Worlds ’cross course favors the ice road truckers – or the sand men?

If the current weather pattern holds — and the UCI doesn’t break out its snow shovels — this weekend’s world cyclocross championships in Tabor, Czech Republic, will favor riders with the ability to stay upright in the slickest of conditions.

By Jason Sumner

Team USA's Jeff Bahnson training on the Tabor course this week.

If the current weather pattern holds — and the UCI doesn’t break out its snow shovels — this weekend’s world cyclocross championships in Tabor, Czech Republic, will favor riders with the ability to stay upright in the slickest of conditions.

“The course is very nasty right now,” confirmed U.S. national champion Tim Johnson, who got his first look at the Tabor track on Thursday during pre-race training. “There are some frozen ruts left over from the from Czech national championships underneath a few inches of fresh snow. That’s making many of the corners treacherous. I think that power will be undercut by technique, luck and equipment if conditions continue like this. The rider who makes the least mistakes and is able to use all of their power will be successful.”

The question now is will the UCI let mother nature rule its marquee cyclocross event, or will it step in, trying to minimize the effect of these decidedly Eastern European conditions. According to Johnson, there was a rumor circulating Tabor on Thursday that cycling’s world governing body was considering clearing the snow-covered track, and spreading a layer of traction-enhancing sand.

Jonathan Page loves the difficult conditions. AFP PHOTO/BELGA/PETER DECONINCK

It’s a move Johnson ( and fellow American Jonathan Page were definitely not in favor of. Indeed, before hearing of the possible course alteration, Page wrote on his Twitter account that he, “Rode the course today! Ice, snow. More snow coming now! I LOVE it! This is the best opportunity I’ve ever had to do well at Worlds!!!!!!!!!!”

Page will enter Sunday’s men’s elite race as America’s top hope for a medal. The Planet Bike rider was a U.S.-best eighth at last Sunday’s World Cup finale in Hoogerheide, the Netherlands, spending the early portion of the race near the front, before fading to the second chase group behind eventual winner — and reigning world champ — Niels Albert.

“I love the snow, so I’m really looking forward to Tabor,” said Page, who in 2007 shocked the ’cross world, finishing second behind Erwin Vervecken at the world championships. “I know I can do top 10 this year and top 5 would be exceptional.”

As for a men’s race favorite, Page tabbed Czech native Zdenek Stybar as the man to beat. The Telenet-Fidea rider is fresh off clinching the World Cup title, after finishing second in Hoogerheide. He won three of nine World Cups this year, and will be the clear fan favorite on Sunday. That’s a big weight for a 24-year-old, but the Czech says winning the World Cup title has diffused some of the extra pressure.

“I’ll be relaxed at Tabor because I have this title,” he said in Hoogerheide. “I don’t have to prove anything now. My season is already very good and I still have chance to win some more titles. But if I have the chance to win at world championships, of course I will take it.”

Zdenek Stybar winning at the Fidea Classics cyclocross in Tervuren, Belgium, Jan. 3 AFP PHOTO/BELGA/PETER DECONINCK

Meanwhile, you get the feeling the defending champion could take or leave a repeat. Arguably the most talented rider in the world, 23-year-old Niels Albert seems to have strained under the pressure of winning the 2009 title. But that’s life as a Belgian world champion in a sport that is just a rung below soccer in the small country’s rooting landscape.

“Sure I’m ready to win worlds again, but I’m also happy about this year,” explained Albert, who has been in the news a lot lately after a mid-race run in with a fan at the Belgian national championships left him with a cracked rib, and stirred up a beehive of controversy when Albert claimed the drunken fan was a member of the Sven Nys supporter’s club. “This year has been a big experience for me, both good and bad. Even if I don’t win next week, I know what it is to be world champion. It’s a lot of stress. People expect you to win every week.”

This season, Albert proved fairly capable of living up to that standard, winning four of nine World Cups, including the first three. But if there’s a knock against the precocious BKCP-Powerplus rider, it that he struggles in tough conditions. He was a distant eighth at the mud-marred World Cup round in Roubaix, France. He blamed his cracked rib, but others pointed to the tough conditions.

“In Tabor Albert won’t be able to get at his biggest advantage, which is his pure ability,” predicted Johnson, who was 32nd in Hoogerheide and has an outside shot at a top 10. “Albert’s probably a solid 10 percent better than anyone else on course, and I’m not even joking around. But the reason why he wins in the early fall is because he’s fit and better than everyone. The reason why he’s not winning as much now is that he can’t get his power to the ground in the very slick, snowy and icy races.”

