With Sunday's World Cup race in Plzen, the cyclo-cross season gets well under way. While the top European riders have just recently started racing each other, the US contingent has had weeks of strong competition and will field four men and seven women in the World Cup opener.
2010-2011 World Cup champions Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) and Sanne van Paassen (Brainwash) will be on the start line to kick off their title defences in back-to-back Czech Republic rounds. After Plzen, the series heads to Tabor where the junior and under 23 categories kick off their World Cup.
In the men's category there's one clear top favourite and that is Albert. Last year the young Belgian returned from injury and he received a beating from then teammates Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor) and eventual winner Zdenek Stybar (Quick Step-Innergetic).
Last week Albert showed in Ruddervoorde that he's the man to beat at the moment. Home rider Stybar has been recuperating from a knee injury, but riding on home soil should bring fresh motivation.
"I'm going to try to give it my all for my fans and to honour the race," Stybar said in a press release.
One man who's always to be taken into account is Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet). For the first time in years the 35 year-old doesn't seem to be suffering from his mountain bike season and if his mechanical worries from Ruddervoorde are put aside he should always finish on the podium.
Belgians Bart Aernouts (Rabo-Giant Offroad) and Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor), the surprising podium finishers from Ruddervoorde have the pressure on their shoulders to confirm their top form.
While the Dutch team laments the absence of Lars Boom (Rabobank) with nobody to fill the gap, the French team has a strong duo-leadership with FDJ teammates Steve Chainel and Francis Mourey. Both French riders have a good chance of achieving a top result in Plzen.
Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus) will lead a seemingly strong bunch of riders flying in from the USA. Swiss champ Christian Heule (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld) has been experiencing his best results to date since joining teaming up with US champion Tim Johnson and Jamey Driscoll, all of whom will be present in Plzen. Belgium-based Jonathan Page (Planetbike) will be keen on testing his legs once again with his compatriots. Page was never in the race in Ruddervoorde and quickly pulled out of the Superprestige opener.
For the first time this season all the top women will be facing each other in a race. World champion Marianne Vos (Nederland Bloeit) will be the only absentee, similar to last season.
Last year there was a Dutch battle between Daphny van den Brand (AA Drink/Leontien.nl) and Van Paassen which was won by the latter. This year Van Paassen has already beaten Van den Brand on several occasions so she's on good morale.
Also last year Katerina Nash (Luna) fell short for a win on home soil but by beating Katie Compton (Rabo - Giant Offroad) last week she must've gained confidence.
Compton hasn't raced much yet this season but the world number one heads to the Czech Republic while being part of a seven-woman US-team that also includes new Belgian resident Amy Dombroski, who had a high finish in Ruddervoorde, Meredith Miller, Kathy Sherwin, Maureen Bruno Roy, Nicole Duke and ex-patriot Christine Vardaros.
Belgian champion Sanne Cant (BKCP-Powerplus) tops a big Belgian team but none of these women have yet captured top results this season. Helen Wyman (Kona) and Nikki Harris (Telenet-Fidea) are part of a much smaller UK team, but both riders are expected to do well in Plzen.
The German and French teams are surprisingly small but include top riders like Hanka Kupfernagel (Stevens) and Lucie Chainel-Lefevre, who's surprising third place in Ruddervoorde confirmed her return to the cyclo-cross peloton.
The Women's race is due to start at 1:30pm local time with the Elite Men race following at 3pm.