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Cyclo-cross feature, October 15, 2008

Europe gets ready for the muddy cyclo-cross World Cup

Sven Nys is the dominant factor in cyclo-cross
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While most of the road cyclists are slowly getting tired both physically and mentally by the end of the summer when there's only the Giro di Lombardia and foul weather left, some cyclists seem to be fresh and keen on riding some races. It's that time of the year again for cyclo-cross. Cyclingnews' Brecht Decaluwé will guide you through this rather mysterious discipline.

The World Cup – which is more of a European Cup – has ten events of which three are in Belgium, two each in The Netherlands and France, one in the Czech Republic and one in Italy. In Spain there's only a men's race. The last couple of years there has been a lot of talking about a World Cup in the USA and it seems like Cross Vegas has the biggest chance of gaining a spot on the World Cup calendar in 2009. For now the World Cup stays in Europe and the first stop is in Kalmthout, Belgium, on Sunday October 19, 2008.

Peter Van den Abeele, a Belgian former professional rider who is the cyclo-cross coordinator for the UCI, is on a mission to internationalise the sport. Last year he managed to introduce a name sponsor, resulting in a changed name: the UCI World Cup presented by Safety Jogger. This year Van den Abeele managed to sell the TV-rights to more than twenty channels who will be showing a race report of 26 minutes in the United States, South Africa and countries in Asia. In Flanders, the northern part of Belgium, where veldrijden is unbelievably popular all World Cup events will be shown live on TV.

Van den Abeele opted to stop the confusion that existed around the World Cup and the UCI-ranking during previous years. Until last year there was a blue jersey for the leader in the UCI-ranking, which included all UCI-races and not only the World Cup events. The World Cup on the other hand didn't have an overall ranking.

This year the leader's jersey of the UCI-ranking has disappeared. The blue jersey has been swapped with a white jersey for the leader in the World Cup. The start money riders receive at the World Cup races is decided by this World Cup ranking as well. But the UCI-ranking remains extremely important as well since it decides the starting position in all UCI-races around the world, including the world championships.

The male contenders

Extrovert Bart Wellens managed to beat Nys on a few occasions
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The biggest star is Sven Nys and is called the 'cannibal' like his compatriot Eddy Merckx. Nys has been dominating most of the past decade as he is the most versatile of all cyclo-cross riders. Last year Nys won four out of nine World Cup races. He has been topping the UCI-rankings and he has been winning all sorts of regularity competitions like the GvA-trophy and the Superprestige series.

The one thing that is lacking on Nys' palmarès is a series of world titles, he only won the world championships once, back in 2005. For some reason Nys seems to run out of luck or nerves of steel on the most important day of the year.

For the last two years Nys was combining cyclo-cross with cross-country mountain biking in order to participate at the Olympics. He finished a strong eighth in Beijing. Nys expressed his desire to race more on the road as well, something that wasn't possible – at the major races - when he rode for Rabobank. After spending almost his entire career with the famous Dutch team, Nys switched to the Belgian Landbouwkrediet team in the summer of 2008.

Nys's arch rival is compatriot Bart Wellens from the big Fidea team. The blonde rider has struggled a lot with back sores but he used to be one of the few riders who could beat Nys on the big days, like the world championships in 2003 and 2004.

Wellens excels in running and he's exceptionally quick in hopping on and off the bike, which offers him an advantage over other riders on extremely muddy courses. Extrovert Wellens is also quite a different character than the more timid Nys, which resulted in Wellens enjoying a huge fan base as well.

Lars Boom is the man of the future
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In recent years a bunch of talented young riders like Niels Albert, from Baal in Flanders, have challenged both Nys and Wellens. Albert is a huge and versatile talent and he has beaten the big boys on more than one occasion already. The 2008-2009 season will be his first as a full time professional rider.

Belgian domination

Belgian have been dominating cyclo-cross during the past decade, always within reach of winning a World Cup event. Klaas Vantornout and (the currently injured) Sven Vanthourenhout are the best of the 'Belgian rest'. Triple world champion and running specialist Erwin Vervecken is still racing but more than a one-off shot on a course that suits him doesn't seem possible nowadays. The 36-year-old has lost some of his sprint abilities.

