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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.
Read part I of the women’s cyclocross world championship preview
Also, check out The calm before the storm: Cyclocross worlds are back in Belgium
BRUSSELS, Belgium (VN) — This much is sure: no one headed for worlds is under pressure like Belgian champion Sanne Cant. While Belgium has more or less owned the podium in men’s cyclocross since the mid-1990s, since the first women’s world championships in 2000, not a single Belgian woman has ever won a world championship medal.
So Belgium pins its hopes to end the long drought on the 21-year-old, who herself has never cracked the top five in a world championships. The question Cant must answer, however, is whether a relatively young and inexperienced racer can hold off three of the most accomplished women’s cyclists in history and claim her country’s first world championship victory ever, and do it on home soil.
Though the question of how the top three are likely to shake out on Sunday may not be easy to answer, it is clear that four-time and defending world champion Marianne Vos will head to Koksijde as the heavy favorite. Vos returned to cyclocross just in time to finish second in the November World Cup in Koksijde has not failed to win a race since. As skilled a bike handler as there is when it comes to ’cross, she also has won Olympic gold on the track and worn rainbow stripes in both track and road. Despite a hard fall two weeks ago in the Lievin, France, World Cup she quickly recovered and won easily. Last week in Hoogerheide, in her home country of the Netherlands, she won her fourth straight World Cup race by nearly a minute and a half.
Nonetheless, Vos has said repeatedly that she takes nothing for granted going into the world championships.
“We know how strong Katie and Daphny are,” she said in Lievin. “But in Koksijde it will be a different race. It’s the worlds, and it’s always different at the worlds. So we’re all focused and of course we may be the three big favorites, but we have to do it on that day. The sand is technical, it’s different from everything else we ride, so we’ll see.”
Vos has won before in Koksijde, but so have both of the women she acknowledged are her top rivals.
In a 2010 World Cup race, American Katie Compton, stormed to a two-and-a-half minute win over Daphny van den Brand. But in this season’s trip to the dunes, it was van den Brand who rode away with victory.
Van Den Brand will retire at the end of the season, and has said more than once that she would like to cap her career with a second world championship. Although she beat Vos in Koksijde, she has finished second or worse to Vos ten times this season. After claiming the World Cup title on Sunday she was optimistic about her chances in Koksijde, but said she too, considered the race to be wide open.
“The Worlds are always a different, difficult race,” said van den Brand. “You can make plans, but at Worlds, plans don’t always work out.”
Compton, meanwhile, the most successful American in the history of the sport, with two silver medals and one bronze at worlds, has apparently overcome chronic problems with leg cramps that hampered her in two other worlds appearances. But the American has been dogged by other problems this year. A dropped chain cost her any chance for a win in a December World Cup race in Namur, Belgium, and a combination of mistakes and slow starts hurt her in World Cups in Koksijde and Lievin.
“The race starts at the start line,” said Compton in an interview a few weeks ago, “so it’s my own fault for not getting up to the front in these races. Hopefully for Worlds I’ll have that part figured out so I can be in the race at the end.”
Though she comes into Koksijde in a bit of a slump, she indeed did appear to have worked out many of the problems with her bike and her starts in time for last weekend’s race in Hoogerheide. Though she finished fourth there, she has said that she has her sights set only on a world championship, so look for her to be on top form this weekend.
The wildcard for for the podium this weekend is the US-based Czech rider Katerina Nash. A former Olympic cross country skier, she finished third last Sunday and third in last year’s world championships. But Nash has never raced on the sandy Koksijde course, and her success will hinge on how quickly she can adapt to the highly technical track in training this week.
Behind the big four and Belgian hope Sanne Cant, few other riders stand out as clear contenders for Sunday’s podium. Injuries and illness have decimated Women’s cyclocross in recent weeks, leaving many racers who may have had good prospects in Koksijde either out of the race entirely or just returning after long layoffs.
2011 World Cup winner — and fourth place finisher in Koksijde in November — Sanne van Paassen has been sidelined for weeks and was unsure whether she would start at the time of this writing. British duo Nikki Harris and Helen Wyman have been very strong lately, especially early in races, but Harris has not won a race this year and Wyman is still recovering from a bout of illness earlier this month.
Meanwhile, a serious crash in Hoogerheide may have claimed both the Dutch Sophie De Boer and French Caroline Mani’s chances to even start Sunday’s race. Both have posted some of the best results of their careers in recent weeks, but neither looks likely to be ready to return to racing by this weekend.
German Hanka Kupfernagel who, with ten medals — four gold — at worlds, is probably the most successful woman in the history of cyclocross has opted out of the championship race in order to focus on preparation for the 2012 Olympic road race after a disappointing ‘cross season.
Behind Wyman and Harris, look for the Czech Pavla Havlikova to try to reach for spots in the top five. Gabby Day is officially out of worlds due to sickness and will not recover in time.
Including Compton, the Americans will field one of their deepest ever teams. All five team members have scored a top fifteen finish in a World Cup race this year, something that no other American team in history has accomplished.
Leading the charge behind Compton will be Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com teammates Katie Antonneau and Nicole Duke, who took the second and third spots in the national championships earlier this month. Antonneau finished 18th in Koksijde in November, but also posted a tenth place finish on what may have been the hardest course of the entire season in Namur in December.
Duke has posted three top twenty World Cup results this season, but heads to Koksijde unsure of her prospects on one of Europe’s most challenging courses.
“I don’t really know how well I can do because I don’t race over here enough,” said Duke last weekend. “I’d really like a top fifteen, but it’s hard to see where I stand among everybody here. But I’d be really satisfied with a top fifteen.”
Meredith Miller, meanwhile, managed 11th place in Sunday’s World Cup race and has been close to the top ten in a world championships before. But she, like several Americans, heads to the race not knowing what to expect.
“I’ve never seen Koksijde before,” she told VeloNews.com. “Where I’m staying in Belgium there’s a lot of sand, and I’ve gone out and done some sand training, but I’m sure it’s going to be nothing like Koksijde. That’s just going to be a slap in the face. I think a big part of getting a good result will be a matter of just keeping composure and staying cool and knowing when you have to run.”
Rounding out the team is Amy Dombroski, who spent the season in Europe and got off to a blazing start with a sixth place finish in the first round of the World Cup in October. Dombroski was slowed by illness for much of the past month, and was caught up in the massive start-line pileup in Hoogerheide on Sunday. So it is difficult to assess her changes based on any recent results. But she finished 17th in Koksijde in November and will be aiming to improve on that this weekend.