The world's best cyclo-cross riders will line up for a new, town-centre-based round of the DVV Trofee series in Kortrijk, in Belgium, on Saturday, where Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) will look to extend his unbeaten 33-win-run in 'cross races in the elite men's event, and 777's Yara Kastelijn will attempt to defend her overall lead in the women's standings.
After two rounds, Pauwel Sauzen-Bingoal's Eli Iserbyt and European champion Kastelijn lead the elite men's and women's competitions, respectively, by 1:54 and just four seconds.
Unusually, compared to the likes of the World Cup and the Superprestige series, the DVV Trofee's overall standings after each round are calculated on a rider's overall time, Tour de France-style, which makes things a little more interesting.
Van der Poel is the defending champion when it comes to the Belgian series, and also won overall during the 2017/18 season. The previous three years were all won by Wout van Aert, who has yet to return to cyclo-cross this winter as he still recovers from his Tour de France crash.
Iserbyt will have his work cut out against the dominant force in the discipline, but Van der Poel missed the opening round of the series – the Koppenbergcross – ahead of winning round 2 in Hamme, which will make it very difficult for Van der Poel to successfully defend the series, as riders are handed a five-minute deficit for each round missed.
Missing just one round of the eight-round series means that your hopes of a high overall placing are significantly diminished. Miss two, however, as Van der Poel is set to do, as he's stated that he'll end his 'cross season after the World Championships on February 2, 2020, and so miss the final DVV Trofee round in Lille on February 8, and the task becomes nigh on impossible.
Van der Poel a clear favourite in Kortrijk
On paper, Van der Poel should nevertheless win in Kortrijk on Saturday, but with the world champion currently 3:55 off the pace, perhaps of more concern to Iserbyt this round will be his closest overall rival, Telenet Baloise Lions' Lars van der Haar, who sits in third, 2:28 down. Sandwiched between them in second place is Iserbyt's Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal teammate Michael Vanthourenhout, who rode well to finish fourth behind Van der Poel, Iserbyt and Van der Haar at last weekend's fourth round of the World Cup in Tabor, in the Czech Republic.
Those four are clearly the dominant force in the men's discipline right now, whereas the women's competition is a more open affair.
With Kastelijn having come out on top in round 1 of the series and teammate Annemarie Worst winning in another close race at the Flandriencross in Hamme, the four seconds that separate the two 777 riders is to the team's advantage, but Creafin-Fristads' Eva Lechner is just 1:23 off the pace, while Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado (Corendon-Circus) is only another 14 seconds down.
Most recently, Worst came out on top at the World Cup last week, ahead of Alvarado and Kastelijn, while world champion Sanne Cant (IKO-Crelan) also seems to be back to something approaching her best after returning from injury. It should make for an exciting race on Saturday.
A new course
Kortrijk sits at the heart of Belgian Classics country, neighbouring Kuurne, with Wevelgem down the road to the south-west and Roubaix just across the border in France, and with Ghent just half-an-hour to the north-east.
The new race takes place in the heart of the town, fully earning its Urban Cross moniker, and the route criss-crosses the Leie river several times, which should make for a TV-friendly spectacle as the likes of Van der Poel, Iserbyt, Kastelijn, Cant and Worst do battle.
This story has been amended to state that riders missing a round of the DVV Trofee are handed a five-minute time deficit, and that Van der Poel is set to miss the final round in Lille on February 8.