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Which women 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.

Read part I of the women’s cyclocross world championship preview

Also, check out The calm before the storm: Cyclocross worlds are back in Belgium

BRUSSELS, Belgium (VN) — This much is sure: no one headed for worlds is under pressure like Belgian champion Sanne Cant. While Belgium has more or less owned the podium in men’s cyclocross since the mid-1990s, since the first women’s world championships in 2000, not a single Belgian woman has ever won a world championship medal.

So Belgium pins its hopes to end the long drought on the 21-year-old, who herself has never cracked the top five in a world championships. The question Cant must answer, however, is whether a relatively young and inexperienced racer can hold off three of the most accomplished women’s cyclists in history and claim her country’s first world championship victory ever, and do it on home soil.

The favorites

Though the question of how the top three are likely to shake out on Sunday may not be easy to answer, it is clear that four-time and defending world champion Marianne Vos will head to Koksijde as the heavy favorite. Vos returned to cyclocross just in time to finish second in the November World Cup in Koksijde has not failed to win a race since. As skilled a bike handler as there is when it comes to ’cross, she also has won Olympic gold on the track and worn rainbow stripes in both track and road. Despite a hard fall two weeks ago in the Lievin, France, World Cup she quickly recovered and won easily. Last week in Hoogerheide, in her home country of the Netherlands, she won her fourth straight World Cup race by nearly a minute and a half.

Nonetheless, Vos has said repeatedly that she takes nothing for granted going into the world championships.

“We know how strong Katie and Daphny are,” she said in Lievin. “But in Koksijde it will be a different race. It’s the worlds, and it’s always different at the worlds. So we’re all focused and of course we may be the three big favorites, but we have to do it on that day. The sand is technical, it’s different from everything else we ride, so we’ll see.”

Vos has won before in Koksijde, but so have both of the women she acknowledged are her top rivals.

In a 2010 World Cup race, American Katie Compton, stormed to a two-and-a-half minute win over Daphny van den Brand. But in this season’s trip to the dunes, it was van den Brand who rode away with victory.

Van Den Brand will retire at the end of the season, and has said more than once that she would like to cap her career with a second world championship. Although she beat Vos in Koksijde, she has finished second or worse to Vos ten times this season. After claiming the World Cup title on Sunday she was optimistic about her chances in Koksijde, but said she too, considered the race to be wide open.

“The Worlds are always a different, difficult race,” said van den Brand. “You can make plans, but at Worlds, plans don’t always work out.”

Compton, meanwhile, the most successful American in the history of the sport, with two silver medals and one bronze at worlds, has apparently overcome chronic problems with leg cramps that hampered her in two other worlds appearances. But the American has been dogged by other problems this year. A dropped chain cost her any chance for a win in a December World Cup race in Namur, Belgium, and a combination of mistakes and slow starts hurt her in World Cups in Koksijde and Lievin.

“The race starts at the start line,” said Compton in an interview a few weeks ago, “so it’s my own fault for not getting up to the front in these races. Hopefully for Worlds I’ll have that part figured out so I can be in the race at the end.”

Though she comes into Koksijde in a bit of a slump, she indeed did appear to have worked out many of the problems with her bike and her starts in time for last weekend’s race in Hoogerheide. Though she finished fourth there, she has said that she has her sights set only on a world championship, so look for her to be on top form this weekend.

The wildcard for for the podium this weekend is the US-based Czech rider Katerina Nash. A former Olympic cross country skier, she finished third last Sunday and third in last year’s world championships. But Nash has never raced on the sandy Koksijde course, and her success will hinge on how quickly she can adapt to the highly technical track in training this week.

Gallery: Women’s cyclocross season recap

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