From the Pages of Velo: The favorites for rainbow stripes in Louisville

We handicap the favorites for UCI Elite Cyclocross World Championships

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Editor’s note: A portion of this preview of the top contenders for the elite and U23 races at the 2013 UCI Elite Cyclocross World Championships in Louisville, Kentucky, originally appeared in Velo’s February issue.

Elite men

Niels Albert (Belgium): ★★★★ The reigning and two-time elite world champion, Niels Albert has been, along with countrymen Sven Nys and the placid Kevin Pauwels, the cream of the crop in 2012-13. After a slow start, the Belgian finished on the podium at eight races in a row in November, including three victories, and kept getting better from there. After kicking off his U.S. campaign with a win in Cincinnati on Saturday, he’ll celebrate his overall World Cup title on Thursday night in Louisville and will toe the line as the top favorite on Sunday.

It’s a continuation of form that saw him ride away from the field at the world championship last year in the sands of Koksijde. Unlike Sven Nys, who seems to chase sheer dominance throughout the season on his way to overall classification titles, Albert is built for the tough challenge of peaking on the day of worlds.

“The world championship will always be the most important race of the year for me and I do not want to be exhausted at the start,” he said. Albert is in line to go back-to-back for the rainbow stripes, just as his predecessor, Zdenek Stybar, did in 2010-2011.

Sven Nys (Belgium): ★★★ In Belgium, Sven Nys is king. Velo’s International Cyclocross Man of the Year is revered by legions of fans; he is the master of the discipline, one of the most decorated cyclocross stars the sport has ever seen, and arguably the best bike handler in all of cycling. On seven occasions, Nys has won the Belgian national cyclocross title and the overall title in the Superprestige — the discipline’s top series aside from the World Cup — in the same season. The “Cannibal from Baal” (a.k.a. the Kanibaal) did it again in 2012 and, while he fell short in a world championship race where he was heavily favored (despite his God-like stature in the sport, he has only been able to claim one world championship title, in 2005), Nys has bounced back as expected. His 2012-13 campaign began as another dominant affair, with victories on storied tracks like Hamme-Zogge and Koppenberg.

But a bout with bronchitis in late December derailed Nys at the beginning of the key build-up to the worlds. He won the Zolder World Cup and again at Bredene, Belgium, on December 29, but has shown very little since missing his namesake race on New Year’s Day. Whether he can get back in time to contest for his second rainbow jersey is a big question mark.

Despite his late-season speed bump, at 36, nearly a decade older than rivals Niels Albert and Kevin Pauwels, Nys keeps on winning. What he lacks in top-end speed 13 years after his first Belgian elite title, he more than makes up for in finesse and technical prowess. If he is at the front of a race in the closing laps, especially in heavy conditions, Nys is as near a lock for victory as there is in men’s cyclocross. With snow/rain in the forecast for Saturday, and dry, cold weather on race day, for Nys it may come down to the surface on a fast, power riders’ track in Kentucky.

Kevin Pauwels (Belgium): ★★★ Kevin Pauwels had a breakout season in 2011-12, winning 11 races and the overall GVA Trofee and World Cup titles, and finishing third at the world championship in Koksijde. The first half of the 2012-13 season was not been so kind to the reticent 28-year-old Sunweb-Napoleon Games rider. After snaring his only win at the first round of the World Cup in Tabor, he was hampered both by injuries and technical problems. Pauwels came on strong in December, however, winning the Namur and Rome World Cup rounds to finish second overall to Albert, and the GP Sven Nys on January 1.

He’s been on the sharp end of racing ever since and a dry race in Louisville would play especially to his strengths: speed and technical prowess. With a rider as enigmatic as Pauwels, whether his problems are simply bad luck or something more significant is hard to know, but if he can carry his late-season form into early February, and can cope well with the travel, he may pose the biggest potential threat to the dominance of favorites Nys and Albert.

Lars van der Haar (The Netherlands): ★★★★ Lars van der Haar may be the youngest rider at the upper end of the elite cyclocross ranks, but don’t let his youth fool you. The 21-year-old two-time U23 world champion is smart, skillful, and, most importantly, fast. He has raced CrossVegas three times — stealing a win from much more experienced contenders in 2011 — so he knows how to handle travel and how to win on a North American course. And, after a second-place finish in the Tabor World Cup, on a course not entirely dissimilar in character to Louisville, and a third place in Hamme-Zogge, reigning champion Niels Albert picked him as the favorite to win in Louisville.

Van der Haar excels on fast courses, and can handle himself in sand, but he is still not quite the equal of favorites in heavy mud or snow. That said, the Dutch champion was second in the snowy Hoogerheide World Cup two weeks ago. If he stays on his current trajectory, van der Haar will likely wear more than one rainbow jersey in his career, but whether he earns the first in Louisville will likely depend on the weather.

