The world’s elite cyclo-cross riders will race today on a purpose-built course in Louisville, Kentucky, to decide the four titles that represent the pinnacle of the discipline.
Warnings of floods set to hit Louisville’s Eva Bandman Park, close to Beargrass Creek, itself fed by the Ohio River, have forced organisers to condense the weekend into a single day’s racing.
All four races – junior men, under-23 men, elite women, and elite men – will be decided today, with the last two, not unexpectedly perhaps, drawing the greatest interest.
We’ll consider the chances of the contenders for the two greatest prizes in the concluding race of the 2012-13 ‘cross season, one that has brought a riveting battle for the men’s World Cup, and seen Katie Compton (Trek) dominate the women’s racing until Marianne Vos (Rabobank) returned.
Belgium is certain to dominate the elite men’s race. Their seven-strong line-up offers the greatest numbers and highest quality of any team in the field. It includes the three riders who finished first, second, and third in the season-long UCI Cyclo-Cross World Cup (Niels Albert, Kevin Pauwels, and Sven Nys), as well as the newly-crowned Belgian national champion, Klaas Vantornout.
Defending world champion, Niels Albert, emerged victorious at the end of a tight, season-long contest for the title of World Cup holder with fifth-place at a snow-hit final round in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, two weeks ago.
The 26-year-old staged a consistent campaign, finishing off the podium only once in the eight-round series, but scored the fewest wins of any of the ‘big three’, tasting victory just once, at the second round in Plzen, Czech Republic.
Albert was to some degree a surprise winner of last year’s world championship race (albeit a worthy one), with most people’s money placed on team-mate, Pauwels, or the Czech Republic’s Zdenek Stybar, who was then aiming for a third world title.
What does this tell us about Albert’s chances today of becoming a double world champion? His prospects make for the most interesting analysis. During the World Cup, he finished ahead of Pauwels as often as finished behind him, but Pauwels recorded three victories compared to Albert’s one.
Nys finished ahead of Albert more often than he finished behind him, a trend best illustrated by the veteran’s three, consecutive mid-season victories, but when things went badly for Nys, they did so spectacularly.
The upshot is that while Albert is not perhaps as fast as Pauwels or Nys, he can be counted on to deliver a good performance more often than his more experienced team-mates. This may persuade the Belgian coaches to install Albert, the defending champion when all said and done, as leader.
Pauwels has impressed again this season, winning three rounds of the World Cup (Tabor, Namur, and Rome), and can consider himself unlucky not to have won wrapped-up overall victory: a broken chain in the final round at Hoogerheide arguably cost him the title.
The 28-year-old’s season, however, was tinged with inconsistency. In the sand of Koksidje, he could only manage twelfth place. On a course set up on the in-field of Belgium’s famed Zolder motor-racing circuit, he was fifth, and his eighth place at Hoogherheide, admittedly in circumstances largely beyond his control, proved his undoing.
Pauwels may consider his time has come. A world champion at junior and under-23 levels, he is now in his peak years. He scored more World Cup wins than Albert this season, and as many as Nys, as well as scoring more points than the latter in rounds where he didn’t win. Now or never for Pauwels? Unlikely, given his pedigree and relative youth, but today should offer a superb opportunity to complete a hat-trick of world titles at all age categories.
Who wouldn’t want to see Sven Nys hang a second rainbow jersey in his wardrobe? The General’s sole victory in the 2005 world championships barely does justice to his reputation and achievements beyond the competition. He has won the UCI World Cup on six occasions, and Belgium’s aptly-named Superprestige series an astonishing eleven times.
The consistency behind these multiple victories in season-long competitions, however, deserted him in the 2012-13 World Cup. His campaign this year could be characterised as ‘win or bust’. A stellar mid-season run of three wins and a second-place from the four races from Koksijde to Zolder is counterbalanced by the harsh statistic that he finished off the podium as often as he finished on it.
Nys is unlikely to be nominated team leader, but the prospect of the 36-year-old riding away from the field would be one to relish. Nys is the hardman’s hardman: his two most celebrated victories this season came in the sands of Koksijde and Zonhoven. It is strange to see the eight-time Belgian champion reduced in recent weeks to riding in team colours rather than the famed red, yellow and black jersey. The rainbow jersey would be a fitting replacement.
Great Britain has just one rider in the elite men’s race: double British champion, Ian Field. It’s hard to praise the Kent man’s commitment too highly. He has competed in just two national events this season and won both handsomely, proving that, should he choose, the option of being the biggest fish in a smaller pond is one open to him. This is not enough for Field, however.
Instead, the reigning British champion, chooses to test himself against the world’s best in the UCI World Cup, basing himself in Belgium and rejoicing in the nickname bestowed upon him in his adopted home: Field de Brit.
He has finished consistently around the top 30 in this season’s World Cup campaign, and is not expecting to be crowned world champion. If any entrant deserves the support of his countrymen today, however, it is Field, a rider who has chosen the hardest route available to him in a bid to become the best he can be.
The Elite Women’s world championship race promises the best showdown of any on today’s unexpectedly packed race programme. Defending champion, Marianne Vos (Holland), will go wheel-to-wheel with newly-crowned World Cup holder, Katie Compton (USA), who will be racing on home soil.
The competition between the two promises to be fascinating.
Vos, in the opinion of many, the world’s best rider, enjoyed a dazzlingly successful 2012, adding world and Olympic road race titles to a glittering palmares, before swiftly resuming a ‘business as usual’ approach to ‘cross racing: a discipline in which she is the reigning and four-time world champion.
Vos won three of the four World Cup rounds in which she competed this season. She achieved her hat-trick in consecutive races, the last coming just two weeks ago in Hoogerheide, suggesting she will begin the defence of her title in good form.
What are her prospects of a fifth consecutive world ‘cross title? Vos faced Compton three times in this season’s World Cup. The score is 2-1 in Vos’ favour. Few will bet against the Dutch woman in a straight fight, but facing the American on home soil, and with a significantly outnumbered team, securing another year in the rainbow stripes will be no easy feat.
Compton has enjoyed the best season of her career, lifting her first UCI Cyclo-Cross World Cup title after winning numerous rounds in previous seasons. She did so in convincing style, winning four of the seven rounds in which she competed, and finishing second in three others, allowing her to wrap up victory with a round to spare and gain a head start on her preparation for today’s world championship showdown with Vos.
The American will start with two advantages. The first, competing on home soil, we have discussed. The second will be support from the largest team in the field. The USA will field a six-strong squad, including Amy Dombrowski and Meredith Miller. Should her race with Vos become a tactical battle, Compton may find herself holding more cards.
Great Britain has more than an outside chance of victory in the form of Helen Wyman. The seven-time British champion has experienced a season of highs and lows; losing her treasured national champion’s jersey to Nikki Harris (ruled out of the world championship by injury) but winning the hugely prestigious Koppenbergcross. Additionally, Wyman will enjoy the capable support of Annie Last and Gabby Day, and has an impressive tally of victories on American soil.
Check back tomorrow for a full report, as well as a photo gallery from Balint Hamvas.