by Kat Statman
The famous Christmas week of ’cross kicks off with a bang this Sunday in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium. There will be some exciting racing with all of the Elites looking to grab the coveted the World Cup points as well as have a good start to the hardest week of ’cross all season.
Last year the Heusden-Zolder course was a classic Belgian ’cross with mud and sand, but this year things are looking a little more slippery with snow falling almost daily throughout northern Europe, and temperatures predicted to become colder and colder. Hopefully it won’t be a problem like last year where Niels Albert threatened not to start because of the icy course conditions three days prior to the event.
With Zdeneky Stybar out of the picture for the past few weeks, the World Cup overall title has tightened up significantly. Niels Albert’s win in Igorre, Spain, placed him in the lead, but both Sven Nys and Kevin Pauwels are nipping at his heels. Albert is currently leading the series with an even 350 points while Pauwels is holding second, barely, with 301 points and Nys sitting in third with 299 points.
On the Women’s side the race for the overall is heating up significantly. Katie Compton is bringing herself closer to the lead as each round passes, but Sanne van Paassen has been nothing if not consistent this season, so she will be tough to surpass. Look to watch this battle heat up as the winter progresses.
Don’t forget, not only is there the race for the overall, but there’s also the race in itself. On the men’s side the start list is exciting. Reigning world champ Zdenek Stybar is at the front with his number one spot again. Hopefully his knee will hold out for him and he can return to where he left off, at the front of the peloton.
We can’t count out the other perennial favorites on the list like Niels Albert – though he has struggled in the snow and ice of late, he’s still a former world champion and the current World Cup overall leader. Expect him to be battling at the front.
Now might be the time when Sven Nys puts in that one infamous acceleration leaving everyone in his wake. Is Nys back to his dominating ways, or will this once again be a season for the younger generation. Without a single World Cup victory yet this season, expect him to be hunting for it, especially if things are slippery.
Let’s not forget last year’s winner Kevin Pauwels. Pauwels has been showing that he belongs at the front of the peloton and has clearly earned his second place in the World Cup overall with an outstanding season thus far. The other top names are of course Bart Wellens, Bart Aernouts, Klass Vantornout, Dieter Vantourenhout, Tom Meeusen, Lars Boom and Gerben de Knegt.
The US is also sending a nearly full squad with Ryan Trebon, Jonathan Page, Brian Matter, Mark Lalonde, Ryan Iddings, Sean Babcock, Ryan Knapp and Mitchell Hoke.
One race to absolutely follow is going to be the women’s race. Katie Compton has been on a winning streak this year taking a win in every World Cup she has started. She clearly has figured out her training and cramping issues at this point. Her dominating performances at both Kalmthout and Koksijde have shown that she deserves every accolade she has received from the press over the years.
Don’t forget that Marianne Vos is back and ready to rumble, as her ride from the last row to second place ride last weekend in Kalmthout loudly announced. Vos has been training on the track in Australia for a while, and that has brought her some amazing power to rival that of Compton’s. She is also one of the best ’crossers in terms of handling out there, cleanly riding one of the most technical sections of the Kalmthout course almost every lap. With Vos getting a better start position this week, Compton will have to be on her toes from the moment the lights go green in order to keep her in check.
Other women to watch closely are going to be another perennial favorite in the Women’s field Daphny van den Brand. She has been plugging away all season to defeat Compton and has come up short nearly every time. Can she take it this weekend on a slippery course that might suit her smaller frame better?
Don’t count out Sanne van Paassen and Sanne Cant, two other women that have been vying for the top spot all season.
American notables on the start list include Sue Butler – hopefully she is over her jetlag and ready to rumble – Meredith Miller, fresh off her Nationals podium, Mo Bruno Roy and CXM’s Christine Vardaros.
For a preview of the course and its features here’s a look at last year’s Elite Men’s highlights: