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2009 Cyclo-cross World Championships - CM

Hoogerheide, The Netherlands, January 31-February 1, 2009

Who'll be on song in Hoogerheide?

By Brecht Decaluwé

The incomparable Sven Nys
Photo ©: Cyclingnews.com
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Somewhere along the border between Antwerp, Belgium, and Bergen op Zoom, The Netherlands, there used to be not much else than heathland near an old defensive wall. The old road towards the local airfield turned into a small village and that's what Hoogerheide still is, a small rural town. For all the linguistic scientists among our readers, Hoogerheide can be translated as Higherheath.

Thanks to local hero Adrie van der Poel - multiple Spring Classics winner and former cyclo-cross world champion - once a year the town is turned into a cyclo-cross course, and this year Hoogerheide is hosting the UCI's cyclo-cross World Championships.

For those who don't know about Van der Poel, what follows is a short introduction. Cycling-mad Adrie was one of the best one-day riders during the eighties and he racked up wins in Classics like the Amstel Gold Race, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Ronde van Vlaanderen. In between the road seasons, training maniac Van der Poel chose to compete in cyclo-cross to remain in competition all year long.

It turned out that Van der Poel was among the best in the world in the discipline. During the latter stages of his career Van der Poel focused mainly on cyclo-cross and back in 1996 the Dutchman captured the world title in Montreuil, France.

For Van der Poel the race organiser, the final preparations are currently underway and we hope to enjoy one great spectacle in Hoogerheide. Those riders from the home country will undoubtedly battle for the medals in all four events. Lars Boom defends his title in the elite men's category, while Thijs Al can be used as the wild card. Daphny van den Brand and Marianne Vos won three World Cup events this season in the women's category and Tijmen Eising dominated the junior races. The odds aren't looking good for the U23 men's event, although Boy van Poppel (son of former top sprinter Jean-Paul) will surely be good competition.

Adrie van der Poel, born in Hoogerheide and son-in-law of Raymond Poulidor, designed the course and he created something that we feel isn't the most challenging parcours around. The old wall provides for some, but not too much, natural elevation. Overall the course is not too technically challenging, for cyclo-cross specialists that is.

The clay ground could stick on the bikes and give the pit crew a hard time but much will depend on the weather conditions. The last check of the weather forecast for the weekend talked about a little bit of frost during the nights and dry, sunny days. Combine this information with the wet, cold weather Hoogerheide received the last couple of days and we might expect a frozen subsoil topped with a little bit of mud.

Back in 1953 the elevated town withstood the flood that hit most of the Low Countries, but it is almost certain that Hoogerheide will be submerged by the huge numbers of fans that are expected to support their heroes. Surely the Dutch riders will enjoy the typical orange craziness along the barriers, but it remains to be seen whether those orange mad men will be noticed among the lion flagwaving Belgians who are expected to show up in even greater numbers, reaching far beyond the tens of thousands.

Elite Men

Lars Boom will be riding on home turf
Photo ©: Dave McElwaine
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Who's the top favourite in the elite men's category? If this was any race other than the World Championships it would be easy to say Sven Nys. The Belgian is leading in all major competitions and sewed up the World Cup with a fine win in Milan last Sunday. At 32, Nys is at the top of his game and his career. But as we said, these are the World Championships and Nys finally admitted last year that it was the one race that he couldn't control, year after year.

Despite being the best in the cyclo-cross circus for the past decade, Nys has only managed to become World Champion once. For that reason only we can't call Nys the absolute favourite, although the man from Baal is riding stronger than ever.

Defending champion Lars Boom is young, multi-talented, ambitious and most of all he has the confidence to back it all up. For two years the Dutchman has predicted that he would win the World Championships on home soil. Last year he was a year ahead of schedule when he beat the best at the worlds in Treviso, Italy, but the goal remains the same for Boom: winning the worlds on home soil.

If all goes to plan, Boom will then focus more on road cycling, and he has stated that winning the prologue of the Vuelta a España when it comes to Assen is his next target.

The competition for Nys and Boom might come from the man that accompanied them on the podium in Treviso last year, the Czech Republic's Zdenek Stybar. The young Fidea rider struggled with his form back in November, but after a training camp on home soil he was back stronger than ever, racking up the wins at the end of the year in Diegem and and Loenhout as well as a strong second to Vervecken in Roubaix last week and a third place in Milan.

