The eighth and final round of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup takes place on Sunday, January 23 in Hoogerheide, The Netherlands with races on tap for all categories: Elite men, Elite women, U23 men and Junior men.
Held just one weekend prior to the world championship in St-Wendel, Germany, the fight to decide the World Cup series winners may also provide keen insight into the form of those who will then vie for rainbow-striped jerseys shortly thereafter.
Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) holds a commanding lead in the Elite men's category and, barring a disastrous outing on Sunday, is poised to win the first World Cup title of his career. The 24-year-old Belgian champion will sport the white World Cup leader's skinsuit on the start line Sunday due to a remarkably consistent campaign through the first seven rounds. Albert, also the top rider on the UCI rankings, has placed on the podium six of seven times, including two victories in Koksijde, Belgium and Igorre, Spain, with his worst outing a fifth place finish in Kalmthout, Belgium in mid-December.
With 80 points available for the winner on Sunday, only two riders, compatriots Kevin Pauwels (Telenet-Fidea) and Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet), have a mathematical possibility of wresting the title away from Albert. Pauwels, showing exceptional form with his first World Cup win of the season last week in Pont-Château, France, trails Albert by 61 points while seven-time World Cup champion Nys is currently 71 points back. As long as Albert finishes 31st or better, however, the World Cup championship will be his.
While the overall World Cup title is all but settled, individual race honours should be tightly contested. Pauwels, Albert and Nys finished first through third respectively in the previous round and each is once again a threat to win in Hoogerheide. One rider with the chance to best each of the Belgian trio is current world champion Zdenek Stybar (Telenet-Fidea), who has been training in Mallorca, Spain since capturing the Czech national championship on January 8. Stybar received criticism for skipping the French World Cup round, but the Czech has his eyes keenly fixed on defending his world title and opted to put in a final preparatory block of training to achieve that goal.
Others showing good form in France and who should once again be factors on Sunday include Frenchmen Steve Chainel and Francis Mourey (both FDJ), Belgium's Bart Aernouts (Rabobank-Giant Off Road), Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor) and Rob Peeters (Telenet-Fidea), and Germany's Philipp Walsleben (BKCP-Powerplus).
The United States will field its strongest line-up of the World Cup season with all five world championship team members lining up in Hoogerheide: Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com trio Jeremy Powers, Tim Johnson, Jamey Driscoll, plus Ryan Trebon (Kona) and Jonathan Page.
Van Paassen leads overall, but Compton's not out of it yet
Sanne van Paassen (BrainWash) leads the Elite women's World Cup entering the seventh and final round and only American Katie Compton, currently second overall, can potentially unseat the 22-year-old Dutchwoman from claiming her first World Cup championship. Van Paassen tops the standings with 270 points accumulated through competition in all six previous rounds, including one victory, while Compton has 240 points from her victories in each of the four rounds she's participated in.
Compton, undefeated in World Cup competition thus far this season, is a heavy favourite to win in Hoogerheide in the seven-time American champion's meticulously crafted build-up to the one prize missing from her palmares, the world championship. If Compton wins on Sunday, thus earning the maximum 60 points, then Van Paassen must finish no worse than fifth to claim the World Cup title. The Dutchwoman, however, has finished no lower than fourth in World Cups thus far but faces a deep field on Sunday.
Reigning world champion Marianne Vos (Nederland Bloeit) started her 'cross season late, but has found excellent form approaching Sunday's World Cup. Vos soloed to victory last weekend in Pont-Château, France and should provide a challenge to Compton's World Cup supremacy. Compton topped Vos both of the times they've faced each other in World Cups, but the Dutchwoman has grown stronger since they last went head-to-head in late December.
German champion Hanka Kupfernagel (Stevens Racing Team) finished a strong second in France, while France's Christel Ferrier-Bruneau earned her best World Cup result of the season by finishing third.
Other contenders include British champion Helen Wyman (Kona), sidelined by a mechanical in France, Czech champion Katerina Nash and Dutchwoman Daphny van den Brand, currently third overall on the World Cup standings.
Baestaens and Van der Haar vie for top honours
The five-race U23 men's World Cup comes to a conclusion on Sunday, and the competition for the overall championship is the tightest of any category. Belgium's Vincent Baestaens has led since round one, but holds a slim five-point lead over Dutch and European U23 champion Lars van der Haar, 180 to 175. Two others also have a possibility to claim overall honours: surging Frenchman Matthieu Boulo, who's placed better each round thus far and won last weekend on home soil, and Belgium's Wietse Bosman, winner of round three in Heusden-Zolder. Boulo holds third overall with 159 points while Bosman has 158.
Sixty points are up for grabs for the winner, and the racing should be fierce in pursuit of both the victory and overall championship.
Sweeck seeks Junior men's title
Laurens Sweeck holds a commanding lead in the Junior men's World Cup standings with 177 points, but four riders still have a possibility to supplant him for the overall championship. Sweeck had a chance to put the title out of reach last weekend in France, but his worst outing of the World Cup season, a 14th place finish, resulted in a meager 17 points added to his total.
With 60 points available for first place, Sweeck will have to avoid a similar result if he wishes to earn the World Cup championship. Compatriot Daniel Peeters holds second overall, 39 points down, while Frenchman Clement Venturini, last week's victor, lies in third, one point back. Also still in with a chance is Switzerland's Lars Forster, winner of the third round in Heusden-Zolder, who is 47 points down.
An added incentive for both the U23 men's and Junior men's fields in the final World Cup event is the opportunity to get a top start grid position in the world championships. For each category, the top 16 positions on the start line in Germany on January 29 will be awarded to the top 16-ranked riders on the final World Cup standings.