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Analysis: 5 things to watch over ’cross nationals weekend

With European and U.S. cyclocross national championships set for the weekend, we'll be watching a number of storylines

With each of the big cyclocross countries holding their national championships this weekend, here are a few things we’re going to be paying particular attention to.

A coup in the world’s ’cross capital?

For the uninitiated, Belgium is the world center of cyclocross; it’s where the sport’s best riders battle week-in and week-out all season long. The Belgian men are so dominant that at last year’s worlds — in Koksijde, Belgium — they took the top seven places.

And if it seems like national champ Sven Nys (Crelan-Euphony) and world champ Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) are the only riders who ever win races, that’s probably because more often than not that’s the case. When it comes to nationals, Nys reigns supreme with eight titles on his résumé, while the much younger Albert has snatched glory just once so far.

Can the Nys-Albert stranglehold be broken? That’s anyone’s guess, but young Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Napoleon Games) would like to take a shot this weekend — and it looks to be his best chance to date. A former junior and U23 world champ, Pauwels’ momentum seems to be building: He was third at worlds last year and has racked up several victories in the World Cup series over past few seasons. Last week Pauwels flew to a big win at the World Cup round in Rome, so look for him to go for broke come Sunday.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle for Pauwels this weekend is the sand in Mol. Albert and Nys are generally stronger in the sand, but the latter is still recovering from a bout of bronchitis and could only muster 20th in Rome.

Either way, Belgian nationals is likely to be one of the most exciting races of the weekend.

In Britain, who will take top honors in the women’s race?

One of Great Britain’s most promising young riders, Nikki Harris (Telenet-Fidea), has already won her share of championships across disciplines — in track, road, mountain bike, and cyclocross. In November she rode what may have been the best race of her thriving career to take victory in the muddy Superprestige round at Gavere. Not bad for someone who just turned 26 in December.

In what should be one of the most hotly contested championship races this weekend, Harris will go up against veteran ’crosser Helen Wyman (Kona), 32, who has won the British national title seven years running. Wyman is a tough competitor who has racked up victories all season long — both in the U.S. and Europe — perhaps most notably when she won the prestigious Koppenbergcross and her first European ’cross championship, in which she beat Rabobank’s Sanne van Paassen of the Netherlands and compatriot Harris.

It’s the future of British women’s ’cross versus the veteran Euro champion, with each rider looking to out-ride the other for the honor of wearing the national jersey ahead of worlds.

Who will ride well both at nationals this week and at Worlds next month?

Riders try to peak for these two end-of-season races as they are arguably the most important events of the year. A medal can bring media attention, a new contract and sponsors, and even change the course of a career. Note Zdenek Stybar and Lars Boom, both former world champs-turned-WorldTour riders.

But it’s easier said than done, especially when many ’crossers also compete in mountain biking and road cycling.

Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective), the super-favorite for Sunday in the U.S., told VeloNews this week that one’s form at nationals is not always a good indicator of how one will ride at worlds.

“You need to be fast at nats, but being fast at worlds is much more important,” Compton said. “Right now, worlds is my major focus and I want to come into that with the best preparation.”

As for Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus), the current U.S. champ, he believes if a rider is on good form now, they will probably be good in three weeks, too.

“But the thing is, the season has been long and that doesn’t necessarily translate into form at this time of year,” Powers told VeloNews. “If you’ve been burning matches to do well in races since September, sometimes you don’t get those matches back. That’s especially true if you haven’t properly rested beforehand or built breaks into your schedule.

“In the U.S. we’ve been racing since September, so this build-up to nationals and worlds has to be done properly because no one is firing the same way they were at CrossVegas.”

Whoever rides well at nationals will likely have a good shot at doing something special in Louisville. So who will have enough left in the tank to use nationals as a springboard for worlds and a shot at a medal?

For a number of riders, it’s a bit of a gamble that they’ll be on form mentally and have the speed.

“It all depends if you’re at the top of the mountain now and are continuing to climb to February,” Powers said, “or if you’re on the way down the backside.”

