It has become a tradition that the cyclo-cross peloton battles out a World Cup round in Belgium on Boxing Day. Last week the cyclo-cross protagonists enjoyed their mud-bath in Namur, the Walloon region of Belgium, and on Monday, December 26, they're all headed for the Flemish part of the country for the sixth round of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup.
In the women's category Marianne Vos (Nederland Bloeit) is on top form while her Dutch compatriot Daphny van den Brand (AA Drink – Leontien.nl) comfortably tops the World Cup rankings. In the elite men's category Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) and Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor) are closely matched overall, with Nys holding a five-point lead on his compatriot, while Belgian champion Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) recently showed top form.
In Namur the relatively small number of spectators (4,000) witnessed a fantastic afternoon of mud-racing at the citadel. In the women's category snow tortured the riders but that didn't bother world champion and clear winner Marianne Vos (Nederland Bloeit). The elite men's race concluded with a last-lap battle between Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) and eventual winner Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet).
The circumstances at the former F1 racing circuit in Zolder, however, will be quite different. There'll be no rain/snow, the climbs on the course are shorter and there are some long straight-forward sections suited for strong men… like Lars Boom (Rabobank).
Despite last year's snow the Dutch champion showed off his class against the best of the world in the cyclo-cross discipline even though he totally switched focus to the road. In contrast to last year, Boom made his comeback in cyclo-cross one week earlier at the World Cup in Namur where he finished well off the pace in 28th place. "I don't want to peek too early like I did last year when I was at my top at the Tour of Qatar," said Boom, in reference to his dominant win in the prologue at the Tour of Qatar.
"I'm riding these races because it's spielerei. It's fun. I love the mud. My only goal this cyclo-cross winter is to win the Dutch national championship for a sixth consecutive time. That would be a record," the 25-year-old Dutchman said.
Last year Boom fought a nice duel with Niels Albert and this time around both riders made their comeback in the muddy cyclo-cross meadows last weekend. Both riders no longer focus on the overall rankings in the World Cup. That's different for Sven Nys who took over the World Cup lead from Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor) last weekend in Namur. There's only a 5-point margin between the two so neither can afford an off day of racing.
Third-placed Zdenek Stybar (Quick Step) seems out of contention as he trails Nys by 60 points. The world champion was on the verge of ending his cyclo-cross season after the Gazet van Antwerpen round in Essen last Saturday, in order not jeopardize his first full road season. His decent performance in Namur made him opt to keep his focus on cyclo-cross for the moment until the world championships. Last Friday in Diegem the Czech didn't show much progress, though.
Top favorites for the win on Monday afternoon in the elite men's category are the big four: Nys, Pauwels and more than ever strong men Stybar and Albert. Telenet-Fidea riders Bart Wellens and Tom Meeusen are going well and don't count out men with a background on the road like Lars Boom and Steve Chainel (FDJ). The start list for Zolder surprisingly doesn't feature Francis Mourey (FDJ).
The top American riders in Zolder will be Timothy Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld) and Jonathan Page (Planet Bike). Johnson didn't have a good race in Namur. After spending a few days in Switzerland he hopes to pull off a great performance in Zolder. For Page a strong World Cup performance is needed in order to land a world championship ticket and a contract for next season.
Young Zach McDonald (Rapha-Focus) is still deliberating whether or not he will take part in the elite men's event or not. "I might pick up a lot of UCI points. It's not decided yet," McDonald told Cyclingnews after his U23 men's race on Friday evening in Diegem. On Sunday afternoon the official start lists are made up after the team managers meeting.
In the women's race Marianne Vos is the top favorite after her impressive win in Namur last weekend. Her biggest rival, US champion Katie Compton (Rabobank-Giant Off-road Team), headed back to the USA in order to prepare for the national championships even though she's positioned well in the World Cup rankings. Vos will likely face the stiffest competition from women like Lucie Chainel-Lefevre (CC Etupes), the returning Sanne van Paassen (Brainwash) and Daphny van den Brand.
In contrast to previous years there'll be no World Cup races for the junior men and U23 men's categories.