Two months ahead of the world championships, the cyclo-cross peloton will race in the dunes of Koksijde at the Belgian coast of the North Sea for the third round of the World Cup. It's not only the final test for racers in Koksijde, but it's also the final test event for organizers so they can see if any further adjustments are needed prior to Worlds.
Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor) will be there to defend his overall World Cup lead in the elite men's category while women's leader Katerina Nash (Luna) isn't taking the start in Koksijde. The third World Cup round of the season will be the first 'cross of the season for world champion Marianne Vos (Nederland Bloeit).
Without leader Nash, the women's race could be a copy of the second World Cup round in Tabor, Czech Republic. Nash won that round on home soil, but back then it was Katie Compton (Rabobank-Giant - Offroad) who opted not to defend her World Cup lead. Compton did fly over to Koksijde where she has won three times before on the 2012 world championship course. The US national 'cross champion will try to repeat her demolishing performance from last year in which she had gapped everybody by more than two minutes.
Looking at the World Cup classification, there are three Dutch women ready to take over command from Compton and Nash. Vos is a former winner in Koksijde, and she is making her return on the challenging course through the Koksijde dunes. Expect Vos to be quickly back on the heels of the top women in the World Cup. For now, her compatriots Sanne van Paassen (Brainwash) and fresh European champion Daphny van den Brand (AA Drink/Leontien.nl) will fight it out with each other to take over the crown from Nash as new World Cup leader.
A surprising name on the list of participants is the young, promising Kaitlin Antonneau (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld). After her excellent race weekend at the Derby City Cup, she makes her debut at the highest level.
There is no clear favorite in the elite men's category, in which last year's winner Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) is out with a wrist injury. Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor) never felt comfortable in the Koksijde sand, but he does have top form and the World Cup lead, so he must be keen to follow up Albert.
"I won the Belgian championships there as a junior. Ever since then, it hasn't been all that great. I'm not the top favorite on that course. A podium result would be great," Pauwels said.
Veteran Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) won "only" three times in Koksijde, but he is expected to be extremely keen on beating Pauwels. This far in the season, the chances to show off his technical skills on the dry courses have been slim, and Pauwels showed that he is unbeatable in those conditions.
"When Pauwels starts to beat us on courses which aren't so fast, then I'll start to become frustrated," Nys said after receiving a beating from Pauwels in the Superprestige in Gavere.
World champion Zdenek Stybar (Quick Step Cycling) grabbed his first big win of the season in Hamme-Zogge. Just like Pauwels the Czech isn't a sand lover, but he did manage to win in Koksijde two years ago. Other than the big three - Nys, Stybar and Pauwels - in absence of Albert, it's hard to see any other rider who is likely to grab the winner's flowers.
In the under 23 men's category, Lars van der Haar (Rabobank-Giant Offroad Team) will defend his World Cup lead. Though he didn't win this round of the World Cup last season, he's the top favorite this time around. The Dutchman is a level stronger than the rest of the category this season. Last year's winner Vincent Baestaens (Landbouwkrediet-KDL) moved up the ranks - and so did runner-up Marcel Meisen - and Baestaens didn't crack the high-quality Belgian selection in the elite men's category.
Belgians Wietse Bosmans and Jim Aernouts are the home riders who'll try to keep Van der Haar from continuing his winning streak. In the US team, Zach McDonald (Rapha-Focus) will defend his 10th place in the overall standings of the World Cup. Compatriots Luke Keogh and Cody Kaiser will also be present in Koksijde to test their legs on the world championship course.
Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands) will try to keep his lead in the junior men's category. Quentin Jauregui (France) and Daan Hoeyberghs (Belgium) cracked the podium in Tabor, too. British champion Hugo Robinson will hope to do better than his 11th spot in the Czech Republic while Andrew Dillman (USA) will be riding his first World Cup of the season.