Otherwise known as the "who will finish second to Sven on Sunday" rankings. But, enough with the superfluous wordage. We all know what you're here for, and here are your rankings:
Sven Nys: Do you even watch cyclocross? Have you not seen the domination from the Kannibal from Baal over the past two months? It's been something special, and the reigning World Champion has done his stripes proud. When he has decided it is time to hit the GO button, few have been able to respond. Nys has the skills, for sure, and is the most well-rounded technically and physically of this lot. Plus, predictions of a muddy course will make His Svenness smile lots. But the one problem with the best cross racer of this generation is that Worlds always seem to elude him. While Albert and Stybar have been very good at putting everything together on the one day they want to make it count, Nys is far better at putting together a season of consistently good form but rarely gets great form to coincide with the World Championships.
You can't discount a two time World Champion, though, especially after the past few weeks. Sven won the Belgian national championships handily and then trounced Kevin Pauwels (and Tom Meeusen's flat tire) handily the next week at Leuven. Sven is the only full time crosser in this list who did not race the final World Cup in Nommay last weekend, deciding instead that spending the week in Mallorca training would be more beneficial than chasing a World Cup overall position that was already far gone thanks to some bad luck in earlier rounds. Will that warm weather training give Sven the boost he needs to maintain his superiority? It's hard to see it doing anything else.
Lars van der Haar: This kid is going to be incredible... if he stays in cross, that is. After racing in the elite ranks last year when he was still eligible for U-23 and notching some notable results, the king of the holeshot upped his game this year, winning three World Cup rounds and the overall by a figurative mile. Always good on fast courses and packing a wicked sprint, Hoogerheide seems made to order for a van der Haar victory. But though his skills have been improving in the slop, heavy courses are still a bit out of his winning reach so he gets a hybrid ranking - five stars if it's fast, four if it's muddy like it seems to be getting.
Francis Mourey: Do you know how long it has been since a Frenchman won the World Championships? Try 1958, and 2006 was the last year someone from France was even on the podium. That was Mourey, the great french hope who almost seems to break through most every year. His style is often described as a bull in a china shop, especially when compared to the smoothness of Sven, but it worked for him when he won the World Cup round in Namur earlier this year and just barely lost the sprint in Nommay last weekend. In all actuality, it's hard to see him coming out on top of Sven, especially because he won't drop him and will lose a sprint to him, but a podium is definitely within reach.
Niels Albert: Let's see, how do I justify this one? Stybar is more likely to get on the podium on Sunday, but Niels is more likely to win. Albert has won two out of the five elite World Championships he has contested, the first coming in - you guessed it - Hoogerheide back in 2009. His form has been all over the place this season, alternating between untouchable and too tired to factor. Too tired, you ask? Yes, Albert is the best of his contemporaries at putting everything together for a special day at Worlds and that often means he sacrifices some snap and freshness at other parts of the season. He was anonymous at Nomay last weekend, and at Leuven before that, but it's hard to count him out on Sunday... especially if it continues to get muddier.
Tom Meeusen: Tommeke (no, not that one, the one that bunnyhops everything) has been up and down all year. He got sick, then won the Koppenbergcross, struggled some more, and then won the World Cup round in Nommay last weekend. Oh, and two weeks ago in Leuven he was on fire but flatted out of the leading trio in the last lap, and then caught back up to the chase group and punked them in the sprint... badly.
Meeusen will be good if the course is not too heavy, but once you throw a lot of running in there he's going to lose his shot at a gold medal. If it's not too sodden and the track is faster, Meeusen is a danger man, especially in a sprint from a small group. His punch is much bigger than his motor, though, so he only gets three stars. Bonus? Meeusen is the second most likely - behind Stybar - to find opportunities to get rad air somewhere on the course.
Zdeneck Stybar: I'm afraid I will have to call in the riot police after this one, but Styby won't win. He will be up there in the fight until two laps to go, but after that...? Well, I do hope I'm surprised when he pops up on the podium. It has been decades since a favorite to win Paris-Roubaix was also on the short list of Worlds contenders, but Styby got his start in BMX and then won four cyclocross World Championships - two at the elite level - before being seduced by skinny tires, big cobbles, and bigger paychecks.
According to the media, Stybar just made his decision to participate in Worlds yesterday. But mark my words, he's coming more prepared than that would suggest. His Svenness said he saw Stybar doing "hill intervals" in Mallorca last week and, apparently, you don't do those in January unless you're going to do cross Worlds. But while Styby certainly has the power to spare - did you see him in Zolder? - his skills are always a bit rusty now that he's a roadie and that can cost him valuable energy. And I'm going to say this and own it - Stybar was so good in the Kerstperiode a month ago when he won a race and finished on the podium of the World Cup round in Zolder because most of the other guys he was going against were tired. At Worlds everyone's game is going to be a little higher, and I don't know that Styby's can rise to match.
Philipp Walsleben: At 26 years of age, he's hardly the new kid on the block, but the German national champion is certainly having a breakout year. He has yet to win a race this season other than his national championships, but he finished on the podium of three World Cups and was consistently in or near the front group all season long. He's always consistent but rarely brilliant, which is why he won't win on Sunday. Bonus trivia? Walsleben won a world championships here before in 2009 when he was in his last year in the U-23 ranks.
Kevin Pauwels, Klaas Vantornout, Rob Peeters, and everyone else: Sorry guys, it's a harsh world, and you haven't had the goods over the past month. Normally this is a course that would make Pauwels very, very happy, but this year the form just hasn't been there.