In a season which the COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed the heart of cyclo-cross, there will be no fanfare, fancy dress, European pop music or thousands of alcohol-fuelled fans at this year’s centrepiece of the 'cross season.
An outbreak of the so-called South African variant of the COVID-19 virus in the seaside town on the Belgium coast has meant that only limited personnel will be on site at the atmospheric Hippodrome horse racing track.
The threat of COVID-19 has also seen the junior men's and women’s events cancelled. However, the under-23 and elite men and women will battle it out on the racetrack and adjacent beach of the resort with four world titles up for grabs and their respective rainbow jerseys.
Van der Poel will remain the man to beat in Oostende but suffered a rare defeat at the hands of Belgium Wout van Aert last weekend at the final round of the World Cup.
The Alpecin-Fenix rider is looking for a fourth elite world championship title and has been in commanding form this season, winning nine of 13 races, despite only starting his campaign in December.
Meanwhile, Alvarado, aged 22, won her first elite women’s world cyclo-cross crown last season after electing to ride up from the under-23 ranks, winning in a dramatic sprint finish ahead of fellow Dutchwoman Annemarie Worst.
This season she has had fierce competition from compatriots Denise Betsema and Lucinda Brand, with the latter having 11 wins to her name this term.
However, after taking a 20-day break from competitive action Alvarado returned to take two wins last weekend including her first World Cup victory of the season at Overijse.
Oostende is not a regular venue on the cyclo-cross calendar and only riders of the host nation will have experience of the coastal course - the racecourse having hosted the 2017 Belgium national championships.
The course used on this occasion is very similar, with a wide road start before narrowing over a short ramp to string out the field. Riders then climb up a 21 per cent ramp before crossing a road and then descending straight down the other side and onto the beach.
The speed riders hit the sand in the Belgium national championships led to spectacular crashes in the event four years ago.
However, the course map does show an ‘improved sand surface’ which might make it safer for riders. Competitors then head out towards the sea with the tide due to have an impact on riding conditions throughout the weekend and whether the section is rideable or not.
Riders then head back towards the venue and into deeper sand which Van Aert rode away from his opposition in on route to winning the Belgian title. In a difference to the 2017 race, the sand section is broken up by a concrete paving section to offer some respite.
The rest is only a short one, though, and competitors head back onto the beach and then back up the 21 per cent ramp to cross back into the Hippodrome. With sweeping corners riders have time to recover on the fast grass section and cinder.
Short and steep banks with tight switchbacks characterise the back of the course with little room for overtaking. There is also a small, stepped section before riders sweep back underneath and then head through the start and onto the fast road finish straight.
The favourites: Elite men
With the long sand section looking pivotal in Oostende, Van der Poel will have been honing his sand skills ahead of the Championships.
Despite never having raced on the course, the 26-year-old has won on his last three outings in the sand at Koksijde. The Dutchman showed his formidable bike handling skills despite finishing second in the Overijse World Cup round last weekend.
Van Aert said beating his Dutch rival in the final World Cup round last weekend gave him ‘mentally something extra’ going into the home World Championships.
The 26-year-old was on the road to recovery from injury at last year’s Cyclo-cross Worlds and finished fourth. This year, the Jumbo-Visma rider has found chinks in the armour of rival Van der Poel, beating him on three occasions.
The World Cup winner beat his rival by over two minutes by using his running speed in the deep mud of Dendermonde and put on a powerful display to finish a minute ahead at Overijse.
Silver medallist from last year’s world championships, Tom Pidcock, will once again be hoping to challenge for the podium spots. The 21-year-old will join Ineos Grenadiers on the road this season and has impressed this cyclo-cross campaign, beating Van der Poel on his way to victory at Gavere last month.
Belgian trio Michael Vanthourenhout, Toon Aerts and Laurens Sweeck will also have their eyes on a medal, along with Dutch sand specialist Lars van der Haar.
The favourites: Elite women
Like last year, Dutch dominance of the medals is a possibility in the elite women’s event, but national pride will be put to one side in search of the rainbow jersey.
Reigning champion Alvarado showed the skills that won her bronze at under-23 mountain bike World Championships in October when she won the final World Cup round at Overijse last weekend.
However, the experienced Brand will be looking to improve on her silver medal from Bogense in 2019 and bronze at Dübendorf last year. The 31-year-old, who rides for Trek-Segafredo on the road, wrapped up this season’s Cyclo-cross World Cup overall series with three wins from five rounds.
Betsema will also have her eyes on a medal after winning a World Cup round in the sand at Koksijde in 2018 and has taken victories at Hulste and the Scheldecross this season.
American hopes will rest with 23-year-old Clara Honsinger, who has taken two World Cup podiums so far this season.
A successful season in Belgium has seen the USA national champion take second place in tough conditions at Namur and Dendermonde before being narrowly pushed into fourth at Overijse at the weekend.
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