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Cyclocross worlds preview: The masters come to do battle in Arkansas

Who to watch at the 2022 UCI world cyclocross championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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At the end of a dramatic 2021-22 cyclocross season, there are several stories to resolve in Fayetteville as Tom Pidcock, Eli Iserbyt, Lucinda Brand, Marianne Vos, and many other players make their bid for a rainbow jersey. VeloNews will be reporting from Arkansas this weekend, but here’s a preview of who to watch.

Related: How to watch the 2022 world cyclocross championships

Will we see another intense Brand vs Vos duel?

The two Dutch women have taken a very different approach to the season. Brand has raced in every ‘cross series, has taken 17 victories, and was rarely been off the podium. Her consistency at a high level has been remarkable. The 32-year-old from Rotterdam is justifiably the world number one. Vos claimed wins in the UCI World Cups in Waterloo and Iowa City, then took a prolonged break before returning to racing in mid-December. With Vos still packing a mighty sprint, Brand will want to come to the finish alone. However, that may not prove easy; Vos showed in Hoogerheide how adept she is at sitting in the wheels until she’s ready to mount a killer attack.

American champion Clara Honsinger will be a force to be reckoned with if the course becomes heavy. Honsinger usually starts slowly then cranks up the power, coming through strong in the final laps. Canadian champion Maghalie Rochette has been in Arkansas for the past week and will know the course intimately from her training sessions there. Another contender is Hungarian whiz-kid Kata Blanka Vas who races for SD Worx in crosses and on the road. Late withdrawals by Annemarie Worst and Denise Betsema open podium opportunities, however, this race looks to be a straight match between Brand and Vos. Expect fireworks.

Dutch double: Marianne Vos leads Lucinda Brand at the 2021 UCI Cyclocross World Cup Waterloo. (Photo: Greg Kaplan)

Can Pidcock live up to his favorite billing?

With Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert not present on the start line in Fayetteville, we are guaranteed a new world champion. But can Tom Pidcock step up? On paper, the Ineos Grenadier is the favorite because he has been closer to the level of Van der Poel and Van Aert in recent races. He has also beaten Eli Iserbyt on the few occasions they’ve gone head-to-head without any incidents. But Pidcock has not been infallible this season. A crash stopped his attack in the X20 Trofee in Hamme on Saturday, and at the final World Cup in Hoogerheide he was unable to hold off Iserbyt, who chased him down then jumped clear for the win. Pidcock has made no secret of his ambitious spring classics campaign on the road; could his preparation for April blunt his speed in January?

Iserbyt, by contrast, is totally focused on cyclo-cross and a rainbow jersey would cap off his best-ever season. The 24-year-old has been dominant from October to January, winning seven rounds of the World Cup and wrapping up the overall with two rounds remaining. While Iserbyt looked a little tired during the Kerstperiode – he didn’t win any races during December – he has returned to sparkling, aggressive form with back-to-back wins in the Flamanville and Hoogerheide World Cups.

Lars Van Der Haar, Eli Iserbyt (center), and Michael Vanthourenhout at the 2021 Jinglecross. (Photo: Balint Harnvas)

If Iserbyt or Pidcock falter three other riders will be ready to pounce – Dutchman Lars van der Haar has had a resurgent season, winning the European championships and the Tabor World Cup. His Trek Baloise Lions teammate Toon Aerts has not performed to his own high standards this season, but he has been consistently in the top five and is showing signs of great form. While Van der Haar will be hoping for a fast, punchy race, Aerts will be hoping for a lot of mud and a lot of running. Finally, Michael Vanthourenhout can never be discounted in a major championship race. Though often playing the loyal team-mate for his friend Iserbyt, Vanthourenhout is a seasoned and versatile rider capable of taking his chances when they come, as he showed in Namur in December.

After his win in Hoogerheide, Iserbyt was vocal in calling for the Belgian team to acknowledge his sole leadership, saying that the best chance of beating Pidcock and Van der Haar was for Belgium to ride as a single unit. Belgium, however, does not have a good track record of cooperation at cyclocross (or the recent road) world championships. Personal ambition and trade team rivalries have tended to undermine the best-laid plans. Will 2022 be any different?

