The UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships return to the US after nine years, as riders from around the globe converge on Fayetteville, Arkansas to battle for six individual rainbow jerseys and a team relay competition. It is only the second time in 72 years that the United States has hosted these Worlds.
The venue hosted a World Cup race in October when the rain turned the finely-groomed course into a heavy and muddy track, giving the new circuit a European feel. Only American Clara Honsinger (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld) disrupted the Dutch women from sweeping the elite women's podium, with Lucinda Brand (Baloise Trek Lions) taking the victory nine seconds ahead of countrywoman Denise Betsema (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal).
The Belgians dominated the World Cup elite men’s podium, with Quinten Hermans (Tormans-Circus Cyclo-Cross Team) winning solo ahead of Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal teammates Eli Iserbyt and Michael Vanthourenhout.
This time around in Northwest Arkansas, there is no true advantage to having ridden the course early in the season, as Mother Nature has decided to pour abundant sunshine instead of rain and provide a pure fast track. The start lists, as they develop, also have a number of key absences due to either injuries or related to COVID-19 positives.
Missing from the men's side will be the dynamic duo of Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and Belgian Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), who accounted for the past seven world titles. The Dutch are only sending two elite men, but a full women's field of eight that includes Brand. The Belgians are sending a pair of elite women, but lost a top contender as part of their eight-rider team when Quinten Hermans tested positive for COVID-19 before boarding his flight. The teams from Great Britain, Italy and Switzerland are also reduced in numbers.
There is still glory to be had in a series of seven categories. Here are our predictions in the elite races, which are positioned to deliver close battles among the front-runner nations but no locks on the individual victors.
Lucinda Brand (Netherlands)
Baloise Trek Lions' Lucinda Brand has undoubtedly been the most dominant rider this cyclo-cross season, winning six of the 15 UCI Cyclo-cross World Cups and the overall series title, five of the first six rounds of the Superprestige, and five of the first six rounds of the X2O Badkamers Trofee.
She heads into the event as the defending champion and a favourite to win a second consecutive world title. She will lead a dominant Dutch team that includes Marianne Vos, Yara Kastelijn, Inge van der Heijden, Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado, and Manon Bakker. Denise Betsema has become ill with fever and Annemarie Worst has tested positive for COVID-19, and both were forced to sit out of the championships event.
While Brand excels on most circuits and in most conditions, she is likely to do particularly well on the groomed, golf course-like circuit designed in Fayetteville. At the moment, there's no rain or unfavourable conditions in the forecast, and with sunny, 10+ Celsius temperatures, the course is likely to remain dry and fast - well-suited to her road racing strengths.
Marianne Vos (Netherlands)
Seven-time Cyclo-cross World Champion Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) has been selective about how many and which cyclo-cross races she started this year, opting to contest only seven World Cups and the Dutch national championships.
She opened the season with a victory in Waterloo and then placed fourth in the Fayetteville round and ended her US racing stint with another win in Iowa City. She also won the World Cup round in Rucphen and then beat Brand to win the national title. In between, Vos has finished second at Val di Sole, fourth at Dendermonde, and sixth in Hulst.
Seven of her 12 world titles were in cyclo-cross but she hasn't won a rainbow jersey in the discipline since Hoogerheide in 2014. Likewise, on the road, she hasn't won a world title since 2013 in Tuscany, although she came oh so close last fall with a silver medal in Flanders.
Vos seems to be coming into her top form after a dominant display to win the final World Cup in Hoogerheide, so is definitely in with a shout of regaining the coveted rainbow jersey in Fayetteville.
Blanka Kata Vas (Hungary)
Blanka Kata Vas is one of the biggest rising multi-discipline stars of professional cycling. At just 20 years old, the Hungarian Champion has opted to compete in the elite women's race, as she has done at last year's Road Worlds in Flanders, where she placed fourth, and in mountain biking at the Olympic Games, where she also placed fourth.
During this cyclo-cross season while racing under the SD Worx banner, Vas has once again excelled among her elite peers, finishing 9th in the world ranking and 8th in the World Cup after winning the round in Overijse ahead of under-23 rival Puck Pieterse and defending World Champion Lucinda Brand.
She also stood on the podium in Iowa City and Flamanville, all of which make her a rider to watch for the elite women's world title.
Clara Honsinger (United States)
Clara Honsinger (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld), currently ranked sixth in the UCI World Ranking, is the best shot at world title in the elite women's race for the home nation.
