For the second straight year the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup commences in the Czech Republic with Tabor, the host of the 2010 'cross Worlds, kicking off the series. While the home crowd will not have two-time 'cross world champion Zdenek Stybar to cheer for, as he's fully committed to road racing, nonetheless the competition should be fierce as 'cross season kicks into high gear in Europe.
All four World Cup categories will face off in Tabor - elite men, elite women, U23 men and junior men - with the elite categories contesting eight World Cup events this season while the younger age groups each will race six rounds.
As has been the case in recent years, Belgians have dominated elite men's racing and the World Cup has been no exception. Kevin Pauwels dominated the 2011-2012 World Cup, winning four rounds, including Tabor, and finishing second on three occasions. The only "hiccup" for the Sunweb-Revor rider was a fourth place finish in Namur. Pauwels has yet to win a race this season, but he placed a close second to Sven Nys at last Sunday's opening Bpost Bank Trofee round in Ronse preceded by a third place finish in Ruddervoorde the previous weekend in the first Superprestige round of the season. Last season Pauwels had won only one race prior to his victory in Tabor so this weekend's race may yet again prove to be the spark for another stellar season.
'Cross legend Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet-KDL) finished second overall in last year's World Cup, notching victories in Plzen, Czech Republic (last year's first round) plus two on home soil - Koksijde and Namur. The reigning Belgian champion has already won three races thus far this season and is a definitive contender to win any race he starts.
World champion Niels Albert's season was interrupted last year when he was hit by a car in mid-November while training, and while he salvaged his season with a rainbow jersey the BKCP-Powerplus Belgian failed to win any World Cup events, finishing on the podium just once at the fifth round in Namur. Albert has shown good form thus far this season with a victory last Sunday at the first Bpost Bank Trofee round and a close second to Nys at the opening Superprestige round the prior weekend.
Other riders to look for in Tabor are Belgium's Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor), fourth overall in last year's World Cup and a winner for the first time this season at Thursday's Kermiscross, two-time U23 world champion Lars van der Haar (Rabobank-Giant Off-road Team), making his elite-level World Cup debut, the Czech Republic's Radomir Simunek (BKCP-Powerplus), winner of the opening round of his country's Toi Toi Cup series, Frenchman Francis Mourey (FDJ-BigMat), plus reigning US champion Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus), making his first foray into Europe after a dominating stint of racing on home soil where he's won seven races, including all five C1-ranked events in the US.
For the elite women, Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective) will make her European debut this season at Tabor as the eight-time US champion begins her campaign to win the overall World Cup title for the first time. Compton has won 12 World Cup events in her career, has worn the World Cup leader's jersey, but has yet to prevail overall. Undefeated thus far this season while racing in the US, Compton is a favorite to win in Tabor.
Compton finished third overall in last year's World Cup, behind Daphny van den Brand and Marianne Vos. With van den Brand retired and Vos skipping the early rounds, a consistent campaign in World Cup rounds from Compton could very well deliver her the elusive overall title.
While reigning world champion Marianne Vos (Rabobank Women Team) is, as usual, delaying the start of her 'cross campaign until later this year as she recovers from her road season, her teammate and former World Cup champion Sanne van Paassen should provide Compton strong competition. Van Paassen kicked off her season in fine fashion with a win in the US at CrossVegas, and the young Dutchwoman will look to earn her first European victory of the season in Tabor.
Helen Wyman (Kona), fifth overall in last year's World Cup, started her season in the US where she won nine races and the reigning British champion should be a contender at the opening World Cup round.
Belgian champion Sanne Cant (Enertherm - BKCP Veldtritacademie) finished sixth overall in last year's World Cup campaign and already has one win in her palmares thus far this season.
The Young Telenet-Fidea Team will have many options to play with Nikki Harris, already twice a winner this season, plus Sophie De Boer, Pavla Havlikova and American Amy Dombroski. Another team with a strong presence will be Rapha-Focus, comprised of Gabby Day, Julie Krasniak, Sabrina Schweizer and Jasmin Achermann.
U23 and Junior Men
The World Cup takes on added importance for both the U23 and Junior men's fields as the front of the world championship grid is solely determined by one's overall placing in the World Cup series, which for both categories is comprised of six events instead of the full eight-event elite schedule. The top 16 in the final World Cup results will occupy the top 16 places on the start grid in Louisville, Kentucky at the world championships.
Last season Lars van der Haar dominated the U23 ranks, winning the World Cup as well as his second straight world championship. The young Dutchman, despite having one year of U23 eligibility left, has opted to compete in the elite ranks, leaving this year's World Cup open to his former rivals.
Likely contenders in Tabor include van der Haar's compatriot Mike Teunissen, second overall in last year's World Cup, plus the third-placed overall Julian Alaphilippe of France.
Under 23 world championship silver medalist Wietse Bosmans (Belgium) will start in Tabor as will the US U23 champion Zach McDonald. The young American has one victory already this season, his first ever UCI triumph on a sloppy Providence, Rhode Island parcours, and should be a podium contender in Tabor.
The Junior ranks feature the dominant rider of the previous season, Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel, who won the world championship and swept all of the World Cup rounds amidst a season in which he notched 24 victories in 26 races. Amazingly, he still has one year of eligibility left in the Junior category and he's expected to stamp his authority on affairs yet again. Van der Poel has already won three times thus far this season.