The opening round of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup kicks off this Sunday in Treviso, Italy with racing for all four World Cup categories: men, women, U23 men and junior men. The Treviso circuit will be familiar to many of the riders as it's the same venue utilized for the 2008 cyclo-cross world championships.
With sunny and balmy weather forecast for Sunday, the parcours should be as lightning fast as it was in 2008, likely contributing to tight racing more reminiscent of a dirt criterium.
The men's World Cup has been dominated by one man over recent years, Belgium's Sven Nys. The 33-year-old Nys has seven World Cup titles in his palmares, including consecutive victories in the previous five World Cups. In last year's nine-round World Cup campaign Nys proved to be remarkably consistent, taking three victories and finishing on the podium four additional times.
Nys, the reigning Belgian national champion, kicked off his World Cup season in fine fashion last year by narrowly outsprinting compatriot Niels Albert to win the opening round and Nys would surely like to send a statement to Albert once again that he's still a force to be reckoned with.
Niels Albert, the reigning world cyclo-cross champion, has been on a tear leading up to the World Cup's first round in Italy. The 23-year-old Belgian has already notched up two convincing victories at the Steenbergcross and the GP Neerpelt Wisseltrofee Eric Vanderaerden. In the latter event Albert rode away from the field and spent half the race in front alone en route to victory. Albert bested second place finisher Zdenek Stybar, also second to Albert at the 2009 cyclo-cross world championships, by 34 seconds while Nys crossed the line well off the pace in ninth place, 2:01 behind Albert.
Albert's previous World Cup campaign was interrupted by a ruptured spleen and the Belgian phenom should prove to be quite a challenge for Nys if he can stay healthy for the entire 'cross season.
Belgium is the perennial cyclo-cross power and other starters such as Bart Aernouts and Erwin Vervecken could also be factors in Treviso. Aernouts recently won the Netherlands' Openingsveldrit van Harderwijk race while three-time 'cross world champion Vervecken closed out his US 'cross stint with a win at the USGP of Cyclo-cross Planet Bike Cup in Wisconsin.
The 37-year-old Vervecken won two rounds of the previous World Cup season in Roubaix, France and Koksijde, Belgium on his way to finishing seventh overall in the standings.
Czech Zdenek Stybar should prove to be another contender for victory in Treviso as well as the overall World Cup title. The 23-year-old Czech has won two of his country's Toi Toi Cup series events and has finished second to Albert in Belgium's GP Neerpelt Wisseltrofee Eric Vanderaerden.
Stybar finished the previous World Cup season in third place behind Nys and Bart Wellens, appearing on the podium four times at World Cup events. Stybar, the current Czech national 'cross champion, earned the silver medal in the elite cyclo-cross world championship in 2008 and 2009 and finished the 2009 'cross season in second place on the UCI rankings.
Stybar's teammate, Belgium's Bart Wellens, is recovering from a virus and will miss the early rounds of the World Cup. Wellens finished second overall behind Nys in the previous season's World Cup
Stybar's compatriot Martin Bína has also shown good form of late having won the opening round of his country's national series as well as the Czech Republic's Grand Prix Emiagency Olomouc.
Two riders from the Netherlands, Lars Boom and Thijs Al, won World Cup events the previous year and each finished in the top ten for the World Cup standings. Boom is sitting out the opening round in Treviso, but Al will be on the starting grid with a strong Dutch lineup including Gerben De Knegt.
Other riders to watch will be France's Francis Mourey, always a factor on fast, road-esque circuits, Italy's Enrico Franzoi and Germany's Philipp Walsleben, 2009 U23 world champion and winner of all four U23 World Cup events last season.
Compton vs. Van Den Brand
The women's event will likely be a two-person showdown between the Netherlands' Daphne Van Den Brand and the USA's Katie Compton. Van Den Brand won two rounds of last season's World Cup and finished second overall to Germany's Hanka Kupfernagel. Van Den Brand was the 2003 'cross world champion and has finished on the Worlds podium on four other occasion.
Katie Compton, reigning and five-time American 'cross champion, has come out in storming form in advance of her initial World Cup race. The 30-year-old Compton opened her season with a convincing win at CrossVegas and followed that performance with a pair of strong victories in the opening weekend of the US Gran Prix of Cyclo-cross series.
Compton won three World Cup events last season en route to a third place overall on the World Cup standings. The American did not race a full World Cup campaign last season, but stated her intentions of contesting each of the seven events in this 'cross season's World Cup.
Other contenders in Treviso include France's Christel Ferrier-Bruneau and the Czech Republic's Pavla Havlikova, fifth and sixth overall respectively in the previous season's World Cup, as well as British national champion Helen Wyman.
Germany's Hanka Kupfernagel, the defending World Cup champion and winner of two World Cups the previous season will not be racing in Treviso. Dutchwoman Marianne Vos, the reigning 'cross world champion, is also absent from the Treviso starting grid.
Wide-open competition for U23 and Junior men
Previous season's Under-23 World Cup was dominated by Germany's Philipp Walsleben who won each of the four rounds and also claimed the U23 world championship in Hoogerheide, Netherlands. Walsleben is now competing in the elite category leaving this year's World Cup wide open.
The riders finishing third through tenth on the previous season's World Cup standings, however, all return this season: Kenneth Van Compernolle (Belgium), Ondrej Bambula (Czech Republic), Cristian Cominelli (Italy), Vincent Baestaens (Belgium), Tom Meeusen (Belgium), Arnaud Jouffroy (France), Jim Aernouts (Belgium) and Mitchell Huenders (Netherlands).
Another U23 contender could be Poland's Pawel Szczepaniak, bronze medalist at the 2009 U23 world championships.
In the Junior men's category, only two of the top ten overall World Cup finishers from last season return to the start grid in Treviso: Michiel Van Der Heijden (Netherlands) and Radek Polnicky (Czech Republic), sixth and eighth respectively in the four-round series. Expect the 'cross powers of Belgium, The Netherlands and the Czech Republic to contend for World Cup honours this season.
For the U23 and Junior men, the World Cup series takes on added importance regarding the all-important start line position at the world championships. The top 16 positions on the starting grid for each category are reserved for the top 16 in their respective World Cup standings.