The national champion has shown her strengths at the highest level this year, and while she has not won on the World Cup stage, she has secured two podium places, with third in Fayetteville and second in Dendermonde. She has also put in consistent top-10 performances, with 5th place in Overijse, 10th in Koksijde, and seventh in Besançon.
The World Championships will take place in the US for the second time in the event's history, after it was held in Louisville in 2013 and won by Marianne Vos. Honsinger will have the luxury of limited travel ahead of the event ,the ability to spend more time previewing the course, and the home-team advantage with entire nation at her back.
Maghalie Rochette (Canada)
Maghalie Rochette (Specialized-Feedback Sports) will lead the Canadian team in a hunt for a world title in Fayetteville. Like Honsigner, she will have the advantage of less travel time, without the transatlantic flight ahead of the event, and has had a better opportunity to pre-ride the circuit this season.
Rochette, former Pan American Champion, skipped the prestigious event due to calendar clashes this season. She had a stand-out season with two wins in Rochester, New York, in September, followed by her best performances in December, with a second place at the Besançon World Cup, third place at the Val di Sole World Cup, and fourth in the Superprestige in Boom.
Rochette's best performance at Worlds was in 2017 when she was fifth behind winner Sanne Cant (Belgium). This year, she leads a team that includes Siobhan Kelly, Sidney McGill and Ruby West.
Eli Iserbyt (Belgium)
UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup series champion Eli Iserbyt could well take his first world title. He won Sunday’s finale in Hoogerheide, his 14th victory of the year, with a strong surge on the final lap to distance Lars van de Haar by two seconds, with Tom Pidcock trailing for third.
Iserbyt does not have the imposing physique as some of his countrymen, but has the punchy power to dash around a course like Fayetteville with ease. He finished second to Quinten Hermans in the Arkansas mud in October, which was sandwiched between his World Cup wins in Waterloo and Iowa City that same week. The Pauwels Sauzen - Bingoal rider completed all 15 World Cup races, winning seven times and only finishing off the podium two times and never falling below ninth place It was an exclamation point for rider who did not win a single World Cup race in the 2020-2021 season.
The 24-year-old is the strong man of cyclo-cross this season, with 32 completed races in 33 starts. He’s eyeing not only his first podium in the elite race in just his third try, but regaining a rainbow jersey which he has won twice before as an U23 rider in 2016 and 2018.
Tom Pidcock (Great Britain)
Briton Tom Pidcock seeks to add another gold medal to his cyclo-cross collection, having taken the title as a junior in 2017 and then as a U23 in 2019. He also earned the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games in cross-country mountain biking, proving he can ride any surface.
After a full season on the road with Ineos Grenadiers, the 22-year-old transitioned in December to 12 starts in his ‘cross campaign, but finished on the podium in five of the six World Cup rounds that he started, winning two of them: Rucphen and Hulst.
Leading up to travel to Worlds, Pidcock finished fifth in the X2O Badkamers Flandriencross in Hamme on Saturday after a last-lap crash took him out of contention. At Sunday's final World Cup in Hoogerheide, Pidcock finished in third behind Iserbyt and Van der Haar, after leading for much of the middle section of the race alone.
He has been building momentum in his short two-month ‘cross campaign, and may have the freshest legs of all the contenders. Look for Pidcock, who finished second in his first elite cyclo-cross Worlds bout in 2020, to fight for the gold with Iserbyt.
Lars van der Haar (Netherlands)
The Dutch rider reclaimed the limelight this year in November by winning the European Championship and then scoring his first World Cup victory in four years, this time in Tabor. The Tabor course, a wide track with two sets of steps and lots of undulations, was dry and fast, with Van der Haar technically sound to defeat Iserbyt.
It was a slight redemption for a bronze-medal ride on that same course at the 2015 Worlds, where he was only distanced by 17 seconds by Van der Poel and another two seconds from Van Aert.
The next year at Heusden-Zolder for the Worlds, Van der Haar finished with the silver, just five seconds after the winning pace set by Van Aert. Since then, the 30-year-old veteran has finished in the top 10 four out of the last five years.
While rival Van der Poel was absent from his country’s national championships due to a lingering back injury, Van der Haar took advantage with a powerful display at Rucphen to win the Dutch title, one that had eluded him since 2014.
