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Notes from the Sand and Mud Desk

An anonymous season; a season of new names

Patrick Verhoest

Now that my cross"season" is over, I can get back to what's really important -- watching other people ride. And riding, they are...

* Niels Albert is beginning to burnish his credentials as the favorite for the World Championships in some seven weeks' time. Funny, last time I wrote about the Worlds it was to suggest that Lars van der Haar could pressure the Big Three in Hoogerheide. Maybe so; van der Haar hasn't won in six weeks but he was OK at Gieten, second to Albert, just two weekends ago. Still, Albert is becoming the story. Granted, courses like Scheldecross play into his hands, and not those of Sven Nys, but Nys has shown some limitations in terms of his ability to hold his form for long stretches, and his early start may signal a dip toward the end. That leaves Niels, who is as steady as they come. His win yesterday makes four victories in his last five starts, and he hasn't finished lower than second since Ronse, two months ago. Only Nys has beaten him since October. For two months now, it's been a two-man season.

Albert has been on one of the best runs of his career, though, inferior perhaps to only his 2006 explosion where he won eight times in ten races to close out the calendar year. But that was as a U23, and surely doesn't quite compare, even if he was jousting with Lars Boom at the time. I don't want to start making predictions, but if I did I might take note of the fact that Albert won the WC race in Hoogerheide back in 2011. And that with Nys slipping a bit, or catching his breath, or at the very least yearning for harder courses, this could be Albert's turn.

* Easily the most spectacular effort of yesterday was from Mathieu van der Poel. All of 18 years, the current Junior world champion seems to be bypassing his U23 status and heading straight into the fray at the top level. Yesterday was his debut in a top pro event, and although his five second gap to Albert included a lot of soft-pedaling by the winner at the end, van der Poel's second place, eight seconds ahead of Philip Walsleben, was positively stunning. From the time he hopped the barriers and hit the gas, there was little the German champ, or Rob Peeters, could do but watch. We are just a few weeks removed from Niel, where Wout Van Aert stuck to the wheel of Nys for his own second place in a pro debut. Van Aert is also the last man to beat van der Poel in a U23 event, last month. The Belgian slipped to seventh on yesterday's fast course, staying close until the late stages, but that makes two very exciting talents on the way up.

* One of the many bodies van der Poel and Van Aert may bunny-hop on their way to the line is that of Kevin Pauwels, who continues to suffer through his worst season as a pro. In 2010 he at least bagged a win at Hasselt. This season he has zero victories to his name, and hasn't been on a podium since November 1. There doesn't seem to be much of a reason, other than his persistent back issues, which weren't discussed in the latest "what's wrong with Pauwels?" stories over at Sporza. The suggestion there was a lack of confidence, something which can change quickly. After a team camp at Calpe, Spain, Pauwels looked OK yesterday, albeit in fourth place behind the BKCP trio of Albert, van der Poel and Walsleben. Overall Sunweb have little to be thankful for this holiday season, apart from an occasional moment of awesome via Klaas Vantournout. Still, Pauwels may not be done. The late WC races are good for him, and if he can threaten Albert and Nys during Holy Week, he might have a late kick to his season.