Hoogerheide first hosted the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in 2009, the year that Niels Albert stunned the sporting world by taking out the rainbow jersey in his first attempt in the elite ranks.
Albert is also in no shape to repeat his exploits of five years ago, however. Having suffered a bout of the flu after winning in Rome on January 5, he finished an anonymous 12th in the Nommay World Cup. In contrast, defending champion Sven Nys has racked up a series of victories this year: in Baal on New Year's Day, the Belgian championships (by a mile), Zonnebeke and Leuven. He chose to sit out Nommay to keep his powder dry and will be tough to beat on Sunday.
For the 2009 world championships, the course was fast and mostly dry. Although there are relatively warm temperatures and sunshine are in the forecast for Sunday and only a small amount of rain on tap for Saturday, the course is not expected to be hard packed as recent rains have created mud bogs that will stay sloppy for race day.
The mud, sand and steep run-up will make the Hoogerheide course heavy, forcing riders off the bike for longer periods than usual. This could eliminate former world champion Zdenek Stybar from the start list: he is focusing on his preparation for the road season and has said he would only race if the course was dry.
Who will challenge Nys? The Sunweb-Napoleon Games duo Klaas Vantornout and Kevin Pauwels have fallen flat over the past month. Vantornout has been training in Mallorca, trying desperately to overcome a bad patch that has plagued him since the holidays by battering life into his legs with hard training. Pauwels has not been competitive since getting sick before Christmas, but seems to have been on the rebound in recent races.
A heavy course will not be in favor of home hero Lars van der Haar, however his form seemed fine as he rode comfortably in defense of his World Cup title in Nommay, cruising to fourth while letting others fight for the minor placings overall in the final round.
Frenchman Francis Mourey, who won his first World Cup of the season in Namur, and was narrowly defeated by Tom Meeusen in Nommay has a real shot at the rainbow jersey this year. He was the early attacker in last year's world championship race, and a little more patience and a touch of luck could put Mourey on the top step in Hoogerheide.
A dark horse for the podium is Rob Peeters - the Belgian has had the best season of his career, but he needs to get a good start on such a heavy course. Philipp Walsleben (Germany) has also had a stellar season and is on track for a podium placing in Hoogerheide.
World Cup overall winner Katie Compton (USA) has had one of the best seasons of her career, even beating defending world champion Marianne Vos (Netherlands) in a couple of races. A heavy, run-intensive course could help Compton win her first ever world championship title, but a bout with asthma knocked her out of the Nommay World Cup, putting a question mark on her chances for Saturday.
Vos always rises to the challenge of a world championship, but her season has been a bit different this year. Rather than coming back from a simple break after the road season to ramp up for 'cross worlds, she underwent surgery to remove a cyst from her back. While she seemed to return with fine form, she lacked a little depth in the December World Cups, and she lost her last head-to-head with Compton in Rome.
The mud and predicted rain for Saturday will make British champion Helen Wyman into a solid contender. Her second place to Vos in Nommay shows her form is coming just in time for Worlds. Her compatriot Nikki Harris and Belgian Sanne Cant should also contend for the podium.
Under 23 men
The U23 race should be a hard-fought battle between the two riders who have dominated all year: Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands) in his first year as an espoir won the World Cup and Superprestige, and Wout Van Aert (Belgium), winner of the bpost Bank Trofee.
Freed from the utter domination of Mathieu van der Poel, the junior men's field will be more open this year. Czech Adam Toupalik is the rider of the moment, having taken home the World Cup overall, but of course the Belgians will put in a strong challenge with Yannick Peeters or perhaps even Nommay winner Thijs Aerts.
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