The sixth round of the UCI's Cyclo-cross World Cup in Heusden-Zolder will kick off a week of intense racing over the Christmas holiday in Belgium, and with the World Cup and UCI rankings still close, there will be strong competition for points in the season's busiest time.
Since it took over the Boxing Day slot from Hofstade, the Zolder course has produced unpredictable results. In 2008, Dutchman Thijs Al profited from the presence of his countryman Lars Boom's generous blocking to claim the biggest win of his career. Last season, Kevin Pauwels took only his second elite victory after riding away from then-world champion Niels Albert on a dry, fast course.
The Telenet-Fidea rider has been more consistently on the podium this year than last, but heavy snowfall in Belgium this year does not favor the relatively cautious rider.
The snow should, in theory, favor the likes of current world champion Zdenek Stybar, but it is still uncertain whether he will race after being away three weeks with a knee injury. After a unbeatable start to the season, Stybar's time off has knocked him down to sixth in the World Cup rankings and even if he should start on Sunday, he has no chance of overtaking series leader Niels Albert, who leads Pauwels by 49 points.
Albert's performances have been up and down this season but consistently inside the top ten, and with two World Cup wins under his belt already he is always a threat for the victory.
Belgian champion Sven Nys is just two points shy of Pauwels in third, and will be certain to go on the attack in the technical sections where he excels to try and claim his first World Cup victory of the season.
In the women's race, Katie Compton is undoubtedly the strongest contender for the podium's top step after her dominating performance in Kalmthout. She trails Dutch rider Sanne Van Paassen in the World Cup rankings by just five points, and will hope to make up for last year's mistakes to finally claim a win in Zolder.
Reigning world champion Marianne Vos has won in Zolder the past two years, first in a close sprint against Hanka Kupfernagel, Daphny Van Den Brand and Compton, and last year with a flawless solo performance.
While it is just the second World Cup of the season for Vos, her third place in Kalmthout was a good indication that she has the form to contend for the win.
Czech Katerina Nash, Van Paassen and Belgian Sanne Cant also are on fine form and along with Helen Wyman will be outside contenders for victory.
In the U23 race, world champion Arnaud Jouffroy will not take the start after knee problems called an early end to his cyclo-cross season. The field will be led instead by World Cup leader Vincent Baestaens, winner of both previous World Cup races for espoirs.
The world champion of the junior men's field, Tomas Paprstka, will also be absent, leaving Laurens Sweeck, winner in the Koksijde and Kalmthout World Cups, to take the number one spot on the start line.