Niels Albert is a young talent
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There are heaps more of Belgians with a lot of talent, like Bart Aernouts, Kevin Pauwels, Dieter Vanthourenhout (cousin of Sven Vanthourenhout), Rob Peeters and others. The good thing for the non-Belgians is that only a limited number of riders from each country can participate in the World Cup races... That number of riders depends on the country ranking and leader Belgium receives seven spots; the leader in the UCI-ranking and the world champion receive a wild card for the World Cup.

The best non-Belgian rider is Lars Boom. The young Dutchman moved over from the U23 category a little earlier than Albert and immediately won three World Cup races and he grabbed the world champion's jersey in Treviso 2008. Boom will ride one more year in the cyclo-cross fields before focusing on the road, where he is equally successful. Boom doesn't have the best technique but he compensates that with enormous strength on the bike.

Czech champion Zdenek Stybar is a huge talent. The 22-year-old won the World Cup event in Kalmthout last year and he is one of the few riders – together with Nys - who dares to hop over the obstacles without dismounting. French champion Francis Mourey won the World Cup event in Treviso in 2006.

The Swiss have Christian Heule who is committed on doing well this season, since he's riding for a Belgian team. The Italian champion is Enrico Franzoi, but he will cut his season short and leave room for Marco Bianco or Marco Aurelio Fontana to get some results.

In The Netherlands there's quite a gap behind Boom as guys like Gerben De Knegt, Thijs Al and Wilant Van Gils haven't been able to claim big wins lately; former world champion Richard Groenendaal is riding his last couple of races this season.

Young prospects include Aurélien Duval (France) and Philipp Walsleben (Germany). But it'll take at least one more year before they can battle it out with the big guns in the World Cup races.

Daphny Van Den Brand will try to emulate Sven Nys again
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Jonathan Page leads the English speaking assault, capturing the best ever US result with a silver medal at the world championships in 2007. Page is riding most of the season in Europe for a number of years in a row now. In normal conditions a top-10 result is good for him but on a course that suits him Page should get closer to the podium.

Compatriots Ryan Trebon, Jeremy Powers and current national champion Timothy Johnson dominate the US-scene and have been riding in some of the World Cup events last year, without too much success, though. There is a cyclo-cross scene in the United Kingdom as well but we haven't spotted impressive individual results on the men's front.

More money for the women

Hanka Kupfernagel has already four World Championships titles
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The women's racing is quite a bit more international than in the men's scene. In the men's ranking, four nations are among the top ten in the UCI ranking, whereas in the women's ranking it is six nationalities.

Current leader in the UCI-ranking is 30-year-old Daphny van den Brand from The Netherlands. She gets compared to Nys, although she found out last year that dominating a whole season isn't easy, dropping away after the Christmas races. Her compatriot Marianne Vos opted to skip the cyclo-cross last season because of the Olympic Games, where she grabbed a gold medal on the track in the points race. She decided to participate at the world championships in Treviso anyway and surprisingly received the silver medal.

Winner at those world championships was Hanka Kupfernagel, who grabbed her fourth title in Italy. In contrast to Vos the 34-year-old German didn't win an Olympic medal in Beijing. Afterwards she decided not to defend her title at the time trial world championships in Varese. Kupfernagel's compatriot Stephanie Pohl has already shown that there's a bright future waiting for her in cyclo-cross. For now we expect 'La Hanka' to perform best in the World Cup this season, if only because she was one of the women who had been lobbying for more prize money in the women's races. UCI coordinator Peter Van den Abeele finally found the funds and this season there is 40000 euro to split between the women.

The UK has two riders to go for a share of this prize money, 27-year-old Helen Wyman and 24-year-old Gabriella Day. The USA and Canada currently have two top riders, with Katherine Compton and Wendy Simms. Quadruple US-champion Compton won a silver medal at the world championships in Treviso and she won the World Cup event in Pijnacker last season. Fresh quadruple Canadian champion Simms finished seventh at the world championships in Treviso last year.

Laurence Leboucher retired at the end of last season but with Maryline Salvetat and Christel Ferrier-Bruneau France remains one of the strongest teams at the World Cup races. The Czech Republic has 25-year-old Pavla Havlikova as the only top rider in the cyclo-cross scene. In contrast to the men's scene the Belgian women haven't won a World Cup event in years. With Sanne Cant that is likely to change in the near future.

The 2009 calendar can be found here.


For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by Isosport/www.isosport.be

Images by Mark Legg

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