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Cyclocross worlds 2017 preview: More questions than answers

Dan Seaton admits he's at a loss to predict the 2017 UCI World Cyclocross Championships, which mean's it's bound to be great racing.

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Cyclocross fans, VeloNews readers, can I be honest with you? It’s a strange way to start a world championships preview, I know, but this has been a strange season, and we are living in a strange time. I’ve written about a dozen of these previews over the years, and I don’t recall ever feeling so unable to predict a race. Usually I write with some authority: “Watch Marianne Vos, she’s sure to do well.” Let’s leave aside the fact that admonishing readers to watch out for the single greatest cyclist in history is a fairly safe position to take. I’m telling you, this year I’ve got no clue.

If we had talked last year after the UCI’s big gala unveiling the 2017 cyclocross world championships, to be held in Bieles, Luxembourg (a presentation so memorable that it took me a good 10 minutes to recall if I had actually attended) I would have told you that it would be a fine but unspectacular race. The world championships almost always deliver something special, even when the course is vanilla and the competition a foregone conclusion (think Stybar vs. Nys in Hoogerheide, 2014) and my speculation was that Bieles would do little to break that mold.

Today I admit that I was wrong. I don’t think I can tell you who is likely to win, what the course is likely to deliver, or what kind of race to expect. So instead of my usual approach, sharing what I know, let me tell you what I don’t know.

I don’t know if the defending men’s world champion, Belgian Wout Van Aert, is ready for a race. Van Aert clinched the UCI’s World Cup title a couple of weekends ago on an almost comically slippery course in Fiuggi, Italy. But he skipped the World Cup finale in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, on Sunday and spent several days off the bike with a knee injury. A tweet on Monday, suggested he is back on the bike, but will the time off leave him fresh or flat for Sunday’s elite men’s race?

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I don’t know what to make of the Netherlands’s elite men’s squad. Led by 2015 world champion Mathieu van der Poel, the squad also boasts 2008 world champion Lars Boom and 2016 worlds runner-up Lars van der Haar. Van der Poel would seem a hands-down favorite, but he skipped the penultimate World Cup in Fiuggi to train, and finished an anonymous 24th place in Hoogerheide. Van der Haar, meanwhile, spent the bulk of the season nursing injuries off the bike. Since his return to cyclocross in late December, he has been nearly invisible — until Sunday, when he stormed to an impressive World Cup win. Is he a real contender or just lucky that the others sat up to rest legs ahead of the championships? And can Boom pull out something special? His season results have been pretty lackluster, but he’s the only other former champion in the race, and remains a talented rider.

I can’t tell you what to expect from the rest of the men’s field either. Belgian Toon Aerts, the reigning European Champion, would be an outside favorite if an ugly crash in Fiuggi had not ended his season. Belgians Kevin Pauwels, Tom Meeusen, Laurens Sweeck, and Michael Vanthourenhout all deserve consideration for a place on the podium, as do France’s Clement Venturini and Germany’s Marcel Meisen. The smart money is probably on a Van Aert versus van der Poel duel, but at worlds, anything can happen.

Photo: Tim De Waele |
Marianne Vos has been on a tear since the Kerstperiode races. Photo: Tim De Waele |

For that matter, I’m at even more of a loss when it comes to the women. Any other year, Vos, with her seven world titles, would be an undisputed favorite, but Vos is just back to cyclocross after almost two full seasons away due to injury and overtraining. On the other hand, with a newly reclaimed Dutch title and three straight World Cup wins, it’s hard to doubt she has found her legs again. But the championship race on Saturday will be her first real high-pressure test. Can she measure up and reclaim the rainbows she last wore in 2014?

One thing we do know is that there will be no repeat champion in the women’s race — 2016 champion Thalita de Jong will miss the race thanks to injuries sustained in a heavy fall on Sunday in Hoogerheide. De Jong has had consistent if unspectacular results this season, but as a defending champ, would deserve consideration behind Vos.

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But I don’t know quite who to look to in her absence. A long list of perennial favorites — American Katie Compton, Belgian Sanne Cant, Czech Katerina Nash, Sophie de Boer and Lucinda Brand of the Netherlands, Italian Eva Lechner, and France’s Caroline Mani — all deserve consideration but bear question marks. Compton is back with renewed focus and a more carefully tailored training and travel plan this season, but suffered falls and flats that hindered her efforts Hoogerheide. Will she be fully recovered in time for Saturday’s race? Cant has been closing in on worlds success for years, but has yet to earn the sport’s top prize. She has not been as consistent this season; could she still break through? And what about Luxembourg’s Christine Majerus? She’d be a sleeper pick, but magic often happens when racing in one’s home country.

Of the women’s race, I can only say this. Watch Vos (of course) but more importantly, watch this race. With a hugely talented, wide-open field, this will very likely be the best race of the weekend.

Photo: Tim De Waele |
Can Katie Compton make a run at a rainbow jersey in 2017? Photo: Tim De Waele |

Here’s one more key question: what can the American team deliver? America’s best shot for a medal is almost surely in the under-23 women’s race on Saturday. Ellen Noble, who clinched the under-23 World Cup title last Sunday, would be a good bet for a medal in the elite women’s race, and is a sure favorite on Saturday. Emma White, will likely be right behind her. They’ll have to fend off the 2016 champion, Britain’s Evie Richards, as well as the Netherlands’s Annemarie Worst, and Belgium’s Laura Verdornschot for a place on the podium, but odds seem favorable that they can do it.

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America comes with a strong roster in the men’s youth categories too: Curtis White, Gage Hecht, Spencer Petrov, and Maxx Chance are all familiar favorites in the under-23 category, while juniors Denzel Stephenson and Lane Maher both have a shot at top-10 finishes. A strong women’s squad, headlined by Compton with Amanda Miller, Kaitie Antonneau, Rebecca Fahringer, Coutenay McFadden, and Elle Anderson is arguably the deepest in their race besides the Netherlands. The men’s team, anchored by new national champ Stephen Hyde and veteran Jeremy Powers, could also have a shot at a top-10 finish in the right conditions.

Which brings us to the last and possibly biggest unknown. What will those conditions be? Video posted by the Belgian paper Het Laatste Nieuws of Sven Nys’s course tour showed a roller-coaster up-and-down, twisty race with plenty of gnarly off-camber to keep riders on (or off) their toes. Parts of the course were, as of Monday’s video anyway, covered in a thick layer of snow thanks to unusually cold conditions in Europe in recent weeks.

Nys called the course one of the nicest — and most difficult — in recent world championships memory. Indeed, though early previews of the course suggested a fast, largely flat affair, my impression is the course shares similarities to the exciting course in Milton Keynes, a World Cup stop in the UK in 2014. I’m with Nys on this one, the course looks fantastic.

With the weather forecast to warm up in the coming days, and plenty of training traffic on course as well, will the snow stick around? Will there be mud? Frozen and fast conditions? Only time will tell.

That’s a lot of questions, cyclocross fans. But all those questions add up to one thing I can say for certain: you should expect great racing this weekend. Don’t miss it.

The cyclocross world championships kick off with the junior men’s race on Saturday at 5 a.m. Eastern, U23 women at 7, and elite women at 9. Racing continues Sunday with the U23 men at 5 a.m. EST and elite men at 9.