Will the U23 races be the most exciting of the weekend?

Some of the most entertaining racing this season has come from the two young Dutch women, Fem van Empel and Puck Pieterse. Both women are technically gifted, fast, and not afraid to take on the likes of Brand and Vos. This weekend they will fight it out for a rainbow jersey. Pieterse is the defending champion, but Van Empel has improved significantly this season, and comprehensively beat her friend in Flamanville. It will be a fascinating duel that could go all the way to the line. Another Dutch woman, Shirin van Anrooij, will be hoping to stay in touch with Van Empel and Pieterse, and take advantage of their rivalry. French champion Line Burquier has shown her talent on the World Cup circuit this season and has an outside chance of a medal.

Fem Van Empel is a top podium pick for the U23 women’s race. (Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images)

The men’s U23 category is possibly the most open race of the weekend, with a host of possibilities for the gold medal. Pim Ronhaar (Netherlands) is the defending champion but the mud of Arkansas is very different from the sand of Oostende, where he won last year. Belgium’s Joran Wyseure has shown strong form recently, winning the X20 Trofee in Hamme, and Britain’s Cameron Mason has had a breakthrough season, including a maiden World Cup victory at Dendermonde. In addition, there is further strength-in-depth for Belgium with Emiel Verstynge, Gerben Kuypers, Niels Vandeputte, Anton Ferdinande, and Thibau Nys. For the Netherlands, Mees Hendrikx has shown promising results recently, including sixth in the elite race at Hoogerheide. If Belgium ride as a team they have an opportunity to out-gun their Dutch rivals, but – as with the elite race – will they be able to ride together?

Can anyone stop Zoe Bäckstedt from collecting another rainbow jersey?

In the junior women’s category, Britain’s Zoe Bäckstedt is the outright favorite. The 17-year-old Tormans-Circus rider is the reigning world road race champion and European cyclo-cross champion and has dominated the World Cup series this season. The only unknown element is how she is recovering from a positive COVID-19 test that kept her away from the British championships in early January. The Netherlands’ Leonie Bentveld is likely to be Backstedt’s closest competition.

David Haverdings is just as much a clear favorite in the Men’s Junior category. The Dutchman has won 16 World Cup and C1 races this season and cemented his future career by signing with Trek Baloise Lions. Behind Haverdings there will be a group of young Belgians fighting for medals and professional contracts, including Yordi Corsus, Aaron Dockx, and Kenay De Moyer. Great Britain also has an outside medal hope in Nathan Smith.

How will the weather affect the course?

The Fayetteville course was built especially for these championships and includes several spectacular features. It measures 3,100 meters, with 53 meters of altitude lost and gained on each lap. After the tarmac starting straight, the course takes in wide grassy curves before plunging down a flowing descent into woodland. From the bottom of the hill, the course climbs steadily, still on wide trails, then crosses a series of short, steep banks. The next challenge is a 39-step staircase that will sap the legs, followed by a sweeping descent and an ascending spiral around Fayetteville’s version of Stonehenge. Reports indicate that improvements were made to the course, to make it more technically challenging, but no less fast.

Days before the start of the 2022 UCI world cyclocross championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the weather forecast calls for mild and dry conditions. (Photo: SnowyMountain Photography)

At the World Cup in October heavy rain made for a wet, muddy race that was a test of power on the climbs and bike-handling on the descents. The forecast for this week is very different – sunshine and temperatures well above the freezing mark in the afternoons. While the overnights will be cold, and the ground is likely to freeze, early-day racing could be ast, though slippery. When the ground thaws for the afternoon races, under expected sunny skies, the course could turn either to deep mud, or a slippery top surface, making for a very different kind of racing. But, of course, with unpredictable weather, we may not fully understand the conditions until the day of each race. Whatever the conditions it promises to be a cyclocross world championship to remember.