The UCI WorldTour may be over but summer’s end does not mean the end of thrilling entertainment in the elite echelons of cycling as the cyclo-cross season is now upon us.
And at the very highest level, the UCI Cyclo-Cross World Cup kicks off this weekend in Valkenburg, the Netherlands, as the world’s best ‘cross riders bid to start their season with victory.
Parts of the route will be very familiar to road cycling fans, with the legendary Cauberg Hil l- traditionally the end of the Amstel Gold Race – lying in wait for the riders on Sunday.
There will also be a few faces familiar to road cycling fans, not least the Netherlands’ Marianne Vos (Rabobank) who will ride in the rainbow jersey of world champion, just as she does on the road.
Vos won the final three World Cup events at elite women’s level last year before her world championship success and the Dutch superstar will hope to star with victory this year particularly as she is due to miss the second round as a result of minor surgery.
Also in contention for the prize will be newly-crowned British champion, Nikki Harris, and her predecessor in the jersey – seven-time national champion Helen Wyman.
The two Brits finished third and fourth overall last year, and Wyman finished last season ranked number two in the world.
Flying the flag for Great Britain will be former two-time British junior champion Hannah Payton, recently-married Gabby Durrin and Abby-Mae Parkinson.
Defending champion Katie Compton, who won four of the eight events last year, also returns as the 35-year-old American national champion bids to add another few prizes to her bulging palmares.
Sanne Van Paassen, the 25-year-old Dutch star, will not be competing, however, as injury looks set to rule her out of the entire competition.
Namesake Sanne Cant, the Belgian national champion, could well feature at the sharp end though as the 23-year-old bids to improve on the world number five spot she earned last year.
Cant is highly-regarded by her fellow riders and will certainly be looking to continue to her country’s proud tradition in the sport – particularly with three of the seven stages being held in Belgium.
The gruelling sands of Koksijde return for round three on November 23, while Namur and Heusden-Zolder host rounds either side of Christmas Day.
Tabor in the Czech Republic also returns to the billing after featuring last year, hosting round two on Saturday October 26, while the series concludes with dates in Rome on January 5 and Nommay, France, on January 26.
With three rounds to be hosted in Belgium, the courses certainly seem to favour the home riders and Belgian cyclo-cross legend Sven Nys will be competing in the men’s elite competition as he bids for a seventh World Cup success.
The world champion and current world number one won three events last time out, but was pipped to the overall title by compatriot Niels Albert.
World number two Albert, who also won in 2010/11, will be bidding to deny Nys again this year, as will world number three Kevin Pauwels, who also claimed three victories last season.
As the Belgian dominance of the sport at men’s elite level continues, only Martin Bina, of the Czech Republic, looks remotely likely to break it having ended last season by winning the final event and started this autumn with a second place in Ronse, Belgium, last weekend.
Britain’s sole representative at elite men’s level is Ian Field, who became the first man since popular all-rounder Roger Hammond to successfully defend his national champion title earlier this year.
Meanwhile, though the Belgians look set to continue their domination of the men’s elite level, their neighbours are mounting a charge at under-23 level which looks set to continue this season.
World champion Mike Teunissen, of the Netherlands, has shown no signs of letting up, while compatriot Mathieu Van der Poel is expected to take the competition by storm after impressing on the roads.
Van der Poel only made the step up from junior level this year but he bagged the world under 23 champions jersey in Tuscany last month and now wants to add under-23 success at the cyclo-cross World Cup to his junior victory last season.
Belgium’s biggest hopes appear to rest on the shoulders of Wout van Aert, the current world number 23 despite his age, who impressed over the course of last season.
For UK cyclo-cross fans, Adam Martin, Ben Sumner and Jack Clarkson are all set to compete on Sunday as Britain continues to establish a foothold at cyclo-cross’ top level.
UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup 2013-14 – schedule
Sunday October 20, 2013: Valkenburg (Netherlands)
Saturday October 26, 2013: Tabor (Czech Republic)
Saturday November 23, 2013: Koksijde (Belgium)
Sunday December 22, 2013: Namur (Belgium)
Thursday December 26, 2013: Heusden-Zolder (Belgium)
Sunday January 5, 2014: Rome (Italy)
Sunday January 26, 2014: Nommay (France)