So far this season, Mathieu van der Poel has been nearly unbeatable. Will that change in Valkenburg, Netherlands on Sunday?
The UCI Cyclocross World Championships will culminate with the elite men’s race February 4 at 3 p.m. local time, which is 9 a.m. ET.
Here are the top contenders. If you want to catch up on the favorites for the women’s race, we’ve got you covered right here >>
Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands)
The 23-year-old Dutchman is on his way to a perfect season. He’s already sewn up the World Cup overall, winning seven of those races along the way. Van der Poel is nearly a lock to win the DVV Trofee series as well. Plus, at only one point behind Wout van Aert (more on him in a moment) in the Superprestige series, van der Poel may well win that prize as well. His strengths? Nearly everything, from power to speed to technical skills. Weaknesses? Not many… but every so often, he makes a big mistake in a race, like missing his pit bike in Nommay, forcing him to chase back through the field.
Wout van Aert (Belgium)
You’d think the two-time defending world champion would at least be in the hunt at Valkenburg. Based on how van Aert has rarely matched van der Poel’s speed, that seems unlikely, unfortunately. However, van Aert deserves credit for being consistent in nearly every major race, so if van der Poel makes a mistake, it could open the door. Plus, van Aert favors heavy, muddy conditions, which may materialize in Valkenburg.
Laurens Sweeck (Belgium)
Perhaps he isn’t the most decorated rider in the field, but Sweeck is one of the most exciting. Known for fast starts, he’s one of the few riders who takes the fight to the likes of van der Poel and van Aert. Expect him to take a flier early on Sunday. Who knows — if there’s a crash behind, or he finds himself with magic legs, or someone else (ahem, Mr. van der Poel) has a mechanical, it could be Sweeck’s day.
Lars van der Haar (Netherlands)
Little Lars van der Haar is one of the few riders who spans the current generation and the end of the Sven Nys era. He’s come close at worlds on a few occasions, notably second to van Aert in 2016 in a thrilling last-lap battle. He has two bronze medals as well, from 2013 and 2015. The Dutchman could do well on the slippery steep pitches of the 2018 race course, but it’s hard to imagine him doing better than third.
Toon Aerts (Belgium)
Although a little older than van der Poel and van Aert, Aerts has emerged as a newcomer at the front of major races this season. He’s finished on the podium in four World Cups this year but never quite makes it to the top step of the podium, apart from November’s Jaamarktcross in Niel, Belgium. He’s a solid pick for a top-five finish.
Michael Vanthourenhout (Belgium)
Vanthourenhout rarely finds himself among the podium finishers. He’s usually in the second group battling for a top-five result. The 2015 under-23 world champ has yet to win a major UCI race this season, but he came on strong at the final World Cup in Hoogerheide Sunday. It’s unlikely that 2018 is his year to win a medal, but it might be a chance for him to finally crack the top 10 in the elite race.
Corne van Kessel (Netherlands)
Like Vanthourenhout, van Kessel usually occupies the chase group at World Cups. But unlike his Belgian rival, van Kessel has a couple wins to his credit this season at GP Leuven and GP Hasselt. He was fifth at worlds last year, indicating his potential to rise to the occasion at big races.
Tim Merlier (Belgium)
This will be only Merlier’s third chance at an elite world championships. With a fourth-place finish at the Nommay World Cup and a sixth-place result in Hoogerheide, he may be on track to crack the top 10. Plus, it can’t hurt that his teammate on the Crelan-Charles trade team is the defending champ, van Aert.
Michael Boros (Czech Republic)
We figured, what the heck, let’s spice up this list with one rider who isn’t from either Belgium or the Netherlands. But Boros has produced strong results, and they’re getting stronger. In Nommay he was seventh, hinting at his potential.
David van der Poel (Netherlands)
The 10th and final rider on this list is another van der Poel, who was long ago eclipsed by his younger brother Mathieu’s exploits on the bike. David van der Poel was eighth in the last two World Cup rounds so, like a few others on this list, he’s been showing improving form as worlds draw closer.