Jeremy Powers (USA):Velo’s North American Cyclocross Man of the Year, Jeremy Powers marked his switch to Rapha-Focus in 2011 by winning five rounds of the Trek U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross series, claiming the overall title, then putting an exclamation point on his season with his first national title. He won five of the eight rounds in 2012 (he skipped the last two in Bend, Oregon) to take the overall title, while also collecting a best-ever seventh-place World Cup finish in Tabor, Czech Republic. Powers struggled through the Kerstperiode, however, falling ill in Belgium after a big block of training in Arizona. He limped through the national championships in early January, and came back to finish third behind Belgians Albert and Wietse Bosmans in Cincinnati on Saturday.

Powers knows the Louisville course well; he lists it as his favorite course on the back of his Rapha-Focus trading card. He has taken victory after victory in Eva Bandman Park, including both days of the Derby City Cup in 2012. Starting in the second row, the ever popular Powers will look to charge from the front — the way he did before fading at the Namur World Cup — and use his technical acumen to separate himself from the less-technically skilled riders.

Bart Wellens (Belgium): ★ Two times an elite world champion, Bart Wellens has only recently returned from a major health scare that saw him experience multiple organ failure. What was eventually determined to be septic shock set him adrift for nearly a year. But Wellens is back, and the 34-year-old Belgian is on his best form in years. His third-place finish on a heavy course in the Superprestige Gavere in late November was his best result in nearly a year, and his first podium in a major-series race since the health scare last January. He spent the early part of last season racing in the U.S., winning the second day of the USGP Planet Bike Cup and StarCrossed before making a brief reconnaissance to Louisville to check out the worlds course. Never to be discounted in a major race, and especially one in the mud, Wellens is a dark horse for glory in the U.S.

Bart Aernouts (Belgium): ★★ Aernouts has been ranked consistently among the top-10 racers in the world, but with Nys, Albert, Pauwels, and, in recent years, now-roadies Zdenek Stybar and Lars Boom winning almost everything in sight, there’s simply too much talent in Europe for the 31-year-old Belgian to earn himself more than a handful of podium finishes a year. Nonetheless, the savvy Aernouts has taken opportunities where he could and earned big results at World Cups and other major series. Easygoing and positive, Aernouts should be a hit among American fans who admire Jeremy Powers for his similar, good-natured racing; with comparable strengths, the two men could easily find themselves racing together for a spot in the top five at worlds.

The women

Marianne Vos (The Netherlands): ★★★★★ Velo’s 2012 International Cyclist of the Year is one of the most dominant cyclists of any generation, male or female, across road and ’cross disciplines (while also dabbling in track glory). There need not be any more proof than her four consecutive world cyclocross championship titles through 2012; a fifth came in 2006 when she was 19. Though she once again took a break from competition after her victory at the world road championship, Vos will be there in Louisville. “Of course I want to defend my rainbow jersey. I’m looking forward to racing there and feeling the American atmosphere in cyclocross!” she told Velo. In 2012 alone, Vos won the world cyclocross championship, five stages and the overall at the Giro Donne, the Olympic road race, the World Cup overall title, and the world road championship. It may not be long before another world championship title is hers.

Katie Compton (USA): ★★★★★ Velo’s North American Cyclocross Woman of the Year, Katie Compton is one of the most prolific cyclocross racers of all time, having won nine consecutive U.S. national cyclocross championships. She has finished second at the world championship on two occasions; she also has a bronze to her name. In January 2012, at worlds in Koksijde, Belgium, her race didn’t go nearly so well — an early crash saw her claw back to fifth. In the fall of 2012, she won the World Cup stops in Pilsen, Czech Republic; Koksijde; and Roubaix, France, and clinched the World Cup overall title (before the last two races were even contested), something no American had done before. Domestically she won all six USGP events she started. Compton has been nearly untouchable all season long, benefiting from a blend of exceptional power and impeccable bike handling skills. At 33, she has the poise and understanding of the Louisville world championship course to make this her best-ever season. On home soil, at the height of her career, anything less than gold will be a disappointment.

Sanne van Paassen (Netherlands): ★★★ With the 2011 World Cup title and big wins in legendary races like Koppenbergcross and Gavere, it’s clear that Sanne van Paassen is capable of world-class results. In recent years, however, her late-season form has been hampered by bouts of illness, and missing from her palmarés is a world championship medal. This year, van Paassen changed her early-season program in an attempt to boost her chances in Louisville. After winning CrossVegas, she scaled back on racing to focus on training and her health, and is now on a slow buildup to worlds. With a gap at the top of women’s cyclocross following the retirement of Daphny van den Brand, van Paassen should have her best chance to stand on that elusive worlds podium.

