UCI Cyclo-cross World Championship a duel for Van der Poel, Van Aert - Preview

The 2016 UCI Cyclo-cross World championships will give the Belgian home crowd at the Terlaemen car racing circuit seven strong men to support on what is expected to be a rainy Sunday afternoon. Their main hopeful is Wout Van Aert (Crelan-Vastgoedservice), but he will face up against a formidable defending champion, Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands).

Van Aert, 21, already took 17 victories this season. He’s the overall winner of the World Cup in which he won the opening round in Las Vegas, USA. Van Aert also won the Bpost Bank Trophy and is on his way to win the Superprestige cyclo-cross series, too. Three weeks ago he won the Belgian championships, also regarded as a mini-world championships. And although he even has a good sprint, he stated that he’s not the top favourite for the World Championships.

After recently racking up four consecutive World Cup victories, Van der Poel (BKCP-Corendon) moved himself into that role of top favourite. The Dutchman, who is also 21 years old, had a troubled start to the season due to a knee injury that sidelined him until November.

Since his return to competition he nailed three victories in December, including the World Cup round in Heusden-Zolder on Boxing Day. In 2016, he won all five UCI-races he took part in, including the Dutch championships. Van der Poel will not be afraid of the expected muddy conditions on Sunday. He won last weekend’s World Cup round with a solo, muddy ride to the line in Hoogerheide.

The last time the World Championships were expected to be a duel was in 2007. Sven Nys and Bart Wellens crashed early on and Erwin Vervecken went on to win a hard-fought duel against Jonathan Page. Many riders will hope for an off-day from the two top guns or a similar scenario in order to prevail themselves.

Next to Van Aert, most riders in the Belgian selection are capable of finishing on the podium. Ahead of the race, only Van Aert and 31-year-old Kevin Pauwels (Marlux-Napoleon Games Continental Team) received a free role. Pauwels is enjoying great form and excels on fast courses with some elevation like the one in Zolder. He was a close runner-up to Van der Poel in Heusden-Zolder at last month’s World Cup round. The other riders are Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea), reigning U23 world champion Michael Vanthourenhout (Marlux-Napoleon Games) and Laurens Sweeck (ERA-Murprotec), Tim Merlier (Crelan-Vastgoedservice) and veteran Sven Nys (Crelan-AA Drink), who will ride his last World Championship race.

There’s two more Dutch riders to check out. European champion Lars van der Haar (Giant-Alpecin) finds a course that suits him perfectly and he might profit if Van der Poel and Van Aert are racing tactically. Then there’s also Lars Boom (Astana). He’s the unknown factor in the Dutch selection. The Treviso 2008 cyclo-cross World champion only rode the World Cup round in Zolder and was the last rider to finish in the lead lap. He prepared for the World Championships by riding the Tour Down Under.

There’s little to no chance that the new cyclo-cross world champion will come from anyone outside of Belgium or the Netherlands. A top-10 result would be an achievement for someone like US-champion Jeremy Powers, who enjoys a front-row start position. The same counts for Clément Venturini (Cofidis, Solutions Crédits), Radomir Simunek (ERA - Murprotec), Michael Boros (BKCP-Corendon), Julien Taramarcaz (ERA Murprotec) and Marcel Meisen (Focus).

Five-star ranking of favourites for the Cyclo-cross World Championships: 
***** Mathieu van der Poel
**** Wout Van Aert
*** Kevin Pauwels, Lars van der Haar
** Tom Meeusen, Sven Nys
* Laurens Sweeck, Michael Vanthourenhout, Lars Boom

Cant leads women's field of favourites

On what is forecasted to be a rainy Saturday afternoon home rider Sanne Cant (Enertherm-BKCP) has a lot of pressure on her shoulders in the in the women's race. At the age of 25, Cant is the most versatile rider of the pack, having won the Belgian and European championship and the World Cup for the second year in a row. This season she took three wins, including the one in Heusden-Zolder.

Last year at the Tábor World championships Cant was extremely disappointed to be beaten in the sprint by the now absent Pauline Ferrand-Prévot (RaboLiv). Other major absentees are seven-fold World champion Marianne Vos (RaboLiv) and Katerina Nash (Luna Pro Team).

Cant still has many riders to keep an eye on. Her biggest challenger seems to be Italian champion Eva Lechner (Luna Pro Team). Lechner was runner-up to Cant in the World Cup standings, winning the World Cup round in Valkenburg in October. She’s a good climber, just like British champion Nikki Harris (Boels Dolmans) who won the World Cup round in Namur, Belgium and placed third overall.

Last month, during the World Cup round in Heusden-Zolder, Cant won ahead of Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective) and Ellen Van Loy (Young Telenet-Fidea). Pan-American and US-champion Compton wasn’t able to train all summer, but the 37 year-old rider showed a lot of progress with her second place in Zolder and a 12th consecutive national title. The last two World Cup rounds haven’t go well though and she remains a big question mark for everybody, probably including herself too. Compatriot Kaitlin Antonneau (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) is the young and upcoming force who captured her first World Cup podium in Valkenburg in October.

Despite the absence of Vos, the Netherlands still have a strong selection. Last week Sophie de Boer (Kalas-NNOF) won the final World Cup round in Hoogerheide. Obviously her form is great but she acknowledged that the fast course in Zolder is not to be compared with the mudfest she dominated in Hoogerheide. Sabrina Stultiens (Liv-Plantur) excels on fast courses and can surprise on Saturday. The latest Dutch talent to emerge is 22-year-old Thalita de Jong (RaboLiv). She impressed with fourth place at this season’s World Cup round in Zolder despite a back-row start position. Last week she finished in second place behind De Boer in Hoogerheide.

Other riders to keep an eye on are Ellen Van Loy, French champion Caroline Mani (Raleigh-Clement), Pavla Havlikova (MRM-Avalon) and Helen Wyman (Kona Factory Team).

Five-star ranking of favourites for the Cyclo-cross World Championships:

***** Sanne Cant
**** Eva Lechner, Ellen Van Loy, Katie Compton
*** Thalita de Jong, Nikki Harris, Sophie de Boer
** Sabrina Stultiens, Caroline Mani, Pavla Havlikova
* Helen Wyman, Kaitlin Antonneau

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