Happy Cross Worlds Week! I am taking a break between trips to the pharmacy to celebrate the coming Cross-Pocalypse on Sunday, as the world's best come to Koksijde to beat their heads against a wall of Belgian favorites for Rainbow Supremacy. Who will it be? How can we figure this out? What clever-sounding criteria can we concoct to amuse ourselves while waiting for the only true answer? Allow me to take a crack at this... and for now, let's start with the Big Four -- Niels Albert, Sven Nys, Kevin Pauwels and Zdenek Stybar. If you can fill in the blanks on some of the remaining challengers, please do. But these four won every major race (except for a victory at Essen by the sidelined Wellens), so the field will have a hard time capturing a podium place.
1. Run of Form
Who's got the hot hand? This is the most obvious place to look for clues about the weekend, since it implies a combination of good legs and confidence.
Niels Albert: Poor. He was nowhere in Lievin and nothing special in Hoogerheide, both courses where his strengths should have helped him. Also, I'm no expert here, but doesn't Albert's confidence seem a bit brittle?
Sven Nys: Hit or miss. He won his own race and the Belgian Championships, and sits atop the UCI world rankings thanks to a very solid last two months. He did poorly (by that standard) on the two grassy crits at Lievin and Hoogerheide, but he looms large over the field, and has the Nats kit to prove it.
Kevin Pauwels: Not bad. His back has knocked him out of an occasional race, but he took a strong win this past weekend and was nearly Stybar's equal in Lievin, except for a wayward step. K-Pow was cold cash money back in November, when Albert was breaking bones and Stybar was exiling himself... not the case anymore. But Pauwels isn't far off from his best.
Zdenek Stybar: My pick for guy on a roll. He apparently spent the past week training hard to peak for the WCs, and was a bit tired out in Hoogerheide, where he still managed second. In Lievin he really was strongest, even if Pauwels wasn't letting go of his wheel without a fight. While the Belgians scrap over the various series titles, Styby keeps his eyes on the prize.
The Duinencross course is a staple on the Belgian Cross circuit. It's a bit too late in the evening for me to dredge up course details, and I won't assume they run it the same every time -- it's Cross, all you need to tweak the course is some yellow tape and a few wooden stakes (for the vampires). But It's Koksijde, you can't stop it from being a sandpit that rewards the guy with the steady nerves and the explosive legs. See for yourself. So who likes the Duinen?
Niels Albert: He won here in 2010 over Styby and Nys, but that's his only podium at Koksijde. A broken wrist kept him out of the 2011 edition. Not sure what his excuse was in years past. Anyway, Niels can do this.
Sven Nys: Oh hells yeah. Nys shares the record for most wins at Koksijde (duh) with Erwin Vervecken (double duh), but more importantly he won on the very same course two months ago. And even more importantly than that, Nys has plenty of power to hump up the dunes through wet, leaden pits of sand.
Kevin Pauwels: Second to Nys in November, when he lost a disputed sprint. On that day Sporza went out of the way to mention that he's "not a specialist in the sand." Pauwels was flying that month, but Koksijde was the day Nys cracked his grip on the sport. And it was his first podium there in six years of elite pro racing.
Zdenek Stybar: Won there two years back, second last year, a bit off the pace this past November. That was the low point of his season, so the previous podiums probably say more about Styby's affinity for the sand.
3. Other Factors
Like what, exactly?
Niels Albert: How comfortable and confident is he, heading into the weekend? It's been a poor season for Niels, missing time with a wrist injury that scuttled the Koksijde preview everyone else got. Lately he's been in Spain getting ready for the Worlds. But they're not in Spain.
Sven Nys: How many times has he come into the Worlds as the favorite to win? [Answer: all of them.] And how many times has he found himself on the wrong step of the podium, after a race that wasn't as hard as he'd have preferred? [Answer: all but one of them.] Nys puts in a long season, in part because being Belgian and being great, that's what you have to do.
Kevin Pauwels: Yoah has made the leap at home, and he has won the World Cup with success outside of Belgium too. Is that enough to make him feel confident? Well, he has declared Styby the favorite to win, so maybe K-Pow is truly ready.
Zdenek Stybar: Not being Belgian comes in handy when you'd rather skip the umpteenth Flemish circuit to hone your form on an island somewhere. Styby seems to have done just that. I don't know if he's the favorite, but he has to like how he's positioned himself.
- Stybar 4
- Nys 7
- Pauwels 8
- Albert 11