Men’s Elite Preview
Courtesy of Cyclocross Magazine (link is http://www.cxmagazine.com/)

Last year at this time, cycling fans from all across the globe were arriving in Louisville, KY, ready to ring cowbells and cheer for their favorite racers as they took the stage for the 2013 Cyclocross World Championships. It marked an important event in the globalization of this small but quickly-growing for two reasons: this was both the first time the World Championships of Cyclocross were held outside of Europe and the first time the United States played the role of the host country. This weekend, the World Championships are returning to Europe at a familiar venue, Hoogerheide in the Netherlands, which already held the championship races as recently as 2009.

Viewers new to the sport of Cyclocross might be wondering what kind of outdoor racing could take place in early February. While Cyclocross races begins in the Fall, the season builds to a grand finale deep in the wintertime, and it is not uncommon for late races and national championships to take place with snow on the ground. The 2005 World Championships in Germany were notoriously brutal: most of the course was covered in ice.

Riders compete for 45 minutes to a little over an hour on short laps that generally demand them to navigate through mud, sand, steep climbs, and wicked descents. Oftentimes sections of the race can be so brutal that they are impossible to ride, forcing riders to dismount their bicycles and run with them on their shoulder. The Cyclocross bikes themselves have a passing resemblance to road bikes, although are built differently to handle the difference in terrain. While Cyclocross tires are wider than their road counterparts and have a tread that looks like a mountain bike, the elite fields are disallowed from using anything thicker than 33mm, which is roughly a little smaller than the length of a wine cork.

For those viewers more familiar with the sport but may have missed the Euro action throughout the season, we asked our Euro pro reporter Robbie Carver and Euro pro and reporter Christine Vardaros to prepare a crib sheet. He’s made a list of who you should keep your eye on, and why, for the Elite Men’s race. Check out our whole Worlds 2014 page here.

Sven Nys

There’s little doubt that all eyes will be on the reigning World Champion as the Elite Men line up at Hoogerheide. Nys’ season has been far from perfect—he lost the chance at both the World Cup and Superprestige titles due to mechanicals and crashes, and in the middle of the season crashed so often that this author, at least, wondered if the curse of the Rainbow Jersey had floated off Phillip Gilbert’s shoulders and nestled onto Nys’. However, what was clear even then was that Nys was on commanding form, and he has since shown that by winning six of the past 10 C1 races in which he competed—making an incredible 16 wins for the season. Nys’ performance at the Belgian Championships, where his dominance in the sand made the rest look like amateurs, was made even more commanding with Niels Albert and Klaas Vantournout pulling out of the race, sending a strong signal to the elite field. Albert could only shake his head, saying, “I can only hope that Sven has peaked too early.”

Although Nys hasn’t won at Hoogerheide since 2007, he nonetheless enters with the most total wins: three to Niels Albert’s two. As well, he took bronze here at the 2009 World Championships. Clearly, this is a course in which Nys can excel.

With two world championships to his name, a fresh contract, and a dominant season, perhaps Nys enters with a bit less stress than in years past. He has nothing left to prove, after all, and everything now is just icing on the cake. As he has said, “I can’t believe I’m still so good at this age.” Let’s see what the old man can do.

Niels Albert

When the World Championships were last held at Hoogerheide in 2009, it was a young Niels Albert that proved strongest, and he will be looking to do so again. Although he has had no response for Nys in the last block of races, Albert has been nearly as dominant as the World Champion, claiming 11 wins, most in his trademark fashion of escaping mid-race and time-trialing to the win. Most notable, perhaps, was his win at World Cup Rome, where Albert soloed around a brutally windy course, vindicating a string of disappointing finishes.

Albert had a stomach flu that ruined his last races, and added, “I hoped that the condition would be better. I have uncertainties for Worlds. I don’t really know so I’ll have to wait. Worlds should have come a week later.” With a noticeable dip in his performance in early January, and the bug hopefully out of his system, he may just be peaking at the right time to claim his third world title.

