After a clean sweep by the Netherlands last year, the riders in orange are once again the ones to beat at the 2022 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas. However, there are a few noticeable absences that will change the makeup of the six title races.
Last year's elite men's winner Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) of the Netherlands is out with the same back injury that hampered his road season after racing only twice over the winter. His closest rival, Belgian Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) - a three-time world champion - also begged off Worlds to focus on his road season.
Fields have also been reduced by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that's been plaguing the world since early 2020. In 2021, it was the beta variant that was surging and the Worlds were held without spectators in Oostende. In 2022, it's the highly-infectious omicron version of the virus sweeping through even the vaccinated populations and has caused numerous strikethroughs on the entry list.
The Belgian team headed to the United States is without Quinten Hermans (Tormans CX), who won the World Cup in Fayetteville in October. He tested positive for COVID-19 following Sunday's World Cup in Hoogerheide. Two Belgian juniors were also hit by the virus and stayed home.
The team still have one of the main favourites for the elite men's title - Eli Iserbyt, who won a thrilling race in Hoogerheide on Sunday when he chased down Olympic mountain bike champion Tom Pidcock (Great Britain) and then rode away to victory.
Pidcock might have been showing signs of fatigue from training camp with his road team Ineos last weekend but he'll be fresh and relentless on Sunday in pursuit of the rainbow jersey. Without Van der Poel and Van Aert, Pidcock is the favourite alongside Iserbyt and Lars van der Haar (Netherlands).
Six riders from the Italian team were unable to travel after one person on the team tested positive following Hoogerheide, and concerns about the expense of travelling overseas and the risk of a positive test stranding riders or staff in America have led European nations to bring fewer riders than had qualified.
That hasn't affected the main favourites from the Netherlands, who lead the way in the rest of the categories. Elite women's defending champion Lucinda Brand has dominated all season but faces a huge challenge from Marianne Vos, who has been more selective with her calendar but showed fantastic form in Hoogerheide.
Brand and Vos' main competition would normally come from within their team, but with Denise Betsema and Annemarie Worst staying home, it opens the door for other nations. Elite contenders include Hungary's Kata Blanka Vas, Clara Honsinger (USA) and Maghalie Rochette (Canada) all of whom have had great rides this year.
Keep an eye on experienced 'cross contenders Katerina Nash (Czech Republic), Eva Lechner (Italy), Carolina Mani (France) and younger riders like Hélène Clauzel (France) and Silvia Persico (Italy) who have a penchant for early attacks and top-notch skills.
The Dutch are also the top contenders for the under-23s, especially in the women's race with Fem van Empel, Puck Pieterse and Shirin van Anrooij, along with American Katie Clouse. In the men's field, it's Pim Ronhaar and Ryan Kamp up against Belgians Thibaut Nys, Emiel Verstrynge and Niels Vandeputte.
For the juniors, it's Leonie Bentveld from the Netherlands and Zoe Backstedt (Great Britain), with Katherine Sarkisov (USA) and Ava Holmgren (Canada) the North American contenders for women, and David Haverdings (Netherlands) the outright favourite for the men and Jack Spranger the hopeful for the USA.
That a World Championships is happening at all amid a pandemic is positive, and the organisers in Fayetteville have built a beautiful, well-groomed course with wide, sweeping turns, undulating climbs, and a killer set of 39 steps with a tunnel underneath.
In October, torrential rains turned the course into a mud bog but on Saturday and Sunday, the forecast is clear and should make for a fast race.
The Fayetteville venue has plenty of room for passing and fewer tight corners to create the highly anaerobic stop-and-sprint efforts that are typical of the European 'cross courses, and together with expected dry conditions will have every race fully on the gas for the entire time.
There are fewer than 40 riders in most races, 45 in the under-23 men - slightly smaller races than 2021 but significantly fewer than non-pandemic years, especially for the junior races whose numbers have not recovered after a year's absence at Worlds.
The small fields will also limit how much traffic there will be, but there are a couple of turns off the start line that will have riders on the brakes before a couple of short climbs and a long descent that is so fast that it will give riders a chance to catch their breath before the main challenges.
Riders will want to carry as much speed as possible into the first climb which is again wide, open, undulating and not too steep. After the first pit, a few berms are requiring fast, punchy efforts and turns could cause some havoc as riders jostle for position.
They'll need to get back on the gas for a hard acceleration out of those berms for another descent and some 'cobbles' that precede the stairs.
The 39 steps are the main feature on the course and unlike the 'stairway to heaven' of Hoogerheide, these are not quite as steep but are deep enough to make it hard to double-step them.
A steep descent follows with some more berms interrupting the high-speed descent where riders can catch some air. A fast straightaway will give plenty of room for passing before pit two but a twisty undulating final stretch will test riders' mettle and there will be plenty of elbows thrown to protect position ahead of the paved final straightaway.
The course gets its first run-through on Friday with the test event for the Team Relay - a six-rider, six-lap race. Saturday sees the Junior Women, U23 Men and Elite Women's races while titles in the Junior Men, U23 Women and Elite Men will be decided on Sunday.
It's a shame the venue won't be heaving with fans like in Louisville, the last time the country hosted 'cross Worlds - it's definitely a world-class course and even without some of the top stars, will be producing worthy winners from the six title bouts.
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