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BRUSSELS (VN) — Anyone who scanned the results sheets at last week’s UCI Cyclocross World Cup finale in Nommay, France, looking for insight into the four world championship races that will unfold in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, this weekend, could not have failed to notice them. Not the hundreds of riders who crossed the finish line, but rather two who did not.
In the women’s race it was Katie Compton, the 10-time American national champion on perhaps the best form of her career, who walked off the course in the middle of her race’s second lap, dropped her bike, and sat down on the ground, gasping, victim of an allergy-induced asthma attack.
In the elite men’s race it was the reigning world champion, Sven Nys of Belgium, who opted not to start at all. Nys, with six wins in his last seven starts including a ninth Belgian national title, is on impressive form after an inconsistent early season. The World Cup overall out of reach, he opted to prepare to defend his rainbow stripes with a final training block on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca.
“[Training in Mallorca] was a tremendous value,” Nys told Belgian daily Gazet van Antwerpen just before returning to Belgium on Wednesday. “I can do as much hill training as I want here and in much better weather. No mountains, but little climbs where you can work for 15 or 20 minutes. If you’re a little older like I am, you have to push much harder on the flats to achieve the same result. Total returns is the key, both physically and mentally. And it’s exactly why I wanted to prepare for the world championships here. After 10 days my condition and my body are exactly as I’d have dreamed of them.”
Mallorca-sharpened Nys vs. the field
After a brilliant Christmas season and January campaign, Nys will arrive in Hoogerheide this weekend as the unquestioned man to beat in a field that also includes the Dutch champion and home favorite Lars van der Haar, six Belgian teammates led by two-time world champion Niels Albert, German champion Philipp Walsleben, and Czech two-time world champion Zdenek Stybar.
Van der Haar, who clinched the World Cup overall on Sunday, is on the best form of his young career, but will have to deal with enormous pressure to produce a result in the first Dutch-hosted world championships since 2009, when Hoogerheide last hosted worlds. Albert, who won the first of his two elite world titles in that 2009 championship race, has had a rocky season, and told reporters this week that he has not been able to determine the reason for his inconsistency or find a formula to overcome it.
Albert’s BKCP-Powerplus teammate Walsleben, meanwhile, has scored few major wins, but has been a frequent visitor to the podium this season. Walsleben, too, won a world title in Hoogerheide in 2009, when he was still an under-23 rider.
Stybar, with a growing list of achievements in his burgeoning road career, left his world championship start an open question until Thursday. After pre-riding the worlds course Thursday morning, the Czech, who lives most of the year in Essen, Belgium, barely 10 kilometers over the border from Hoogerheide, told reporters he had decided to proceed with a worlds bid.
Six American men will also be in the hunt for a good result on Sunday: veterans Jonathan Page, Tim Johnson, and Ryan Trebon, national champion Jeremy Powers, first-year elite rider Zach McDonald, and worlds rookie Allen Krughoff.
Powers, who posted the best result of the American men in Nommay with 15th, told VeloNews he felt that he has improved at racing in the heavy conditions likely in Hoogerheide, and was confident heading into his first post-Louisville 2013 world championships.
“I think it’s good. I’m trying to be good right now; last year I look at as kind of a missed opportunity, so this year I feel like I did the things I could do that were in my control, and I’m looking forward to (worlds),” said Powers. “This is where I want to be, you know? This is what I want to do, and so if you’re here and you’re doing it, everything’s great.”
Johnson, meanwhile, said he felt positive, but thought breaking into the top 15 would require an ideal race.
“I feel actually okay (about worlds),” he told VeloNews. “I would probably need a perfect day to have a top-15 result. The groups that I was in and out of (in Nommay), some of those guys won’t be there this weekend and some will. Nommay was probably one of the better first races of a trip that I’ve had, but still, four-and-a-half minutes down and 29th place is not great. You need to take something different from it. If this were my backyard and I had raced here 25 times, then I’d be really unhappy with 29th, so it’s all relative.”
Krughoff, essentially supporting himself during his first career European race in Nommay, said he relished the chance to line up for the American team in a world championships, but also found the experience rather daunting.
“It’s great to be selected, but it’s intimidating to be doing it on my own,” said the Raleigh-Clement rider. “At the end of the year, unless your team is planning on going already, they’re fully tapped out, so it’s kind of like, ‘Congratulations and good luck.’ The team support all year has been incredible, but now it’s like, if I want to go I have to make it happen, and that’s what I’m doing.”
Compton and Vos
Despite Compton’s early exit from last weekend’s race in Nommay, most prognosticators expect the women’s race on Saturday afternoon to boil down to a battle between the two clear favorites: Compton and Dutch superstar and defending champion Marianne Vos. The two have been close rivals for more than half a decade, a period during which Vos has won five straight — and six overall — world titles and Compton has finished on the worlds podium four times.
The pair has met eight times this season and they have split wins evenly, each taking four victories. Compton, however, was clearly better in late December and early January, taking World Cup wins in Namur, Zolder, and Rome, as well as a bpost Bank Trofee race in Baal on New Years Day. But Vos, who underwent minor back surgery in October and only made her return to cyclocross in Namur in December, looked like her old self in a huge solo win in Nommay.
