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Which men to watch at the cyclocross world championships

Editor’s note: This is part II of the world championship preview, including the favorites for the win. Italics indicate sections from part I.

First read part I of the men’s race preview and the women’s race preview

The Belgian favorites

BRUSSELS, Belgium (VN) — The world championships of cyclocross, which kick off on Saturday, will return to Belgium for the first time since 2007.

With veteran and former two-time champion Bart Wellens sidelined for the rest of the season following a major health scare just ahead of the national championship race earlier this month, the Belgians will field a relatively young team on Sunday; only national champion Sven Nys is over 30. And on a sandy and very technical course in Koksijde, his experience may make all the difference.

In the absence of Wellens, only four men with wins in the major European series races — Superprestige, GVA Trofee, and World Cup — will start Sunday’s race.

Top on the list is newly crowned Belgian champion Sven Nys, who has notched 12 wins this season, the most of any Europe-based racer. Nys, at 35, has perhaps lost some of the pure speed that helped make him the most consistently dominant rider of the 2000’s, but makes up for it with his skillful technique on the bike. Nys is undisputedly the best bike handler among the four favorites for Sunday, and he showed those skills off when he won the November World Cup in Koksijde.

Though his results in the last two weeks have been subpar, Nys always seems to dig deep for the championships. With only a few more chances to pull on a rainbow jersey, look for a motivated Nys to take risks and try to distance his rivals as quickly as possible.

With 10 wins and the World Cup title for the season already wrapped up, the soft-spoken, world number one ranked Kevin Pauwels figures to be Nys’ top rival. Pauwels is still smarting from the sprint with Nys in Koksijde in November, and with a real shot at his first major championship since becoming an elite rider, he will also be highly motivated on Sunday.

Pauwels has been circumspect about his chances however, telling Belgian TV that he doesn’t not consider himself a favorite for the rainbow jersey. “I’ve never really performed that well in Koksijde, and I lost the sprint against Sven Nys there in November,” he said on Sunday, giving reigning champion Zdenek Stybar his nod for race favorite.

Stybar, who won a World Cup race in Koksijde in 2009, and former world champion Niels Albert, who did the same in 2010, both have six wins on the season. Together, the pair may be the most successful duo in cyclocross of the past three years, but neither has looked quite at the top of their game this year. Stybar finished fourth in Koksijde in November, while Albert, recovering from a wrist injury following a training accident, skipped the race entirely.

Stybar, however, has looked sharper recently, with a win two weeks ago in Lievin and second in last Sunday’s race in Hoogerheide. The Czech says he believes he can claim a third world title on Sunday despite the pressure that comes with being a two-time defending champion.

“Yeah, I feel some pressure, but it’s not like I am pissing in my pants,” he joked in a post-race interview on Sunday. “In November and December I couldn’t rest, but in the past few weeks I’ve been much more rested after training. I’m really taking time for it, and that’s important. I still have a week to go and my condition can really improve a lot in a week.”

Albert, who took a win in Loenhout early this month despite being hampered by a respiratory infection, often carefully targets his priority races, and said a few weeks ago that he is staking his season on a result in Koksijde.

“It’s a little bit of a problem (this time of year), because the condition may be good, but when you get sick your body needs a little more recuperation,” he told VeloNews.com earlier this month. “So I’m trying to go very deep with the rest. But I said before the season that Koksijde is my first goal, and I really hope I’m going to win there. I’ll do everything to win, but obviously we will have to see.”

The calm before the storm: Worlds are back in Belgium

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