pont-Château, France 10 days ago. While Pauwels has only two victories this season, he's been remarkably consistent throughout his season's campaign with 14 additional podium appearances, four of which were World Cups. Pauwels is the third-ranked rider on the UCI standings and the unassuming Belgian may very well let his legs do the talking on Sunday in pursuit of his first elite world championship.
Pauwels, too, is no stranger to success at the Worlds with world championships in the Junior (2002) and U23 ranks (2004).
The St. Wendel circuit is one that holds special memories for defending champion Zdenek Stybar as it was the location of his first world championship six years ago in the U23 ranks. Stybar started the 2010-2011 'cross season on fire, winning his first seven races, including two World Cups in Aigle, Switzerland and on home soil in Plzen, Czech Republic, but was sidelined by a knee injury and forced to take a month away from competition.
Stybar lost his lead in the overall UCI rankings, World Cup and Superprestige competitions, but returned to competition late in December where he won the Sylvester Cyclo-cross ahead of Nys and Albert and then won the Czech elite championship in early January, his most recent victory of the season. Stybar spent a block of training on Mallorca in preparation for his world championship defense, and rampaged early on in the Hoogerheide World Cup before fading to fourth last weekend.
Stybar, however, is surely a favourite for victory on Sunday and would dearly like to close out his stint on Telenet-Fidea with a world championship before embarking on his road career with Quick Step on March 1.
While Albert, Nys and Pauwels headline the Belgian squad on Sunday, teammates such as Tom Meeusen, Bart Aernouts and Klaas Vantornout all are capable of pulling off a big result. Other riders who could be factors in the elite contest include Francis Mourey (France), Steve Chainel (France), Gerben De Knegt (Netherlands), Philipp Walsleben (Germany) and Tim Johnson (USA).
All eyes are on Katie Compton to see if the 32-year-old American can claim her first world championship, the one result missing from her extensive palmares. Compton has completely dominated the 2010-2011 season with 13 wins in 14 starts, including five World Cups and her seventh straight US national championship. Compton's meticulous approach to training, racing and travel this season seems to have paid off as she's avoided the health issues which have plagued previous world championship efforts.
While not contesting a full World Cup campaign cost Compton a narrow overall defeat to Dutchwoman Sanne van Paassen, Compton's been firmly focused all season on claiming the rainbow jersey in St. Wendel and based on her results thus far this season, the stars seemed to have aligned in her favour for her best opportunity yet. A world championship gold medal will complete her collection of Worlds hardware to go along with silver in 2007 and bronze in 2009.
Compton's race is hardly a foregone conclusion, as she'll face stiff competition on Sunday with plenty of world championship experience. The most likely threat facing Compton is The Netherlands' Marianne Vos, the defending and three-time 'cross world champion. Vos started her 'cross season late due to commitments on the road and track, but she's managed to finish on the podium in each of her nine 'cross races this season, including victories at the Pont-Château, France World Cup and the Dutch national championships.
Vos has yet to beat Compton in their three head-to-head meetings in World Cup events, but the 23-year-old Dutchwoman seemingly gets stronger with each race and Compton will need to make sure she's nowhere close at the finish line where Vos can unleash a devastating sprint.
Another threat for the women's world championship is Germany's Hanka Kupfernagel, whose truly remarkable world championship palmares include podium finishes, highlighted by four victories, in 10 of the 11 Worlds women have thus far contested. The 36-year-old German has five victories this season, including a German national title, and can never be counted out when it comes to the biggest race of the season. Kupfernagel won her third of four world titles in 2005 at St. Wendel and will seek a fifth championship for her palmares on home soil.
Vos's compatriot Sanne van Paassen should play a role on Sunday and has had a breakout season highlighted by her overall victory in the World Cup and a win in the Plzen, Czech Republic round. The 22-year-old Dutchwoman has won four races this season and is currently ranked second overall on the UCI standings behind Compton.
Others who should figure prominently in Sunday's elite women's world championship include Belgian champion Sanne Cant, British champion Helen Wyman, Czech champion Katerina Nash, France's Pauline Ferrand Prevot and Christel Ferrier-Bruneau plus Americans Meredith Miller and Amy Dombroski.
Under 23 Men
France's Matthieu Boulo has shown remarkable form of late in advance of the Worlds, winning the final two U23 World Cup rounds in Pont-Château, France and Hoogerheide, The Netherlands and narrowly missing out on the overall World Cup title to The Netherlands' Lars van der Haar.
While Van der Haar didn't win any of the five World Cup rounds, he finished on the podium in four of the five races. Van der Haar possesses a powerful finishing kick which brought him victory in the Dutch U23 championships as well as the European championships and he's a favourite to finish on the podium, if not win the rainbow jersey on Saturday.
Belgian U23 champion Joeri Adams plus compatriots Vincent Baestaens and Wietse Bosmans are all capable of bringing home yet another world championship for their country. Adams finished a close second to Boulo in the Hoogerheide World Cup round, Baestaens won two World Cups and led the series early on while Bosmans, too, won a World Cup round on home soil in Zolder.
Other riders to watch in Saturday's U23 world championship include Mike Teunissen (Netherlands), Matteo Trentin (Italy), Irwin Gras (France), Twan Van Den Brand (Netherlands) and Marek Konwa (Poland). The United States will be headed by national champion Danny Summerhill and teammate Zach McDonald.
The Junior men's category can be tough to pick as the best riders in the world may compete head-to-head relatively infrequently throughout the season, but one ride who's shown considerable form throughout the season and is likely the favourite in advance of Saturday's world championship is Belgium's Laurens Sweeck. The 17-year-old Belgian won the junior national championship and claimed three of five World Cup rounds, including the finale in Hoogerheide last weekend, to win the overall championship.
Sweeck will be joined by strong teammates, including Daniel Peeters, the runner-up in the Junior men's World Cup.
French Juniors have shown fabulous late-season form, with Clément Venturini winning the penultimate World Cup and having five teammates in the top-10 on the day. Compatriots Kévin Bouvard and Junior national champion Fabien Doubey finished second and third in the Hoogerheide World Cup finale while Loic Doubey finished fifth.
Other contenders include Danny Van Poppel (Netherlands), Yannick Eckmann (Germany), European champion Lars Forster (Switzerland), Vojtech Nipl (Czech Republic) and Silvio Herklotz (Germany).
Image ©: UCI