Vos told reporters after the race that a good ride on a course that shares many similarities with the worlds course in Hoogerheide gave her a confidence boost, but said she was disappointed that she missed the chance to test Compton’s form herself.
“I couldn’t see how I measure up to her, but Katie knows how to handle those asthma attacks,” said Vos. “I know she’ll be on good form next week in Hoogerheide.”
Compton, meanwhile, said she was confident she would be ready for Saturday’s race.
“I’m doing better now, just really tired after the weekend,” she told VeloNews. “I’ve been resting so I will be good for this weekend. It takes me a few days to recover from an allergy and asthma episode like that since I just feel awful afterwards. Rest and staying inside has helped a bit.”
But the American added that the outcome in Hoogerheide will come down to which rider puts together the most complete race on a course where dynamics will likely be dictated by the weather conditions.
“I think the mud and course conditions will make the race hard and technical, no matter how the course is designed,” said Compton. “Winning will definitely take both technical ability and power.”
Two characteristics Compton and Vos possess in spades.
Behind them come a host of other contenders aiming for a spot on the podium: British champion Helen Wyman and countrywoman Nikki Harris, Belgians Sanne Cant and Ellen Van Loy, and Italian champion Eva Lechner. Multiple-time world champion Hanka Kupfernagel, who edged Compton out in the race for silver the last time the world championships visited Hoogerheide, showed she remains a contender despite racing only sporadically this season with an eighth-place finish in Nommay.
The American women’s team profited when Compton clinched the World Cup title in Rome, earning an extra slot on the start line. As a result, five Americans will line up alongside Compton in Hoogerheide. Among them, only newcomer Elle Anderson has not finished inside the top 15 in a World Cup this season (though she has two top-20 results and a podium finish at the Superprestige stop in Diegem). Together with Kaitlin Antonneau, Meredith Miller, Crystal Anthony, and Arley Kemmerer, Compton and Anderson comprise one of the deepest women’s teams the U.S. has ever fielded at worlds.
“I’ll just try to do the same thing I did today,” Antonneau told VeloNews on Sunday, after finishing seventh in Nommay, the best result of the American women in the race. “I’ll just ride my own race and stay relaxed and try my best, that’s all I can ask of myself. Hopefully it turns into a good ride. I’m excited, it should be fun.”
Anderson, who finished second at the U.S. national championships a few weeks ago, said she, too, thought another good result was within reach.
“I had a really good last training block last week and felt like I finished that really strong,” said Anderson. “It’s been a really long season, but I still feel like I have good legs, so I’m really excited to finish the season strong. I think top 15 would be really sweet, top 10 would be even sweeter. I have no idea how it’s going to go. I’ve never been to a world championships before, so in a sense I just want to soak it all in and hope the results will follow.”
The young guns
Despite Nys’ recent good form and Vos’ hometown popularity, there is perhaps no bigger favorite in a world championship race this year than first-year under-23 rider Mathieu van der Poel. Van der Poel clinched the U23 World Cup overall on Sunday, capping a season in which he finished off the podium in just a single race. With the highly partisan Dutch fans unified behind him, it is hard to imagine any rider seriously challenging him for the rainbow jersey in Sunday morning’s U23 race.
Perhaps the rider with the best chance to do so is Belgian Wout Van Aert. Though not as consistent as his Dutch rival, Van Aert remains one of the only riders to beat van der Poel this season, and has posted nine wins since the middle of November, including a victory in Nommay, which he clinched when van der Poel bobbled in the race’s final lap.
Among the five American espoirs taking the start in Hoogerheide are Curtis White and a quartet of Cal Giant teammates, in national champion Logan Owen, Yannick Eckmann, Tobin Ortenblad, and Cody Kaiser.
Eckmann, racing for the U.S. for the first time after gaining American citizenship a little more than a year ago, was untested in international competition this year before posting a 30th place in Nommay. The other four have snagged solid results in World Cup races this season, led by Owen, who posted the best American U23 result of the year, 15th place, in Nommay.
“Top 15 in my first race back over here, I’m really excited, I think that’s a really good sign for a top 10 at worlds,” Owen said on Sunday. “(Hoogerheide) is a good course for me, my goal is a top 10, and I think I can do it, especially with how I did today.”
The juniors race, on the other hand, may be the most wide open race of the weekend. Though Belgium’s Yannick Peeters, the reigning European champion, and the Czech Republic’s Adam Toupalik, the World Cup winner, stand out as favorites, there are perhaps a dozen juniors who could end up in rainbow stripes if things go their way.
Only four American juniors will line up on Saturday morning, however. USA Cycling announced Tuesday that Gavin Haley would not start the race due to injuries sustained in a crash while training in Belgium. Haley suffered three broken ribs and a punctured lung, but is recovering from the crash. The squad, led by junior national champion Peter Goguen, also includes Maxx Chance, Austin Vincent, and Cooper Willsey.
The world championships begin on Saturday, with the juniors setting off at 11 a.m. local time (5 a.m. EST) followed by the elite women at 3 p.m. (9 a.m. EST). Racing continues on Sunday with the under-23 men at 11 a.m. and the elite men at 3 p.m. Universal Sports will broadcast each race live in the United States.