With the mud barely settled on the World Cup finale on the sight of last year's World Championships in Hoogerheide, The Netherlands, the cyclo-cross world will this weekend turn its collective gaze to Tabor for the 2010 Cyclo-cross World Championships in the Czech Republic.
Tabor is located in the Southern Bohemian region of the country and - appropriate to the battles that will take place on the 3.32-kilometre cyclo-cross circuit - has been long regarded as a national stronghold since it was established as a military town by its then Hussite rulers in 1420. Translated from Czech to mean "encampment", the local fans are bound to take this literally and will be revved up to see whether World Cup Champion and home-hero Zdenek Stybar can add the rainbow bands to an already impressive season.
While Stybar's battle with his colleagues in the elite men's race will in inevitably draw the most attention of the weekend's schedule, the conditions of the Tabor course look set to play a major role in the outcome of each of the weekend's four races. A small army of course officials and locals have been working around the clock to ensure the usability of the track, which has frozen solid in temperatures that have dipped as low as -18 Celsius, and has been subject to heavy snowfall in recent weeks.
With the mercury to remain below zero and no possibility of a thaw before the junior men kick things off on Saturday, the advantage has swung firmly in the favour of riders adept at dealing with slippery, technical conditions. However, while results throughout the European winter give a hint as to those riders who might excel in the snow, the competitors well know anything can and often does happen in the pressure cooker of the World Championships.
On paper, the elite men's race looks to be a three way battle; home favourite Stybar on level pegging with Belgian's Sven Nys and reigning World Champion Niels Albert. The trio have divided results amongst themselves this season, with Nys matching the multiple-World Cup round tallies of Stybar (three – Koksijde, Igorre, Roubaix) and Albert (four – Treviso, Plzen, Nommay, Hoogerheide), with a World Cup win of his own (Kalmhout), regular success at the GvA Trophy and yet another Belgian Championship.
Given the conditions, Nys will enter the race as outright favourite. The 33-year-old will certainly take comfort from his season record on icy courses, akin to what will be faced this weekend. His World Cup win and his Belgian title defence were both delivered in emphatic style on parcours that had been rendered technical by the brutal European winter.
Stybar, too, has proven capable of overcoming environmental obstacles. The 24-year-old's win at the legendary sand dunes of Koksijde showed his tenacity and his consistency to claim the overall World Cup title has ensured that the volume of early-season talk of his chances of success in Tabor has only edged closer to 11. Of the three, Stybar is the only rider not to have donned the rainbow jersey – if a home World Championships weren't enough motivation for a top performance that fact alone will be.
Two weeks ago, Albert was an uncertain starter for the Roubaix round of the World Cup after breaking a rib when a drunken spectator at the Belgian nationals knocked him from his bike. On Sunday, he won the final round of the World Cup in Hoogerheide. Only 23, he proved 12 months ago that he can beat all-comers and as the past fortnight has proven he's tough as nails. If he can find some way to conquer the Tabor snow, a successive win is a distinct possibility.
However, it's the element of the unknown at the worlds that could throw up a surprise in an always enthralling contest. Perhaps no better reminder of that fact is Jonathan Page, the first US rider to stand on the worlds podium with a silver medal in 2007. He will form part of a host of riders hoping to pull off a coup and told Cyclingnews earlier this month, "[The] Worlds is one day, for one hour and anything can happen. People crash, they flat, a normally spectacular guy can have a terrible day and a normally not-so-good guy can have a fantastic day."
Page will be at the head of a five-man US team that also features Tim Johnson, Ryan Trebon, James Driscoll and Jeremy Powers. While the frenetic pace of 'cross often leaves little time for team tactics, the quintet could form a formidable force on Sunday.
With the focus on the Stybar-Nys-Albert troika, other squads and riders are bubbling just below the surface. Both Belgium and the Czech teams will field competitive line-ups alongside their obvious stars, with Bart Wellens, Bart Aernouts and the only other rider to win a World Cup this season, Kevin Pauwels, set to start. It goes without saying that Radomir Simunek Junior would dearly love to emulate his father's 1991 World Championship on home soil.
The Netherlands' 2008 World Champion Lars Boom has chosen to forgo the Championships in favour of his flourishing road career, but Gerben De Knegt is a name that is likely to be circled on a few riders' own individual watch lists. Enrico Franzoi (Italy) and Francis Mourey (France) will have attracted the highlighters too.
