By John Wilcockson
When most of the 190 riders who will compete in the four events at this weekend’s world cyclo-championships had departed the circuit Friday afternoon, one man remained on his bike, plying a lone furrow around the hillside course. You might guess that it was a junior or under-23 participant making the best use of late-afternoon sunshine to take one more look at the 2.65km Coët-Roz course in Pont-Château, France. But, no, it was the oldest rider here: three-time world champ Mario De Clercq, who will be 38 next month.
De Clercq had toyed with the idea of retiring last year, but the stone-faced Belgian from Wortegem-Petegem believes he has one more shot at the rainbow jersey left in his aging legs. He’s not the favorite to win his fourth elite title on Sunday, but he certainly can’t be ruled out.
Besides the Belgian riders, a large contingent of journalists have traveled to Pont-Château in hopes of reporting on the nation’s seventh victory at the elite men’s level in the last eight races. One of them predicted that, as happened last year in Monopoli, Italy, Belgian pros will sweep the top five places.
Belgian cycling federation president Laurent De Backer is setting the bar even higher. Besides predicting the five-man sweep, he expects that for the first time in cyclo-cross world’s history, one country (Belgium, of course!) will win the three gold medals in the elite men, U23 and junior men’s championships.
Only the women’s title looks safe from the Belgians. Since being introduced to the world’s program in 2000, only three women have taken the title: Germany’s Hanka Kupfernagel, France’s Laurence Leboucher and the Netherlands’ Daphny Van de Brand. All three will be back to contest the title on Sunday morning, although U.S. champion Alison Dunlap or new French champion Maryline Salvetat could cause an upset.
The three Belgians most widely tipped to take the other rainbow jerseys are defending elite champion Bart Wellens; last year’s U23 runner-up Wesley Van der Linden; and junior Albert Niels. Incredibly, both Niels and Wellens have had 20 ’cross wins this winter, while Van der Linden has taken “only” six.
Niels was only seventh at the 2003 junior world’s, but none of those who finished in front of him are eligible this year. The three medalists are all competing in the U23 race. This season, Niels has already taken the Belgian and European junior titles, and his closest competition could come from his teammates Quincy Vens and Davy De Scheemaecker.
To take the U23 championship, Van der Linden will have to overcome defending champion Enrico Franzoi, who ran away with the title in Monopoli last year. Franzoi is likely to have a harder time on this weekend’s more technical and more physical course. Also contending for the U23 gold medal will be the Czech Martin Bina and the second-best Belgian espoir, Bart Aernouts.
As for the weekend’s keynote event Sunday afternoon, Wellens is the top favorite. He is ranked No. 1 in the world right now, he won the Belgian national championship (almost as significant as winning the world’s!) two weeks ago, and he is the clear leader of the Superprestige series. His chief opposition looks to be coming once more from World Cup leader Sven Nijs, who has only two bronze medals at the elite level after taking two golds at the U23 level back in 1997 and ’98. But don’t rule out De Clercq, who was a close second last year and has medaled at each of the past six world’s, including his three victories.
Those extra few laps of practice Friday afternoon may have made all the difference.