After a 20-day break, the UCI's Cyclo-cross World Cup presented by Safety Jogger gets underway again. For the first time this season the World Cup heads to Belgium, the heart of the cyclo-cross world. The country organizes three World Cup rounds and the first one is located in the dunes of Koksijde, a coastal town on the North Sea. For only the second time this season this World Cup round will include all four events during Saturday's race schedule.
The day kicks off at 10:15 a.m. with the Junior men's event, followed by the Under 23 men's race. Crowds will be thickening in the afternoon when the Elite women's and Elite men's races are held.
Heading into this World Cup round world champion Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) comfortably leads the Elite men's rankings. The 23-year-old Belgian has won all three earlier rounds and he holds a 35-point advantage over Czech champion Zdenek Štybar (Telenet Fidea Cycling Team). French champion Francis Mourey (Française des Jeux) is best of the rest in third overall and trails Albert by 75 points.
This year's race will see the return of Belgian star Bart Wellens (Telenet Fidea Cycling Team) who had been sidelined for most of the season by the cytolamega-virus. Last weekend's comeback from overtrained Sven Vanthourenhout at the Superprestige Hamme-Zogge and this one from Wellens, who got selected without riding a single race, created an uproar from compatriots denied a coveted position in the nine-man Belgian selection.
Last year, Niels Albert was leading the World Cup standings as well heading into the Koksijde round but he didn't appear at the start, licking his wounds in hospital after crashing out in Asper-Gavere.
"Last year it was my goal to appear in Belgium while sporting the white World Cup leader's jersey. It didn't happen due to my crash and so I'm happy I can do it this year, as it was one of my goals to try it again," said Albert after winning the previous World Cup round in Nommay, France.
Last year's surprising winner Erwin Vervecken (Revor-Baboco) hasn't shown great form this season but thanks to his sand running, sprinting skills and his six earlier wins in Koksijde the 37-year-old Belgian remains one of the favorites. Vervecken joins fellow Belgian Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago) and Niels Albert on the list of favourites, while Zdenek Stybar seems to be the only non-Belgian capable of winning in Koksijde.
Speaking of non-Belgians, this World Cup round in Koksijde was also the race where American Jonathan Page abandoned mid-race and missed a doping control. One year later the 2007 'cross worlds silver medalist returns to Koksijde once again having achieved top results in the US at the start of the season. However, since flying over to Europe the 33-year-old Page hasn't left his mark on racing yet.
The women's World Cup has had only two rounds with each won by American Katie Compton (Planet Bike). The 30-year-old is flying across the pond regularly this season and she'll be in Koksijde to defend her World Cup lead. Last year Compton out-sprinted Hanka Kupfernagel for the win at Koksijde in a race dominated by the German for much of the day. Compton suffered a poor start and required nearly half the race to make contact with the leaders.
Kupfernagel recovered from injuries sustained during the summer and made her comeback in Nommay where she finished sixth. The 35-year-old German won a race at home in Strullendorf, holding off Great Britain's Helen Wyman in the sprint.
Dutch aces Daphny Van den Brand and reigning cyclo-cross world champion Marianne Vos are also strong favourites, with Vos recently out-sprinting Van Den Brand for the victory in Belgium's Niel Jaarmarktcross. Compton suffered her first defeat of the season at the Niel Jaarmarktcross, but bounced back in fine fashion to dominate the Superprestige Gavere four days later. Koksijde isn't really Vos' course but since she's completely focusing on 'cross this season she may surprise us all.
The Under-23 men's race features a solitary American starter - Zach McDonald. The American will have a hard time against the Czech and Belgian strong men but he'll certainly be gaining a lot of experience on the sandy Koksijde circuit. Slovakia's Robert Gavenda will defend his lead in the World Cup, ahead of compatriot Lubomir Petrus and Italian Christian Cominelli. Last year's winner Kenneth Van Compernolle and runner-up Vincent Baestaens lead the Belgian selection.
The Junior men will start the World Cup on Saturday morning with France's Emilien Viennet defending his World Cup. He'll be watching last year's winner, the Czech Republic's Tomas Paprtska. Chris Wallace is participating for the USA.