Sanne Cant and Wout Van Aert are the favourites for Sunday's Belgian national cyclo-cross championships, with Cant chasing her 10th consecutive women's title and Van Aert looking for a fourth title and a morale-boosting victory.
Most European countries host their national championships this weekend, with Mathieu van der Poel and Marianne Vos the favourites to win in the Netherlands before they take on Cant and Van Aert at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Bogense, Denmark in three weeks time.
Belgian Cycling Federation rules do not allow the riders to recon the course until the day of the race, but a number of former professionals have been studying the technical details and informing the riders and the news-hungry Belgian media. Conditions have been dry but muddy this week, with Bart Wellens predicting races will be decided by technique and focus.
"It's very technical, so you have to stay focused, you can never relax," Wellens told Sporza. "I think that there will be big differences, not between the top riders, but behind them."
Cant shrugged off the pressure and expectation on her shoulders to win again. She has not raced in the Belgian national champion's jersey this winter after winning the world title and the rainbow jersey last year in Luxembourg.
"I have learned how to deal with it. The stress of being young and inexperienced is no longer there,but of course I can always be beaten. In Ostend I had a hard time with Laura Verdonschot two seasons ago. But if I'm at my usual level, it shouldn't happen," she said.
Many consider Loes Sels to be Cant's biggest threat. She finished second in last Sunday's DVV Verzekeringen Trofee-Brussels Universities, where Cant crashed hard.
"I have a big bruise on my thigh, it is a nasty injury and it was difficult to train this week but I hope it will be better by Saturday," Cant said.
Doubt is a bad counselor for Van Aert
Wout van Aert avoided the pressure that always envelops him in Belgium by racing in France last week. He won the La Mézière International race in Brittany and has spent the week quietly training at home.
With Van der Poel not a threat for the Belgian black, gold and red jersey, Van Aert is the favourite to win a fourth title, with a Sporza poll putting him well ahead of Toon Aerts and Tom Meeusen (Telenet Fidea Lions), and Michael Vanthourenhout (Marlux - Bingoal).
Van Aert, who finished third behind Klaas Vantornout and Tom Meeusen in 2015, has won the last three Belgian national title. In 2014 he sparked a false start in the under-23 race, was disqualified, but still jumped into the race.
Despite being so often beaten by Van der Poel this season, Van Aert can still win the Belgian title, the World Cup and the world championships.
"Let's start with a fourth consecutive tricolor jersey in Kruibeke on Sunday. Only the title is good enough," he wrote in his weekly blog on the Weilerflits website.
"I'm riding the Belgian championship for nothing less than a fourth tricolor in a row. I cannot and will not be satisfied with any other podium place. I have never started to doubt myself in the past month. Doubt is a bad counselor."
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