For that reason, Johnson tabbed Belgian legend Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago) as Sunday’s winner, “for his ability to not make big mistakes and to capitalize on other people’s errors. Stybar will make the race and has all of the skills needed to win, but I just think Sven will be better.”

Besides the aforementioned riders, other to watch include Stybar’s Belgian teammates Kevin Pauwels and Bart Wellens, Dutch hope Gerben De Knegt (Rabobank), and Belgian Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb), who rode solo to fourth at the final World Cup.

Other Americans taking the start include Johnson’s teammates Jamey Driscoll and Jeremy Powers, and Kona’s Ryan Trebon.

“It’s all about who has the magical day where everything goes right,” concluded Page, who overcame a last row start in 2007 to finish second. “I had the magic that day. Now I just gotta hope it happens again.”

Compton gearing up

Also looking for a little magic will be Page’s Planet Bike teammate Katie Compton. The American started the season hot, winning the first two women’s World Cups and her sixth straight U.S. national championship. But a crash during her Saturday pre-ride at the Roubaix World Cup brought back the debilitating on-again-off-again leg cramps that have plagued her career.

Compton was a DNS at both Roubaix and Hoogerheide, which cost her a shot at the overall World Cup title, and left her status for worlds in doubt. Still she made the trip to Tabor, hopeful that her legs would come around in time to save her season.

Compton on her way to winning her sixth straight national title last month in Oregon.

“I’m feeling better that I have been the last few days so that’s a good sign,” said Compton last Sunday while watching her fellow elite women at the Hoogerheide World Cup. “We’ll just go to Tabor and see what happens.”

With or without Compton on Sunday’s startline, the pre-race favorite tag will belong to Dutchwoman Marianne Vos. The reigning world cyclocross champion won at Hoogerheide, and over the years has shown an acumen for being at her best on the biggest stages. Her resume includes an Olympic gold medal on the track and world titles in track, road racing and ’cross.

“I feel good but next week will be different circumstances,” said Vos after her win in Hoogerheide. “There are a lot of favorites, but I will go to Tabor to win.”

Challengers to Vos include the Dutch duo of Saane Van Paassen and Daphny van Den Brand, who won the World Cup title, plus German Hanka Kupfernagel, who owns five worlds medals, including three gold.

Also keep an eye on Czech native — and California resident — Katerina Nash. The Luna rider, who’s better known for her mountain biking exploits, won the Roubaix World Cup and would have likely challenged in Hoogerheide were it not for an early race crash. As it was Nash battled back to finish fourth in the Netherlands. “It’ll be exciting to race at home (in Tabor). I feel like the form is there right now,” said Nash.

Other Americans on the start list include Meredith Miller, Maureen Bruno Roy, Laura Van Gilder and Amy Dombroski, who was flying the Luna colors in the Netherlands during an impressive ninth place finish, her best ever in Europe.

Before Sunday’s elite races, the junior and under-23 men will serve as a warm-up act on Saturday. Belgian Tom Meeusen will be the overwhelming favorite in the U23 affair. The heir apparent in Belgium’s cyclocross kingdom, Meeusen easily won the U23 World Cup title, and managed a third-place finish at the Belgian national championships — racing with the elites.

Also watch out for Poland’s Kacper Szczepaniak. He won in Hoogerheide, though most observers saw that outcome as a gift from Fidea teammate Meeusen, who had already wrapped up the series title.

U.S. hopes will likely rest with Garmin-Transitions rider Danny Summerhill, the reigning under-23 national champion. Luke Keough, Jerome Townsend, David Hackworth and Zach McDonald round out the U.S. U23 roster for Tabor. McDonald and Summerhill were 29th and 30th respectively at Hoogerheide.

The junior men is toughest race to predict, with world championships typically being the only race where all the top riders come together. Give the nod to Dutch junior champion David van der Poel, who won the World Cup last Sunday. He’s the son of former great Adrie van der Poel, so genes are clearly on his side.

The U.S. roster includes Cody Kaiser, Jeff Bahnson, Skyler Trujillo, Chris Wallace and Matt Spinks. Kaiser was the highest placed finisher in Hoogerheide, slotting 41st.

All told 230-plus athletes from 22 countries will compete for the four rainbow jerseys on offer in Tabor. Early Friday officials in  Tabor announced that the 2013 world cyclocross championships will be held in Louisville, Kentucky.