Lars van der Haar

If anyone thought that last year’s third place finish was a fluke, Lars van der Haar showed up to this season with a clear response. In just his second season as an Elite racer, Van der Haar has claimed three World Cup races, the overall title, and leads the UCI points category. On fast, dry courses, Van der Haar is practically unmatched, and his tenacity in the late race has kept him consistently in the top five all season. If the rain stays away, the young Dutch rider could cap an already incredible season with a World Title.

Martin Bina

Martin Bina enters as a bit of an underdog, consistently in the top ten this season but never taking the top podium spot. However, last time Hoogerheide was held this time of year, in early 2013, there was a slick layer of ice underneath a powder of snow. which proved ideal conditions for the Czech racer. As other racers slid out, fell on their rears, and ungainly attempted tricky 180s, Bina shot around the parcours as if he had skates on his shoes, deploying two legged slides around corners and powering across the flats. With the weather forecasted to hover just above freezing, and rain on the horizon, conditions just might favor Bina once more.

Bina tells us, “We will see what the weather is like- maybe snow, maybe ice, why not? But I think I can ride for a top result on any course – even mud. If I feel good, then I believe my results will reflect this. I feel good but now I was after Nationals a little sick and today I felt good but after 30 minutes my back started to hurt, so I hope – and believe – it will be better by Worlds. Before Nommay World Cup, I flew to Mallorca for the last training camp. I look forward to the race. It’s a nice course. Of course I want to win it. I think it’s every rider’s dream. Sven Nys is very very strong and in Leuven [two weeks before Worlds] he rode away from us without even breathing – no problem! He’s Sven! In the Christmas races I felt better and better and I hope I feel the best at Worlds.”

Klaas Vantornout

Although in 2013 Vantornout entered the World Championships as a favorite, this year the lanky Belgian falls into the dark horse category. Plagued with a virus, and perhaps unused to the pressure of wearing the Belgian national jersey, Vantornout has only nabbed two wins of note this season, at Superprestige Ruddervorde and Middelkerke. Vantornout’s national title and second place at Louisville shows he has the pedigree to be a threat, but will he have the fitness?

He had a heavy week of training in Mallorca the week before Nommay. If he can recover from his hardest training week all season, then he can potentially can have a good showing, but his 10th place in Nommay can’t be giving him much hope.

Read our interview with Vantornout here.

Kevin Pauwels

As with last season, Pauwels never quite rose to the form he has displayed in seasons past, winning only two C1 races and, more often than not, finishing well outside the podium. Crashes and mechanicals have plagued the Belgian, as well, but Pauwels is not to be counted out if the weather stays dry. At the Vlaamse Industrieprijs Bosduin in December, Pauwels was the only man fast enough to match Lars van der Haar on the dry course, besting the Dutch rider with a final surge to take the win. If he finds the luck that has left him, Pauwels may just find some redemption, as well.

Pauwels told us, “I’m not very good but also not bad. Usually, it should all come together for Worlds. My result really depends on the course. If it’s really heavy then will it be difficult. But if it’s dry, then I can do something on it. My form is good now but it has to get better by worlds to be really good on the day. I’m no longer sick.”

Philipp Walsleben

Walsleben has seriously stepped up his game this season, and is a legitimate contender for the podium. Rarely outside the top five, Walsleben has been an instigator and attacker in many races, driving the pace and showing he has the fitness for the late game. However, he has also shown poor last-lap strategy on a number of occasions, so if the win comes down to wits, he’ll need to show he’s learned his lesson.

Walsleben enters with an extra bit of confidence: he won the 2009 U23 World title on this course.

Francis Mourey

Mourey’s commanding performance at a muddy, grueling World Cup Namur places him squarely among the top contenders. Often criticized for fading in the late race, Mourey silenced his critics with his solo ride into his second World Cup win of his career. Mourey also lost by a nickel in France, showing that his form is still good and if the conditions are right, he is a fighter. If he can keep himself together for the final laps, we may just see a French flag at the ceremony.