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Which men to watch at the cyclocross world championships

Top on the list is newly crowned Belgian champion Sven Nys

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Editor’s note: This is part II of the world championship preview, including the favorites for the win. Italics indicate sections from part I.

First read part I of the men’s race preview and the women’s race preview

The Belgian favorites

BRUSSELS, Belgium (VN) — The world championships of cyclocross, which kick off on Saturday, will return to Belgium for the first time since 2007.

With veteran and former two-time champion Bart Wellens sidelined for the rest of the season following a major health scare just ahead of the national championship race earlier this month, the Belgians will field a relatively young team on Sunday; only national champion Sven Nys is over 30. And on a sandy and very technical course in Koksijde, his experience may make all the difference.

In the absence of Wellens, only four men with wins in the major European series races — Superprestige, GVA Trofee, and World Cup — will start Sunday’s race.

Top on the list is newly crowned Belgian champion Sven Nys, who has notched 12 wins this season, the most of any Europe-based racer. Nys, at 35, has perhaps lost some of the pure speed that helped make him the most consistently dominant rider of the 2000’s, but makes up for it with his skillful technique on the bike. Nys is undisputedly the best bike handler among the four favorites for Sunday, and he showed those skills off when he won the November World Cup in Koksijde.

Though his results in the last two weeks have been subpar, Nys always seems to dig deep for the championships. With only a few more chances to pull on a rainbow jersey, look for a motivated Nys to take risks and try to distance his rivals as quickly as possible.

With 10 wins and the World Cup title for the season already wrapped up, the soft-spoken, world number one ranked Kevin Pauwels figures to be Nys’ top rival. Pauwels is still smarting from the sprint with Nys in Koksijde in November, and with a real shot at his first major championship since becoming an elite rider, he will also be highly motivated on Sunday.

Pauwels has been circumspect about his chances however, telling Belgian TV that he doesn’t not consider himself a favorite for the rainbow jersey. “I’ve never really performed that well in Koksijde, and I lost the sprint against Sven Nys there in November,” he said on Sunday, giving reigning champion Zdenek Stybar his nod for race favorite.

Stybar, who won a World Cup race in Koksijde in 2009, and former world champion Niels Albert, who did the same in 2010, both have six wins on the season. Together, the pair may be the most successful duo in cyclocross of the past three years, but neither has looked quite at the top of their game this year. Stybar finished fourth in Koksijde in November, while Albert, recovering from a wrist injury following a training accident, skipped the race entirely.

Stybar, however, has looked sharper recently, with a win two weeks ago in Lievin and second in last Sunday’s race in Hoogerheide. The Czech says he believes he can claim a third world title on Sunday despite the pressure that comes with being a two-time defending champion.

“Yeah, I feel some pressure, but it’s not like I am pissing in my pants,” he joked in a post-race interview on Sunday. “In November and December I couldn’t rest, but in the past few weeks I’ve been much more rested after training. I’m really taking time for it, and that’s important. I still have a week to go and my condition can really improve a lot in a week.”

Albert, who took a win in Loenhout early this month despite being hampered by a respiratory infection, often carefully targets his priority races, and said a few weeks ago that he is staking his season on a result in Koksijde.

“It’s a little bit of a problem (this time of year), because the condition may be good, but when you get sick your body needs a little more recuperation,” he told earlier this month. “So I’m trying to go very deep with the rest. But I said before the season that Koksijde is my first goal, and I really hope I’m going to win there. I’ll do everything to win, but obviously we will have to see.”

The calm before the storm: Worlds are back in Belgium

The outsiders

Perhaps lost in the drama of the Nys-Pauwels tussle in November’s World Cup was an impressive ride by 29-year-old Belgian Bart Aernouts. The Rabobank rider finished only six seconds behind the leaders, and some 40 seconds ahead of fourth place finisher Stybar. Aernouts took a hard fall in Sunday’s World Cup race, but battled his way back from close to a minute down on the rest of the field to 31st place, and he will certainly be looking for revenge on Sunday.

Fellow Belgian Tom Meeusen finished fifth in Koksijde in November and has proven himself a skilled rider in difficult handling conditions like riders may face on Sunday, taking two major victories in the snow in 2010. Meeusen will have help from Telenet-Fidea teammate Rob Peeters, who has blossomed this year, scooping up a number of podium places in big races.

