When? 3pm (CET), Saturday 28th January
As I sat down to write this piece, I realised I had no idea what ‘beloften’, the word the Dutch speakers of this world use to denote the U23s, actually meant. Therefore, I did what every self-respecting writer on ‘foreign’ sports does in these circumstances, and plugged the word into Google Translate. Beloften…promises, the plural of belofte; promise, vow or pledge. For many casual watchers, the cyclocross worlds is all about the Sunday, when the elite men and women line up to astound with their power and mind-boggling skill, but these elites were once beloften, young riders whose potential promised their eventual rise to the top of their tree. On Saturday, Koksijde will get a glimpse of the future when the cream of the youthful crop battles it out over the dunes.
Lars van der Haar (Netherlands, Rabo-Giant Offroad) Age=20, defending champion.
I met van der Haar in Baal on New Year’s day. The first thing which struck me was his diminutive stature; he is Albertina sized. The second was his total openness and lack of so much as a single air or grace. He had, he said, been sick, and was not expecting anything from the race. I pulled a sympathetic face, said ‘awww dear’ or somesuch, and wished him luck. He thanked me and said he would need it. An hour later he was standing atop the podium, having destroyed the field; for the Netherlands’ great hope it was business as usual, ill or not.
It is hard to see beyond van der Haar on Saturday. While he has not dominated quite as flabbergastingly as his compatriot Marianne Vos, his record this season has been almost as impressive. Of the thirty races he has ridden in the past twelve months, including elite races, he has won seventeen. Taking U23 races alone he has won fifteen from twenty three, and is reigning world, European and Dutch Champion. He has also thrown his weight around amongst his elders, stunning riders such as Aernouts, Wellens and Heule, along with the USA’s finest, with his lightning burst to the line at Cross Vegas back in September. He was also second to Aernouts at Nacht van Woerden, beating among others Dieter Vantourenhout, De Knegt, Chainel, Peeters and Page by a comfortable margin. The World Cup is his with a seventy five point margin, with two rounds to go he leads the Superprestige by twelve points and he lies second in the Gva by two points, despite missing a round through illness. Few would bet against his future performances in Lille and Oostmalle giving him that title too. The only slight blot on his favouritism for the worlds, and slight it truly is, is that he was merely 4th in the Koksijde World Cup round, a race won by Gert-Jan Bosman, who is only a reserve on the Dutch worlds team. Despite this, however, anything less than a win on Saturday would be a huge disappointment for the man from Amersfoort, whose apparent physical fragility belies his strength.
Below are the final two laps of last year’s championship. Just watch his gargantuan long range sprint for the line:
Wietse Bosmans (Belgium, BKCP-Powerplus) Age=20
Bosmans is the Belgian U23 champion and winner of five races in total this season. The others came in the Ruddervoorde and famous Zonhoven rounds of the Superprestige, the Zolder World Cup and the Loenhout GvA, the last two of which were missed by van der Haar. He finished only eighth in the World Cup, but he lies second in the Superprestige and third in the GvA, underlining his credentials as one of the few credible threats to van der Haar. He was a disappointing 6th in Sankt-Wendel this time last year, but all the signs point to him improving upon this in Koksijde, despite only finishing 6th there in the World Cup.
Mike Teunissen (Netherlands, Rabo-Giant Offroad) Age=19
Teunissen was second to van der Haar in Sankt-Wendel last year, and for a period of time in the final lap, appeared to have stolen it. It was not to be as his compatriot closed the gap, but his star continues in the ascendant. He has won only one race this year, the Superprestige round in Hamme-Zogge, but has always been there or thereabouts, winning silver at the European Championships in November and taking second at Baal and in the overall World Cup. He lies fourth in the Superprestige, where he made trips to the podium in Diegem and Gieten. Big and powerful, he is young and very much on the up.
Stan Godrie (Netherlands, Rabo-Giant Offroad) Age=19
Godrie only turned 19 on 9th January and is thus the youngest of the powerful Dutch team. He has been extremely consistent this year, finishing inside the top ten on twelve occasions. His most notable result as far as the coming World Championship is concerned was his second place at the Koksijde World Cup; he can clearly handle the sand. He was also second in the Superprestige races in Gieten and Gavere, and third at both the European and Dutch Championships. He was sixth in the World Cup and lies third in the Superprestige.
Micki van Empel (Netherlands, Telenet Fidea) Age=21
Van Empel, while only 11th in the World Cup, has his chances here. He was third in the Koksijde round, one of three podium finishes this season, the others coming in Hasselt and Ronse. He leads the GvA narrowly from van der Haar thanks to five top-seven finishes.
Vinnie Braet (Belgium, Sunweb Revor) Age=20
Braet is another fairly consistent top-tenner. He was only 14th last year, but has come on in leaps and bounds this season. He clearly loves tough courses as he was second at the Koppenbergcross and third at Zonhoven, as well as in his national championship. He took only thirteenth in the World Cup this year but lies sixth in the GvA and fifth in the Superprestige.
Gianni Vermeersch (Belgium, BKCP Powerplus) Age=19
Vermeersch was second to Bosmans in the Belgian Championships in his only podium finish of the season so far. He was, however, sixth at the Europeans and fourth in Loenhout. He is unlikely to challenge for the podium here but could spring a surprise with luck on his side. He was 15th in the World Cup and lies 9th in the GvA and 6th in the Superprestige.
Arnaud Grand (Switzerland, Telenet Fidea) Age=21
Grand wins rarely, but is more often than not a presence at the front of a race. He is once again Swiss champion and this was his only win this season, but he was third at Gavere and fourth at Baal, Gieten and Zonhoven. He finished fourth in the World Cup and stands seventh in the Superprestige. A live outsider.
Arnaud Jouffroy (France, Telenet Fidea) Age=21
Jouffroy was World Champion in 2010 in rather strange circumstances after the disqualification of both Sczepaniak brothers, who fell foul of the dope testers. Since then, his results have been less than inspiring, but his fourth at the Europeans signals his danger when the form is there. He won the U23 race in Namur but while a win is a win, he did not have to beat many big names to do it. He was 18th in the World Cup and stands 18th in the GvA and 14th in the Superpresitge. A 2010 repeat is highly unlikely.
Julian Alaphilippe (France) Age=19
I confess to knowing nothing about Alaphilippe, apart from the fact that he is a man in form. He won his national championship earlier this month and followed that up with second places at both the Lievin and Hoogerheide world cups. At the latter, van der Haar beat him by only three seconds. He appears to have ridden very few other big races this season, but on the strength of his impressive January, he must be taken as a potential threat.
Mentions in dispatches go to the other Dutch riders, David van der Poel and Michiel van der Heijden, Belgium’s Michael Vantourenhout, the Czech Republic’s Karel Hnik who was third in the Czech senior championships, and to Elia Silvestri of Italy. However, if season dominator Lars van der Haar does not cross the line first, arms aloft, at Koksijde on Saturday afternoon, I will eat my txapela.
Photos are mine