With the move of the Kalmthout Cyclo-cross World Cup from October to mid-December, the temperate conditions champions Sven Nys and Daphny Van Den Brand enjoyed in last year's event will give way to frozen tundra, following a week-long cold snap in Belgium.
Temperatures plunging well below zero have frozen the ground solid, and while the bitter cold will ease up to near-freezing on Sunday, mother nature may throw in the additional challenge of a fresh coating of snow for the contenders.
Nys and Van Den Brand showed that they are well-prepared to take on this test, with both having won the equally frigid Scheldecross in Antwerp on Friday.
World Champion Niels Albert has maintained his lead in the World Cup classification, although Czech champion Zdenek Stybar has closed to within 15 points after winning the previous World Cup round in Igorre, Spain.
Was Albert's lackluster seventh place on Friday an indication of poor form? Or a calculated move to save energy for Sunday? Most likely it was the latter, as his dominant victories in Overijse and Essen last week signalled that his fitness was on the upswing.
The conditions in Kalmthout could well mirror those which riders will face in the World Championships in Tabor, Czech Republic in January, making Sunday's race an important test for those seeking the rainbow bands. A test not only of skill, but of equipment, something Nys appeared to perfect in Antwerp, although he was evasive when asked which gray-sidewalled tires he was using.
The Belgian team, aside from Nys, seemed to struggle in Antwerp, with Kevin Pauwels being that country's top finisher in sixth. Stybar, however, took third while his compatriot Radomir Simunek had one of his best rides of the season to claim fourth.
Nys' strategy of hitting it hard from the gun seemed to work out well on the frozen course, and we can expect to see a similar early battle for the lead as riders try to avoid getting caught behind anyone making mistakes on the slick run-ups.
Sunweb-Projob's Klaas Vantornout chose to skip the Schledecross in favour of resting up to try and maintain his third place in the standings ahead of Nys. He performed well in the snow in last year's Superprestige race in Hamme-Zogge.
In the women's race, American Katie Compton will once again don the white World Cup leader's jersey to defend the lead she has held since race one in Treviso. Having gotten practice racing in similarly frozen conditions at the US championships in Bend, Oregon last week, she should be ready to take on the Dutch onslaught of Van den Brand, World Champion Marianne Vos and Sanne van Paassen.
Hanka Kupfernagel will continue her search for the form that took her to second at the Worlds earlier this year.
Not to be discounted are Czech Pavla Havlikova, Briton Helen Wyman and the young American stand-out Amy Dombroski, all of whom are strong in technical conditions and can profit from any mistakes made by the bigger names.
The junior and under-23 men have the weekend off, and will resume their World Cup competition in Zolder, Belgium on December 26.
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