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Belgians will be tough to beat in U-23, junior ‘cross worlds

TABOR, Czech Republic (VN) — In the absence of Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel from the U-23 race, both of the youth categories at world cyclocross championships feature clear favorites. Belgian stars will arrive in Tabor with the highest expectations for both the junior and U-23 men’s races.

First to go, on Saturday, will be the junior men, led by Belgian Eli Iserbyt, who won all but one of the 20 races he entered this season and overwhelmingly claimed the World Cup title.

Among the others vying for a chance to displace him from the top of the podium will be U.S. national champion Gage Hecht. Hecht posed impressive results in Europe all season, winning a non-World Cup race on the difficult circuit in Koksijde, never finishing worse than fifth during USA cycling’s developmental racing block in Belgium in December, and taking third in the final World Cup race in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, last Sunday.

“I’m so excited for [Tabor]. I’m hoping for another podium,” he said on Sunday. If he achieves his goal, he would earn the United States its first men’s worlds medal since Danny Summerhill and Jonathan Page both took silver in Hooglede-Gits, Belgium, in 2007.

Other American juniors with realistic top-10 hopes on Saturday include Gavin Haley, whose biggest win was in the non-cup juniors race at the World Cup weekend in Milton Keynes, England, and Cooper Willsey and Lance Haidet, both of whom posted top-10 results in Europe this season.

Meanwhile for Sunday’s U-23 event, the biggest beneficiary of Van Aert and van der Poel’s move to the elites is surely Belgian under-23 champion Laurens Sweeck. Sweeck himself posted impressive results in his few forays into elite fields this season, including a second-place finish at Scheldecross in Antwerp, Belgium, in December. Sweeck earned a convincing win in the U-23 race at Hoogerheide last Sunday, and now stands alone as the top favorite for the race.

Sweeck will, however, have to hold off fellow Belgian and 2013 U-23 worlds silver medalist Michael Vanthourenhout, who won the overall World Cup title and was the only man to match Sweeck for any length of time last weekend.

American hopes will likely rest on Logan Owen, a second-year U-23 racer who narrowly missed out on a medal in the junior race at the Louisville, Kentucky, world championships two years ago. Owen has largely focused on the road this year, racing cyclocross only sporadically toward the end of the season, but he comes to Tabor fit and well-rested. Americans Curtis White, Tobin Ortenblad, and Drew Dillman have also raced well in Europe earlier this year.

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