Pauwels’ teammate Klaas Vantornout rounds out the Belgian contingent. The lanky rider is known for his blazingly fast starts, a major advantage in a sandy race where good passing lines will likely be blocked during the early laps for riders outside of the top five. But Vantornout has promised to help Pauwels, so his fate rests in his teammate’s hands. If Pauwels decides to aim for the win, Vantornout’s main job will be to protect him in the sand, and he will have to wait until next year to pursue his own glory.

Gallery: Cyclocross world championships pre-ride Friday

American chances

Not since 2005, when Americans Jonathan Page and Ryan Trebon went 7th and 9th respectively, has an American man cracked the top ten in Koksijde. And in the years since, as Koksijde has become a World Cup race, only Page has managed to come anywhere close to the top twenty, finishing 21st there last year.

But Page has been victim of a series of hard falls, one last week in Lievin where he cracked a rib, and one in Sunday’s World Cup where he seriously injured his hand. Still, Page’s results have been improving lately. He posted a top ten in a GVA Trofee race at the beginning of the month and he has consistently been able to peak just in time for the world championships throughout his career. Page finished second the last time the championships visited Belgium in 2007 and owns nearly all of the best-ever American results at the worlds by elite men.

After Sunday’s race, a disappointed Page said he would give it his best shot, but didn’t know how well he could do. “I don’t have any predictions anymore,” he said. “If I have some good luck, it could be really good, but I’m hurting right now.”

If Page is hampered by injuries, America’s best hope probably lies with new national champion Jeremy Powers. Powers raced to a disappointing 32nd pace in Koksijde in November, but said last week in Lievin that he still would do everything he could to represent the US this weekend.

“If you wear the national champion’s jersey you have to say, ‘I want to be the best guy,’” he told last week. “At worlds I just hope I can ride in the sand, that I took enough away from my last ass-kicking there to improve some. It’s just such a difficult course, and I’m not naturally gifted in it, (sand riding) doesn’t come easy to me. If I don’t do well then I’m not going to cry, I’m just going to try to do my best.”

Besides Page and Powers, there is also Tim Johnson, the three-time elite national champion who gave up a successful career racing on the road to devote himself to ‘cross essentially full time. But Johnson said he is heading into Koksijde with scaled down expectations.

“I’m pretty much scraping at the bottom now,” said Johnson after a disappointing race in Hoogerheide on Sunday. “I think the kind of course in Koksijde, it’s really, really tough, and I’m just not sure that it’s for me. So I’m going to try to do the very best I can.”

“When I say scraping at the bottom, I mean, like it’s the end of the speculoos jar, and the shit still tastes good, but there’s just not that much left,” he added, referring to a wildly popular spread manufactured out of traditional Belgian spice cookies.

Johnson has had plenty of success in Europe, including a third place in the 1999 world championship race as an under-23 racer, but said he goes into Koksijde focused more on next year, when the world championships will come to the United States, than this year.

“This year some of the things I did worked and some didn’t, so I need to make some adjustments,” said Johnson. “I just have to make sure I can get everything out of my potential that I can, because I have been able to do this, I believe I’m a talented rider, but right now I’m not riding at the pace I should be, and that’s frustrating. But I hope that I can pull something out to make this trip worthwhile. I’d love to do a top twenty, but, honestly, I’d be shocked.”

Ryan Trebon, another three-time national champion, has produced good results in Europe as well, including that ninth place finish in Koksijde in 2005 and a top ten result in the highly competitive Superprestige series. Trebon faded badly — from racing for the top twenty to a 43rd place finish — in Sunday’s World Cup race, and heads to Koksijde looking to end his season on a higher note.

Rounding out the American men’s contingent are Chris Jones and Jamey Driscoll. Jones, a relative newcomer to the international scene has produced solid, if not spectacular, results in two World Cups this year. Driscoll, however, has raced in Europe for years, and claimed a top 20 result at the worlds in 2010. Look for both to aim for more top twenty results this year.

Take the poll: Which man will win the 2012 cyclocross world championships?

Gallery: Men’s cyclocross season recap