The specialists versus the part-timers

It used to be the case that ’cross was something roadies did in the offseason to maintain fitness, avoid weight gain, and sharpen bike-handling skills. And while that’s still the case for many, at least at the top level of the sport we’ve seen the rise of the pure ’cross specialists. That is perhaps nowhere more evident than at nationals and worlds.

Make no mistake: There have been pros that have raced to great results both on the road and in ’cross. But these days they are more the exception than the rule. Boom and Stybar are perhaps the best examples of riders who have excelled in both disciplines, but both eventually had to choose one over the other.

Boom has been the ’cross world champion, a winner of the Tour of Britain, and a stage winner at Paris-Nice and the Vuelta a España. Stybar is a two-time world ’cross champ, but decided in 2011 to turn his attention to road racing; he has won stages at the Four Days of Dunkirk and the Tour of Poland. Boom and Stybar still do select ’cross races when they can, but it appears to be too difficult to be great at both. And since each rider has committed to road, ’cross specialists such as Nys, Albert, and Pauwels have taken full advantage and dominated the sport.

Closer to home, roadie-’crossers such as Tim Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) and Powers have each had mixed fortunes. Johnson stopped racing road to commit fully to ’cross, but after a disappointing 2011-2012 campaign, his results this year have been solid but still not as great as he would have liked. For Powers, even though he’s still racing on the road as a domestique, his narrowed focus on ’cross has led him to a national title, numerous victories, and some impressive results in European World Cups.

Still, even Powers has said that eventually he’s going to have to give up road racing to concentrate fully on ’cross. It’ll be interesting to see how riders focused more on road racing will fare against the ’cross specialists at nationals and, later, at worlds.

Riders like pro mountain biker Adam Craig (Rabobank-Giant Off-road) and neo-pro roadie Danny Summerhill (UnitedHealthcare) could upset the cart in the U.S. come Sunday, but no part-timer has a better shot at scoring national colors this weekend than cross-country racer Marco Fontana (Cannondale), should he be in the start grid when the light turns green in Italy.

The rise of American ’cross

As some of the country’s best athletes gather in the Midwest for a shot at the stars-and-stripes jersey, it’s the perfect time to reflect on the state of ’cross in the U.S. and celebrate the phenomenal growth it has seen. The sport has come a long way over the years, from a relatively obscure winter sport to a fully sanctioned discipline with a number of race series across the country backed by big sponsors.

According to USA Cycling, ’cross has been cycling’s fastest-growing discipline over the past several years, having seen the biggest boom since mountain biking took off in the 1990s. The U.S. has more ’cross races sanctioned by the International Cycling Union (UCI) than any other country — including Belgium.

Micah Rice, VP of national events at USA Cycling, told VeloNews that one of the things spurring the growth of cyclocross in the amateur ranks is its brevity.

“Riders can go out and get a great workout in the cold weather with some hard efforts in less than an hour of racing,” he said. “Even the men’s elite race this weekend is just an hour long.”

What’s more, a lot of riders coming into the sport say they feel safer on a ’cross course than, say, in a criterium.

“At a cyclocross event you can line up in the last row and ride your own pace and not worry about being in fast pack of racers all bunched together,” Rice said. “You can even get lapped and still enjoy it out there on the course as you hone your bike-handling skills and have fun.”

American riders at the pro level have risen to the occasion, too. Last week in Italy, Compton made history when she became the first American to win the overall World Cup title. For years, Compton, Johnson, Powers, Summerhill, Ryan Trebon and Jamey Driscoll (Cannondale), Jonathan Page (ENGVT), Logan Owen (Redline), and many others have gone to Europe and raced against the world’s top riders. In doing so, they’ve helped bring ’cross up a level back at home as well, and the Europeans have taken notice.

Also for the first time, the UCI Cyclocross World Championships are coming to the States on February 2-3 in Louisville, Kentucky, where Compton has as good a chance as any other rider to win the rainbow jersey and the U.S. men could crack the top five.

Now that’s progress.