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From the Pages of Velo: The favorites for rainbow stripes in Louisville

Editor’s note: A portion of this preview of the top contenders for the elite and U23 races at the 2013 UCI Elite Cyclocross World Championships in Louisville, Kentucky, originally appeared in Velo’s February issue.

Elite men

Niels Albert (Belgium): ★★★★ The reigning and two-time elite world champion, Niels Albert has been, along with countrymen Sven Nys and the placid Kevin Pauwels, the cream of the crop in 2012-13. After a slow start, the Belgian finished on the podium at eight races in a row in November, including three victories, and kept getting better from there. After kicking off his U.S. campaign with a win in Cincinnati on Saturday, he’ll celebrate his overall World Cup title on Thursday night in Louisville and will toe the line as the top favorite on Sunday.

It’s a continuation of form that saw him ride away from the field at the world championship last year in the sands of Koksijde. Unlike Sven Nys, who seems to chase sheer dominance throughout the season on his way to overall classification titles, Albert is built for the tough challenge of peaking on the day of worlds.

“The world championship will always be the most important race of the year for me and I do not want to be exhausted at the start,” he said. Albert is in line to go back-to-back for the rainbow stripes, just as his predecessor, Zdenek Stybar, did in 2010-2011.

Sven Nys (Belgium): ★★★ In Belgium, Sven Nys is king. Velo’s International Cyclocross Man of the Year is revered by legions of fans; he is the master of the discipline, one of the most decorated cyclocross stars the sport has ever seen, and arguably the best bike handler in all of cycling. On seven occasions, Nys has won the Belgian national cyclocross title and the overall title in the Superprestige — the discipline’s top series aside from the World Cup — in the same season. The “Cannibal from Baal” (a.k.a. the Kanibaal) did it again in 2012 and, while he fell short in a world championship race where he was heavily favored (despite his God-like stature in the sport, he has only been able to claim one world championship title, in 2005), Nys has bounced back as expected. His 2012-13 campaign began as another dominant affair, with victories on storied tracks like Hamme-Zogge and Koppenberg.

But a bout with bronchitis in late December derailed Nys at the beginning of the key build-up to the worlds. He won the Zolder World Cup and again at Bredene, Belgium, on December 29, but has shown very little since missing his namesake race on New Year’s Day. Whether he can get back in time to contest for his second rainbow jersey is a big question mark.

Despite his late-season speed bump, at 36, nearly a decade older than rivals Niels Albert and Kevin Pauwels, Nys keeps on winning. What he lacks in top-end speed 13 years after his first Belgian elite title, he more than makes up for in finesse and technical prowess. If he is at the front of a race in the closing laps, especially in heavy conditions, Nys is as near a lock for victory as there is in men’s cyclocross. With snow/rain in the forecast for Saturday, and dry, cold weather on race day, for Nys it may come down to the surface on a fast, power riders’ track in Kentucky.

Kevin Pauwels (Belgium): ★★★ Kevin Pauwels had a breakout season in 2011-12, winning 11 races and the overall GVA Trofee and World Cup titles, and finishing third at the world championship in Koksijde. The first half of the 2012-13 season was not been so kind to the reticent 28-year-old Sunweb-Napoleon Games rider. After snaring his only win at the first round of the World Cup in Tabor, he was hampered both by injuries and technical problems. Pauwels came on strong in December, however, winning the Namur and Rome World Cup rounds to finish second overall to Albert, and the GP Sven Nys on January 1.

He’s been on the sharp end of racing ever since and a dry race in Louisville would play especially to his strengths: speed and technical prowess. With a rider as enigmatic as Pauwels, whether his problems are simply bad luck or something more significant is hard to know, but if he can carry his late-season form into early February, and can cope well with the travel, he may pose the biggest potential threat to the dominance of favorites Nys and Albert.

Lars van der Haar (The Netherlands): ★★★★ Lars van der Haar may be the youngest rider at the upper end of the elite cyclocross ranks, but don’t let his youth fool you. The 21-year-old two-time U23 world champion is smart, skillful, and, most importantly, fast. He has raced CrossVegas three times — stealing a win from much more experienced contenders in 2011 — so he knows how to handle travel and how to win on a North American course. And, after a second-place finish in the Tabor World Cup, on a course not entirely dissimilar in character to Louisville, and a third place in Hamme-Zogge, reigning champion Niels Albert picked him as the favorite to win in Louisville.

Van der Haar excels on fast courses, and can handle himself in sand, but he is still not quite the equal of favorites in heavy mud or snow. That said, the Dutch champion was second in the snowy Hoogerheide World Cup two weeks ago. If he stays on his current trajectory, van der Haar will likely wear more than one rainbow jersey in his career, but whether he earns the first in Louisville will likely depend on the weather.

Jeremy Powers (USA):Velo’s North American Cyclocross Man of the Year, Jeremy Powers marked his switch to Rapha-Focus in 2011 by winning five rounds of the Trek U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross series, claiming the overall title, then putting an exclamation point on his season with his first national title. He won five of the eight rounds in 2012 (he skipped the last two in Bend, Oregon) to take the overall title, while also collecting a best-ever seventh-place World Cup finish in Tabor, Czech Republic. Powers struggled through the Kerstperiode, however, falling ill in Belgium after a big block of training in Arizona. He limped through the national championships in early January, and came back to finish third behind Belgians Albert and Wietse Bosmans in Cincinnati on Saturday.

Powers knows the Louisville course well; he lists it as his favorite course on the back of his Rapha-Focus trading card. He has taken victory after victory in Eva Bandman Park, including both days of the Derby City Cup in 2012. Starting in the second row, the ever popular Powers will look to charge from the front — the way he did before fading at the Namur World Cup — and use his technical acumen to separate himself from the less-technically skilled riders.

Bart Wellens (Belgium): ★ Two times an elite world champion, Bart Wellens has only recently returned from a major health scare that saw him experience multiple organ failure. What was eventually determined to be septic shock set him adrift for nearly a year. But Wellens is back, and the 34-year-old Belgian is on his best form in years. His third-place finish on a heavy course in the Superprestige Gavere in late November was his best result in nearly a year, and his first podium in a major-series race since the health scare last January. He spent the early part of last season racing in the U.S., winning the second day of the USGP Planet Bike Cup and StarCrossed before making a brief reconnaissance to Louisville to check out the worlds course. Never to be discounted in a major race, and especially one in the mud, Wellens is a dark horse for glory in the U.S.

Bart Aernouts (Belgium): ★★ Aernouts has been ranked consistently among the top-10 racers in the world, but with Nys, Albert, Pauwels, and, in recent years, now-roadies Zdenek Stybar and Lars Boom winning almost everything in sight, there’s simply too much talent in Europe for the 31-year-old Belgian to earn himself more than a handful of podium finishes a year. Nonetheless, the savvy Aernouts has taken opportunities where he could and earned big results at World Cups and other major series. Easygoing and positive, Aernouts should be a hit among American fans who admire Jeremy Powers for his similar, good-natured racing; with comparable strengths, the two men could easily find themselves racing together for a spot in the top five at worlds.

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