The penultimate round of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup will take place in Pont-Château, France on Sunday with racing taking place for all categories: Elite men, Elite women, U23 men and Junior men.
The Elite men's World Cup leader and recently crowned Belgian national champion, Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus), heads the 53-strong men's field against the usual coterie of rivals.
Nearly all of the top-20 in the World Cup ranking will be present, bar world champion Zdenek Stybar (Telenet-Fidea), ranked 10th entering the French round and the subject of criticism for skipping the event, and 19th ranked Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea), who is listed as a reserve in lieu of 21st-ranked teammate Rob Peeters. The depth of Belgian cyclo-cross is evident in it being the only country to field the maximum of nine riders, plus two reserves, the aforementioned Meeusen and Kenneth van Compernolle (Sunweb-Revor).
Albert has accumulated 420 points in the overall standings based on very consistently stellar performances through the first six rounds. The 24-year-old Belgian has finished on the podium in five of six races, including a pair of victories in Koksijde, Belgium and Igorre, Spain, and his worst performance is a fifth place finish in Kalmthout, Belgium.
Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) is second overall and trails Albert by 66 points. Nys has won the World Cup on seven previous occasions, but only a disastrous outing by Albert would enable him to prevail overall for an eighth time. Victory in an individual World Cup round has eluded Nys thus far this season, however, and the Belgian is surely keen to win at least one World Cup event to keep his streak alive, stretching back to 1999, of winning at least one World Cup race each season.
Compatriot Kevin Pauwels (Telenet-Fidea) holds third overall with 349 points, only five points down on Nys.
Bart Wellens (Telenet-Fidea), Bart Aernouts (Rabobank-Giant Off Road Team) and Francis Mourey (FDJ) are clustered tightly together on the standings in fourth, fifth and sixth place respectively. Wellens has 294 points, Aernouts 293, and Mourey has 290. Look for Mourey to put in a strong performance on the only World Cup race on home soil.
In the Elite women's event, World Cup leader Katie Compton has opted to skip this round in lieu of training at home in Colorado. Compton, also the top-ranked rider on the UCI rankings and a seven-time US champion, is focused on winning her first world championship and will return to World Cup competition for the finale in Hoogerheide, The Netherlands on January 23.
With Compton absent, Sanne van Paassen (BrainWash) is likely to move into the overall World Cup lead. The Dutchwoman has 230 points, 10 behind Compton, and holds a 40-point advantage over compatriot Daphny van den Brand (ZZPR.nl). However, winning in France may prove difficult for Van Paassen and Van den Brand as compatriot and reigning world champion Marianne Vos (Nederland Bloeit) will also be on the start grid. Vos started her 'cross season late and has only competed in the two latest World Cup rounds, but she finished second each time to Katie Compton. With Compton not present in France, Vos becomes the favourite for victory, although the overall World Cup is out of reach.
Expect strong performances also from Belgian champion Sanne Cant (BKCP-Powerplus), British champion Helen Wyman (Kona) and German champion Hanka Kupfernagel (Stevens Racing Team).
The U23 men face off in their fourth of five World Cup rounds in Pont-Château with Belgium's Vincent Baestaens holding a narrow five-point lead over compatriot Wietse Bosmans. Baestaens won the first two rounds, but only finished sixth in Heusden-Zolder while Bosmans has improved throughout the season, finishing fifth, second and first over the opening three rounds. Dutch U23 champion Lars van der Haar is also a threat for overall victory, currently holding third place with 125 points, 25 off the pace of Baestaens.
Belgium's Laurens Sweeck leads the Junior men's World Cup standings heading into the fourth of five rounds, having won the opening two and finishing fourth in the most recent event at Heusden-Zolder. Sweeck, having accumulated 160 points, holds a 30-point lead over Switzerland's Lars Forster, winner of the most recent round, while Belgium's Daniel Peeters lies in third, 41 points in arrears.