As it has been each time she's entered a 'cross race this season, Marianne Vos will be the name on everyone's lips come Sunday. The reigning champion juggled a demanding schedule of road, track and 'cross last year, yet has come up trumps on most occasions. Even her competitors admit that it's difficult to fault the just 22-year-old Dutchwoman, who will be a deserved favourite for a second World title.
However, respect aside, Vos' rivals know she's not invincible. The US's Kate Compton and Dutchwoman Daphny Van den Brand both relegated her to second place at World Cup rounds this season, with the latter locking down the overall World Cup last weekend. Van den Brand had taken the lead in that particular competition from Compton, who began the season in sparkling form but who has been forced onto the sidelines by the recurrence of severe leg cramps in recent weeks.
However, Compton's name is not absent from the start list for the race on Sunday and both she and Van den Brand must be considered amongst the favourites for the event. Bolstering The Dutchwoman's hopes in particular will be the fact that her triumph over Vos came at Kalmhout on a slick, snowy course.
The US and Dutch squads also feature a host of names capable of pulling off an upset win. Amy Dombroski, Meredith Miller, Maureen Bruno Roy and Laura Van Gilder will line-up alongside Compton, with Dombroski having shown strong form both stateside and in the European races she has participated in this year. Sanne Van Paassen has grown in stature this season, and with Vos and Van den Brand will ensure there is plenty of orange at the pointy end of the field.
Perennial favourite Hanka Kupfernagel will lead a three-woman German squad and few would be surprised if the 35-year-old can record her fifth World Championship win. Belgium is another nation with a relatively small representation, but Sanne Cant and Joyce Vanderbeken wield significant clout on the professional circuit.
A reflection of their consistency throughout the World Cup season Helen Wyman (Great Britain) and Christel Ferrier-Bruneau (France) will lead five-rider teams from their respective nations into title race, with neither individual to be taken likely by their competition.
Under 23 men
Tom Meeusen is being hailed as heir apparent to the crown of Belgian 'cross royalty and will be an un-backable favourite to take out the under 23 title on Saturday. He raced in the elite category at the Belgian national title race earlier this year where he promptly finished third, just four seconds behind Sven Nys. With conditions in Tabor to mirror those of the Belgian nationals, the technically adept Meeusen can reasonably be expected to finish the race with a rainbow flourish.
But expectation is one thing, reality another. Jim Aernouts may not yet be racing in the professional ranks, as his compatriot Meeusen now does for Fidea-Telenet, but will take the start line with a fair shot at the title. Despite Meeusen's near shut-out in under 23 events, Aernouts has been one of the few riders to make visit to the top step of the podium; his World Cup win at Koksijde coming ahead of Meeusen.
Slovakian Robert Gavenda is one of a number of central European competitors who will hope to put a spanner in the Belgian works. Winner of the opening World Cup round in Treviso and European Championships a week later, Gavenda has been close the podium throughout the season. Czech rider Lubomir Petrus pulled off his own coup early in the season at the Second World Cup round and Poland's Kacper Szczepaniak threw his hat in the ring with a dominant win at the Hoogerheide last Sunday. If Szczepaniak can hold that form through to this weekend, he'll again be a handful for his rivals.
US National Champion Danny Summerhill will lead his nation's charge, with Luke Keough, Jerome Townsend, David Hackworth and Zach Mcdonald all to present themselves in the stars-and-stripes. Under 23 Dutch Champion Corné Van Kessel and Micki van Empel appear to represent The Netherlands' best hope of a win. Frenchman Arnaud Jouffroy will be another rider with high hopes of derailing the Meeusen train.
The World Championship opener is shaping as one of the tightest contests of the event. Last weekend's World Cup win by David Van Der Poel and has perhaps established him as the favourite for the event, but with the Junior field not lined up against one another with anywhere near the regularity of their elite and under 23 counterparts, the race is arguably more open to surprises.
Expectation is building around Van Der Poel, son of legendary Dutchman Adrie van der Poel, as the new wunderkind of Dutch cycling. A consistent list of victories, including successive World Cup wins at the latest rounds, fuelling hopes of a World Championship win this weekend. The Dutch will certainly be a force in the race. Gert-Jan Bosman and Mike Teunissen both potential winners from the seven-rider team.
France's Julian Alaphilippe is one of the names that jumps from the page as a candidate for the win. Local hopes will be carried by Tomas Paprstka and Vojtech Nipl, who last month claimed the Czech junior national title ahead of Radek Polnicky and Paprstka.
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