TABOR, Czech Republic (VN) — If ever there was a wide-open cyclocross world championships, this is it.
Who could have predicted in September that we would arrive at worlds without a single defending world champion standing as a clear favorite to repeat?
Some might have predicted the absence of defending men’s champion Zdenek Stybar, who is chasing classics glory on the road this year, especially after his nasty crash in Ardooie in October. Some might have predicted the rise of defending under-23 champion Wout Van Aert, who abandoned his eligibility in that category to race among the big boys in the elites. At the same time, some might have predicted Mathieu van der Poel, 20, to also make the jump to race as an elite ahead of the Tabor championships. But all of the above, at the same time?
So we come to the championships, in this village of 35,000 people, about an hour’s drive south of Prague, the favorites list shaken almost beyond recognition, with only a handful of riders found on the list made just one year ago for Hoogerheide worlds.
Gone is defending champion Stybar. Gone is two-time champion Niels Albert, who retired suddenly from competition last spring due to a serious heart condition.
Absent also from the list of top favorites is Belgian Sven Nys, the perennially obvious choice to win the championships, after one of the darkest stretches of his decades-long career. Nys, 38, has dominated ’cross since winning the first of his nine Belgian national titles in 2000, but has not won a race since early November.
In December, mired in the depths of a deep slump, Nys sat out several races. Since his return, his results have ticked upward, and he has been more active near the front of races, but has yet to find his way onto the podium.
With Nys struggling and the sport’s other big champions gone, the two youngest men in the elites, Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert, have picked up where the others left off, combining for 20 wins this season. Van Aert tore through the December calendar, dispatching nearly all comers, and van der Poel collected most of the wins Van Aert left on the table. The two did a delicate will-they-or-won’t-they dance for most of January before committing to racing with the elites in Tabor.
Van der Poel’s one-minute victory over Van Aert in Hoogerheide on Sunday had many prognosticators picking him as the top favorite for the rainbow stripes, but Van der Poel — son of former champion Adrie van der Poel — said in interviews he was just one of several contenders.
“There isn’t really one favorite, there are several favorites,” he told VeloNews. “It’s going to be a very hard race there. Wout Van Aert, Tom Meeusen, Sven Nys, Kevin Pauwels, Lars van der Haar. You have five people, maybe more, who can be world champion.”
But in Hoogerheide Van Aert — perhaps strategically — pointed directly at van der Poel.
“I think before this race everybody was thinking about the big group who had a chance for the worlds,” he said. “I think about myself, Mathieu, [Kevin] Pauwels, [Lars] Van der Haar, Nys. Everybody was, I think, hoping for an exciting race with a big group in the front. But today, you can see, Mathieu was a lot stronger than us, and I think it makes him, for sure, the favorite.”
Van Aert nonetheless acknowledged his own aspirations for another year in rainbows after winning the U-23 championship in 2014 even as he tried to diffuse the pressure a little bit.
“I go over there with a lot of ambition,” he said. “I hope for the best result I can get, but I don’t have a specific expectation in my mind. I hope I can learn a lot over there. I hope I can use that in the future.”
Regardless of his own aspirations, Van Aert’s assessment of the top favorites was spot-on. The rider most likely to challenge the two newcomers in Tabor would seem to be Kevin Pauwels, who claimed the World Cup title on Sunday. The Belgian Pauwels has been the only rider consistently capable of beating the pair in recent months. Behind him countrymen Meeusen, Nys, and perhaps new Belgian champion Klaas Vantornout, as well as Dutchmen van der Haar and Corné van Kessel, German Philipp Walsleben, and French rider Francis Mourey all figure to have an outside shot at the podium.
Of the American contingent, only national champion Jeremy Powers has been consistently capable of equalling the world’s best this season. Powers finished ninth overall in the World Cup and certainly posted the best European results of his career, but has never performed consistently in world championship races.
Jonathan Page, the only American man to ever win a worlds medal in the elites, brings the most experience of almost anyone but Sven Nys to Sunday’s race. He looked to be on very good form at the national championships a few weeks ago, and is more than capable of vying for the top 10 if the cards should fall his way, especially if racers face snow or mud on Sunday.
Behind the two JPs are Jamey Driscoll, Zach McDonald, and Stephen Hyde, filling out a relatively young roster. Whether any have a shot to crack the top-10 is hard to say, but the race will surely provide good experience, especially for McDonald and Hyde, neither of whom have started in an elite world championship race before.
The championship may be decided as much by what happens in the race as what happens to the course. On Thursday, the course was covered by a thin layer of snow, but with temperatures near freezing and brilliant winter sunshine, the snowcover was melting and the ground was softening. With similar conditions — highs near the freezing mark and variable cloudiness — in the forecast, the course could just as easily wind up muddy and slick as it could be tacky and firm.
Riders on Sunday said they expected tight battles on a course that neither features major elevation change nor is exceptionally technical. However, if the course stays wet — of if snow falls again — all bets could be off. What part the conditions are likely to play in the weekend’s races we won’t know for another 24 hours at least.
This much is sure, however: With so much up in the air ahead of the races, fans on the ground — or tuning in on TV and online — may well be in for the most exciting world championships the sport has witnessed in perhaps a decade.
Racing starts with the junior men on Saturday at 11 a.m. local time (5 a.m. ET), and the women at 2 p.m. (8 a.m. ET). The championships continue on Sunday with the U-23 race at 11 a.m. (5 a.m. ET) and the elite men at 2 p.m. (8 a.m. ET).