After such a dominant season, winning the overall UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup, the DVV Verzekeringen Trofee and leading the Superprestige series, Mathieu van der Poel is the overwhelming favourite for this weekend's World Championships in Valkenburg, but as he has already learned in his short career, nothing is ever certain in cyclo-cross.
When Van der Poel's races go to plan, he's untouchable. But at last year's Worlds, a devastating puncture a long distance from the pits ruined his chances and in tears, he watched Wout Van Aert celebrate winning the rainbow jersey.
While his current season was nearly flawless form-wise, Van der Poel's few losses came as the result of similar misfortune: In Namur, a series of mistakes and crashes also swung the balance in favour of Van Aert. In Gavere, a last-lap mechanical pushed him from a comfortable lead to third, more than a minute down. In Zeven, another mechanical stopped the Dutchman and forced him to chase through much of the field to second place behind Van Aert.
These events show that while he is incredibly strong, Van der Poel is not unbeatable, and Van Aert will be hoping for any chance to carve out time on his rival. However since January 1, Van der Poel seems to have shrugged off the bike problems after swapping his Stevens for a Canyon. He hasn't lost a race on it yet.
Only just 23, Van der Poel is in a prime position to capture his second world title in the elite men's race, especially on a course designed by his father and fellow cyclo-cross statesman Adri van der Poel. With plenty of climbing, lots of tricky off-camber sections and runs, the heavy circuit will suit him well so long as his luck holds out.
The Cauberg-cross course has had a few alterations thrown in, and will look quite different from the World Cup which was typically held in the much drier time of year in October. The course was recently soaked with rain, turning it into a greasy slip-n-slide, but by the time the elite men race on Sunday, it should be in good condition, even with two days of rain showers predicted on Thursday and Friday.
Women's race will be gripping from grid to finish line
For the elite women, the track could still be quite thick, with rain showers only letting up overnight before their race on Saturday. Although US champion Katie Compton claims the course has too much climbing for her, she showed no issues with a similar course in Nommay, leading the race from start to finish in a stellar fashion.
Although she suffered from asthma in the final World Cup in Hoogerheide, Compton's solid season in Europe, which included the overall DVV Trofee victory in addition to her Pan-American title, has re-established her amongst the favourites for Worlds.
Defending world champion Sanne Cant had a strong season, winning the overall World Cup and European title, but has struggled on the hillier courses like Namur and Koppenbergcross.
From week to week, there have been different riders atop the women's podiums this season, and although Cant has been the most consistent, there are a number of riders who could surprise on Saturday. Katie Keough (USA) is a dogged fighter who finished second in the World Cup to Cant, and has shone on hilly courses.
The home riders cannot be discounted and will be highly motivated to please the fans. Any one of the Dutch riders could win - Marianne Vos showed she's approaching good form with a solid ride in Hoogerheide last weekend and Lucinda Brand has put in some big rides. Former world champion Thalita de Jong is on her way back, and Maud Kaptheijns has been consistently in the mix this season. Even young Annemarie Worst, last year's U23 world champion, has been named as a potential dark horse winner.
The options go deeper than the traditional 'cross countries, too. Britons Helen Wyman and Nikki Brammeier have had great performances on heavy, lumpy circuits and are sure to be in the mix. Mountain bikers Eva Lechner (Italy), Katerina Nash (Czech Republic) and Pauline Ferrand-Prévot (France) have also been strong on similar courses and are always on top form for Worlds.
While the men's event could well be dominated by Van der Poel like we've seen much this season, the women's race is sure to be gripping from grid to finish line.
The U23 women's race will also be one to watch, especially for the home fans since the Dutch riders have had an edge this season.
Although Worst has aged up, Fleur Nagengast, the U23 World Cup winner, and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado are two favourites. Laura Verdonschot (Belgium) and Emma White (USA) are also candidates for the podium, but Britain's Evie Richards, who won the elite race in the Namur World Cup has to be the odds-on favourite.
The excitement doesn't stop there - the U23 men's races have been hard-fought this season, too, with Briton Tom Pidcock eking out the World Cup overall over Belgian Eli Iserbyt.
The junior men's World Cup was super close, too, with Czech rider Tomas Kopecky taking out the win over two Dutch riders Pim Ronhaar and Mees Hendrikx.
The racing begins on Saturday with the junior men at 11:00, the U23 women at 13:00, and the elite women headlining at 15:00 local time. On Sunday, the U23 men start at 11:00 and the elite men at 15:00.
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