Helen Wyman (Great Britain): ★★ The current European cyclocross champion is on some of the best form of her career. She has run a mixed schedule this year, hitting the World Cups and bigger races in Europe, while also battling among the best on North American soil. It has paid off. She racked up 11 victories in October and November, including both days of the Great Brewers Grand Prix of Gloucester, both days at the Providence Cyclocross Festival, and two of three days at Jingle Cross Rock. In the mud of Pilsen, only Katie Compton could ride away from the lithe Brit. At Koppenbergcross, Wyman held off compatriot Nikki Harris to take victory near her adopted home of Oudenaarde, Belgium. She then made the trip to Lousiville for the Derby City Cup, and a preview of the worlds course; a pair of fourth-place finishes bodes well for her chances to add more podium placings to one of her best-ever seasons. Her late season form continues to place her among the sport’s best.

Sanne Cant (Belgium): ★★ Three-time Belgian champion Sanne Cant had a breakthrough race at the 2012 worlds in Koksijde, earning her first worlds medal behind Marianne Vos and Daphny van den Brand. Since then, her trajectory has been much the same as in past years, producing top-fives and occasional podiums, but only a handful of wins. Cant may have world championship talent, but at just 22, she still lacks the consistency and steadiness of some older riders. Nonetheless, her growing star power at home in Belgium has helped spur improvement in both her confidence and maturity. In the right conditions, she could be a threat for the podium, but with Vos, van Paassen, Compton, and a host of other more experienced women standing between her and that goal, she’ll have to once again summon her best race of the season if she wants to get there.

Katerina Nash (Czech Republic): ★★★ Katerina Nash, a mainstay on the U.S. ’cross scene, was the 2011 USGP series champion. The 34-year-old Czech has raced in both the winter Olympics (cross-country skiing, in 1998 and 2002) and summer Olympics (cross-country mountain bike, in 1996 and 2012). She also won the 2008 USGP series crown and has had strong results at the world cyclocross championships throughout her career: fourth in 2010, third in 2011, and eighth in 2012. Her results in 2013 have only bolstered her status as a medal favorite: victory at both the GP Sven Nys and Superprestige Giegem, and a third place at the seventh round of the World Cup in Rome, behind Vos and Compton. Having raced on the Louisville course several times, her all-around athleticism should help the Czech national champion battle for another great result at the world championship.

Under-23 men

Zach McDonald (USA): ★★ Unlike most of the Americans shooting for the stars in Louisville this February, Zach McDonald has been taking a much more practical approach. Not a huge fan of Louisville’s punchy course and numerous dismounts, McDonald, who finished second to Jonathan Page in the elite race at the U.S. national championships in January, goes in treating worlds like just another race.

“Everyone wants to win worlds, but whether or not I can win, we’ll have to wait and see. If I don’t win worlds, I’m not going to cry in a corner. I’m more concerned with consistency all year than just that one day,” McDonald told VeloNews. McDonald agreed with his American teammates who believe they will have a big advantage over the Europeans who are not as accustomed to making trans-Atlantic flights; but he didn’t view it as a positive. “Who wants to win a race because everyone else had to travel further? I would rather go to their turf and beat them on their courses. That’s why I’m racing so many World Cups this year, to show that I really belong there.” If McDonald brings this type of swagger and bravado on race day, he might just show the world that he can win at home and abroad.

Mike Teunissen (Netherlands): ★★★ Mike Teunissen burst onto the U23 scene with a second-place finish at the 2011 world championships in Sankt Wendel just one second behind then-rising star Lars van der Haar. Until this year, that spectacular race was his best result, but he has blossomed since, winning the first round of the World Cup and the European championship. Teunissen excels on fast courses and can uncork an explosive sprint if he hasn’t dropped everyone before the finish line. But he has still not shown consistency on heavy, muddy, and highly technical courses. If Louisville turns out to be a drag race, he will undoubtedly be a man to beat, but if the weather turns foul and the course turns muddy or even snowy, he’ll have to elevate his racing to earn those rainbow stripes.

Wietse Bosmans (Belgium): ★★★★ The Belgian U23 champion is his country’s most promising young rider, but he missed a perfect opportunity to become something greater than that when he lost out to Lars van der Haar in the sprint at last year’s U23 worlds. Bosmans has come on strong in the second half of the 2012-13 season. He opened by winning the second round of the World Cup in Pilsen and the Bpost Bank race in Hasselt, but finished outside the top 10 at the European championship, and just inside the top 10 in Hamme-Zogge and Gavere. Since then, he’s caught fire, winning the World Cup stops in Koksijde, Zolder, and Hoogerheide, locking up the U23 series title along the way. Bosmans’ time as a U23 is about to run out, so if he wants to win a world title, Louisville may be his best opportunity, and given his six-week string of results leading into the race, he’ll roll into the grid on Saturday as the top favorite.

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