Stybar received extra motivation from his team manager, Hans Van Kasteren, in the form of a 30,000 euro bonus if one of his riders turns World Champion. Of course Stybar's teammates will be interested in that money as well.

Fresh father Bart Wellens is hoping to capture a third world title to make up for his rather poor season, and while he has vowed to ride first and foremost to ensure a Belgian victory, he has to think of his trade teammates as well. "I would love to turn World Champion for a third time but if I notice after three laps that I'm not good enough then I'll help a compatriot," Wellens said to sporza.be. "Then again, I'm not going to pull back Stybar on my own when he's in the attack. If others are helping then I'm in as well because his victory wouldn't help me much either."

The other Fidea money hunters are giant Petr Dlask (Czech Republic) and shy guy Kevin Pauwels (Belgium).

We've named the favorites and in this category the outsiders for the win are numerous. Never count out triple World Champion Erwin Vervecken (Revor) as he is always on his best at this time of the year. Actually all the Belgians at the start could win it on a given day, especially Niels Albert and Klaas Vantornout.

Non-Belgian outsiders are Francis Mourey (France), Radomir Simunek Jr. (Czech Republic) and Enrico Franzoi (Italy). Former silver medalist Jonathan Page is still not on the start list despite being cleared by USADA for his missed doping test in November. Marc Gullickson from USA Cycling told Cyclingnews that he was still working on the situation.


Germany's Hanka Kupfernagel
Photo ©: Mitch Clinton
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The women's field is one of the strongest in the history of the sport, and there are no fewer than five riders with a realistic chance to win the rainbow bands. There are three favourites, each with her own strengths, and the conditions of the course will likely determine which rider will prevail. Defending world champion Hanka Kupfernagel won the World Cup overall, and is particularly strong on the less-technically demanding and fast courses.

Daphny van den Brand is the local favourite, and showed that her form has come good by winning the last World Cup event in Milan, and she also prefers a fast course. But while American Katie Compton has the best combination of power and skills, she may not find the drier, less-demanding course to her liking. Compton took third overall in the World Cup, winning on the heavy courses in Roubaix and Nommay as well as the technical and sandy Koksijde round, but will have to face up against a determined Dutch squad which also boasts former 'cross World Champion Marianne Vos.

Vos, a dual Olympic gold medalist, took a win in her first World Cup race of the season, and can never be counted out. Should the race come down to a sprint, Vos has demonstrated again and again that she is one of the fastest women in the world at the end of a hard race.

Of course, there's always good competition from the French team. Maryline Salvetat and Christel Ferrier-Bruneau. The USA team looks like the strongest one around with Compton, but also Rachel Lloyd and Georgia Gould who should be able to finish near the podium.

U23 and Junior Men

In the youth categories it's often hard to pick a favorite. This year things are different and there are outspoken favorites. Honestly, we would be surprised if Philipp Walsleben wouldn't be listening to the German national anthem during the U23 Men post-race podium ceremony. A few hours before that we bet Tijmen Eising will set the Dutch tone of the 'Wilhelmus' for his compatriots in Hoogerheide.

Aurélien Duval from France promised he would do all he can to spoil Walsleben's party, teammate Arnaud Jouffroy and all the riders of the Belgian team will surely try to reach the same goal. Pawel Szczepaniak and Marek Konwa lead the Polish team while Lukas Kloucek and Ondrej Bambula lead the Czech team. Don't be surprised if other names are able to hop on the podium as behind Walsleben the competition is wide open.

Beside Eising there are even more contenders for medals in the Junior category. Eising could be flanked by his compatriot Lars van der Haar, or Belgians Sean De Bie and Wietse Bosmans. The US team looks strong in this category although boys like Zach McDonald and Luke Keough will have to pull out something special to fell a goliath like Eising.

Competition starts on Saturday with the youth races. The Junior Men are racing at 1130 while the U23 start their most important race of the season at 1430. On Sunday the same timing is used for the Women and the Elite Men. Stay tuned on Cyclingnews for full coverage of the World Championships in Hoogerheide as it happens.