In addition to the Tabor win, he has four additional podiums in World Cup races this year for Baloise Trek Lions, including second place at Hoogerheide on Sunday. He will only have one teammate in the elite men’s race at Worlds, Corne van Kessel, but will be motivated to keep a podium for the Netherlands.
Toon Aerts (Belgium)
With a trio of bronze medals from cyclo-cross Worlds, the 27-year-old Belgian is ready for something new, preferably in the colour of gold. This season Toon Aerts (Baloise Trek Lions) has a trifecta of achievements - a title in the X2O Badkamers Trofee series, second overall in the Superprestige series, and third after riding in 14 of 15 World Cups, including a signature win by powering up the big sandy climb at Zonhoven in October.
Over his 31 races this season, he has not finished lower than seventh in any race. At the World Cup swing in the US, he finished fourth in Fayetteville. While the dry, fast conditions are not what he would like to get higher on the podium at Worlds, he will be ready for any situation and fine-tuned to make a charge for a personal-best silver or better.
"If I can choose and I can be Santa Claus for what I want, I would want on cyclo-cross race day some very bad weather. Mud, deep ruts. The heavier the better for me, make it hard, make it dirty," he had told Cyclingnews during his US stop in Waterloo.
The Fayetteville course may not have enough climbing for Aerts to stamp his authority, but he will certainly have his big engine near the front and in contention.
Michael Vanthourenhout (Belgium)
Like his Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal teammate Iserbyt, Vanthourenhout finished on the podium at all three World Cup races in the US in October, including a third place in Fayetteville. He finished second overall in the World Cup standings to his compatriot as well, claiming a single win in the series at Namur along with a string of top-six finishes.
He was also the bronze medalist at the European Championships, another high achievement before the calendar turned to 2022. In the new year, he has continued with solid results, but only one podium: third place at World Cup Flamanville. At Belgian nationals he finished a disappointing sixth.
But it is a whole new game at Worlds and the 28-year-old has won the U23 title in 2015 and placed sixth or better in the last four elite races, including a silver medal in 2018. He can certainly contend with smooth circuits for a place on the podium.
Puck Pieterse (Netherlands)
Puck Pieterse, 19, is the undeniable favourite for the under-23 women's world title in Fayetteville. She has consistently put forth strong performances during the elite races on the World Cup, where she finished third in the overall standings behind Brand and Betsema.
Pieterse did not win a round of the World Cup but she did finish six times on the podium - in Overijse, Tabor, Namur, Hulst, Flamanville and Hoogerheide - making her the biggest contender for the world title in the under-23 women's race at this year's Worlds.
Fem van Empel (Netherlands)
Selecting a second rider to watch in the women's U23 race, it was a toss-up between Fem van Empel, 19, and Shirin van Anrooij, 19, as both have shown fantastic form, development and strength during the elite women's racing season. However, we picked Van Empel because she is the defending champion for the under-23 women's race at Worlds.
This season, Van Empel finished the World Cup in fourth place in the standings just behind Pieterse, while Van Anrooij finished slightly further back in sixth. Van Empel won the round in snowy Val di Sole and in Flamanville, along with a series of top 10s.
Pim Ronhaar (Netherlands)
In the under-23 men's category, look for the 20-year-old with bib number 1 to defend his title from 2021. Pim Ronhaar should enjoy his return trip to Fayetteville, where he placed fifth in the elite men’s race in October. He also opted to ride in the elite category at Dutch nationals for the first time just two weeks ago and pulled off a fifth-place finish there as well.
One of his biggest wins this year, so far, was in Namur where he won the U23 World Cup race while wearing his rainbow-emblazoned Trek Baloise Lions jersey. The momentum has continued with three more podiums in his final seven races, including a pair of fourth-place finishes in the build-up to Worlds at World Cup Flamanville and X2O Trofee’s Flandriencross, where he was the top-ranked U23 rider in that series. Ronhaar also completed the regular UCI cyclo-cross season ranked 15 overall for men.
Emiel Verstrynge (Belgium)
Another 20-year-old to watch is Belgian U23 national champion Emiel Verstrynge, who had a slow start to his season but has hit top form from late December to January. He has mixed elite and U23 racing all season and in his final two World Cup events won the U23 title at Flamanville by distancing a trio of Dutch riders including Ronhaar, and finished 13th among elites at Hoogerheide, riding across the line with 22-year-old Dutchman Ryan Kamp.
Verstrynge also took part in the trio of US World Cup races in October, finishing in the top 20 of all three events, with his best performance coming in Fayetteville with 10th.
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