Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) have already provided one of the most thrilling Classics battles of the year in the Tour of Flanders and the pair are now due to light up the cyclo-cross season in this weekend's UCI World Cup in Namur.
With Lucinda Brand (Telenet-Baloise), Ceylin Alvarado (Alpecin-Fenix) and Denise Betsema (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) expected to continue their battle in the women’s race, Sunday's two elite fields look set to deliver hard-fought and thrilling competition even in the absence of cheering fans.
Van Aert and Van der Poel have taken separate paths in the truncated start to the 2020-2021 cyclo-cross season, with the Van Aert taking fourth in Boom and third in the first World Cup in Tabor, results he achieved despite his third-row starting position.
Van Aert and Van der Poel's long-standing rivalry will finally be resumed off-road on Sunday. While Van Aert yielded to the reigning world champion in the past two seasons, especially after his crash in the 2019 Tour de France, the Belgian appears to be finding some of his previous form.
Van der Poel, by contrast, kicked off his season with an emphatic victory in the Scheldecross last weekend and second place in the Superprestige in Gavere but Namur. The Alpecin-Fenix rider will have the advantage of a front-row start in Namur, while Van Aert is still lacking UCI points because of his short season last year and is thus languishing on the third row of the starting grid.
They'll be up against a huge field of all the top riders, with 71 elite men on the start line including World Cup leader Michael Vanthourenhout (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal), his teammate Eli Iserbyt and Toon Aerts (Telenet-Baloise), among others.
On the technical, hilly course that is often monumentally heavy with mud, starting position is key. The course heads directly to a climb off the start line, followed by a potentially treacherous transition from road to deep mud in the midst of a 180-degree turn. Along with a punishingly long run-up and a twisting muddy descent riddled with potholes and hidden roots, the course will test riders to their limits.
The importance of results in the World Cups to secure a starting position not only in 2021 but also, because of the coronavirus rule modifications, in the 2021-2022 season will put additional pressures on the riders lower down the rankings.
It will also make life difficult for the relatively large contingent of U23 riders who are being combined with the elites because of the cancellation of the junior and U23 races.
The first row of the men's race is dominated by Belgians and the Dutch, with Briton Tom Pidcock, Spaniard Felipe Orts, Kevin Kuhn (Switzerland) and Curtis White (USA) on the second row.
On the women's side, the front row is a bit more international, with five Dutch riders, Sanne Cant (Belgium), Maghalie Rochette (Canada) and Lucia Gonzalez (Spain) at the head of the 69-rider entry list.
After four straight Superprestige wins, a commanding performance in the Gavere and a victory in Namur last season, Lucinda Brand remains the pre-race favourite.
Betsema has made strides up the rankings and the climbing could swing the race in her favour, but it also gives an advantage to US champion Clara Honsinger who has also made a rapid rise over the past weeks.
The elite women's race starts at 1:40pm CET, with the elite men kicking off at 3:05pm. Find out how to watch with live streaming links for anywhere here.
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