Tom Pidcock heads into this Sunday's UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships among the main favourites to take victory in Fayeteville and with it a first elite rainbow jersey to go with his junior and U23 titles.
He'll face off against a typically strong Belgian team headed by Eli Iserbyt and Michael Vanthourenhout, as well as a two-man Dutch squad led by Lars van der Haar.
The trio are set to be among the strongest challengers for the win alongside Pidcock, though the absence of Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel – winners of the last seven world titles – does cast a shadow over the race.
Speaking in a press conference ahead of the Worlds, Pidcock, who this year has enjoyed a strong 'cross campaign with two World Cup victories following recovery from a knee injury, said that the absence of the two cyclo-cross behemoths is both good and bad.
"This is kind of the thing, I think. For sure they are the two best 'cross riders in the world," Pidcock told assembled journalists, including Cyclingnews. "They have won seven world titles between them over the last seven years? I think that's right.
"So, I certainly think there's more opportunity this year. Of course, it's an opportunity to take. But then again, you know, there's always going to be that cloud if you like that they aren't there.
"But I think, if I can win this year, then I'm world champion and then I can focus on beating them in another year. So, it is kind of the blessing and sort of – it's not good at the same time."
Even after Quinten Hermans was ruled out from starting after testing positive for COVID-19, Belgium will still have seven men at the start, with Laurens Sweeck and Jens Adams also racing.
They look set to the biggest obstacle Pidcock will have to overcome to be crowned champion on Sunday, where the race could end with the Briton taking on the role of having to fight against numerous attacks and counter-attacks.
Pidcock said that Belgium's collective strength is an issue but noted that they could run into trouble with no set number-one rider, with the race possibly devolving into a fight amongst themselves as well as the competition.
"That could possibly be quite an issue to overcome, I guess," he said. "But I'm not entirely sure how well they're going to work together to be honest. I mean, especially with no clear leader. They could all be racing against each other. So yeah, we'll see, but I think I just need to kind of stay out of trouble. Especially on the first few laps."
Pidcock said that he is all on track for this weekend, with just a bit of jet lag to overcome after arriving in the United States. He's not yet familiar with the course – which featured in the second round of the World Cup, won by Hermans ahead of Iserbyt and Vanthourenhout – but he will have a chance to do recons ahead of time, regardless.
"I'm not so familiar with it. I've just seen a few videos," he said. "I know it has changed slightly since the World Cup but the gist of it is the same. It's got quite a big, big climb – bigger than it perhaps looks, so yeah, I think it can be super fast. I've seen some photos and it's actually a bit damp in some places.
"I think there's just one set of stairs. It's quite a long set, around 30 steps, so quite long. I think it's certainly going to be quite a hard course, but technically I don't think it's so difficult."
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