As the days count down to the World Championships this weekend, the names on everyone's lips are Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert, and it is hard to blame them. The two U-23 riders, aged just 19 and 20, have been on a tear this season, proving difficult to defeat in the elite ranks. Their reign has been especially strong in the second half of the season as they have matured; save the Belgian National Championships, it has been rare that one of neither of these two riders have won a race. And now, after both have committed to racing the World Championships - and the rest of their careers - in the elite ranks, the two are the presumptive favorites to take home a gold medal between the two in Tabor on Sunday.
But, you already know this. So, where is the fun in repeating what has, and will, be said in all the other cycling outlets? Instead, let's focus on the other big riders in the elite men's field and what it will take for them to beat both van der Poel and Van Aert.
The How: Sven's biggest asset is his experience - it is hands down the deepest in the elite men's field. But, what Sven lacks, especially since November, is the raw horsepower of the youngins. He's crafty, knows his body and its limits intimately, and refuses to ride anyone else's race, and many times this has led him to victory. But, that can only count if he can stay with the kids and land a haymaker in the last two laps. To pull that off, His Svenness needs a very technical, very hard course - think Ronse. In other words, Sven needs a lot of rain to make a mess of the not-so-technical course in Tabor, which...
Likelihood: ... in all honesty, no matter how sloppy Tabor gets, it's not going to be hard enough for Sven to have a chance. In other years - like when he won his second world title in 2012 - Sven can also rely on his raw power, but his recovery from a mysterious drop in form in December doesn't seem quite complete. He looked promising about 40 minutes into the Belgian National Championships, but fell off the pace at the end. So, probably not going to happen.
The How: Being calculating and smooth. Pauwels has a good motor for fast courses like Tabor, and he's twice won there (in 2011 and 2012). While he likely can't out-horsepower the kids, he's been the only person to beat them convincingly in the second half of the season. Look for Pauwels to wait till the last lap to do anything - as time has worn on, he's taken more of a Sven approach to racing, biding his time and waiting till late in the game to make himself known. Also, as one of the smoothest riders in the race, Pauwels' chances go up as it gets more slippery. In a treacherous race, he will make fewer mistakes than Wout or Mathieu and could capitalize on their relative inexperience.
Likelihood: The weather forecast looks promising for Pauwels with snow earlier in the week and temperatures just barely creeping above freezing each day. That should melt the snow and allow the ground to thaw just a little by early afternoon, creating a slimy but not especially deep mud each day. Overnight the track will freeze and there may be partially frozen ruts hiding beneath the top layer of muck. So, pretty much perfect for Pauwels. With his form holding pretty steady, I'll give him the best chance to beat the kids - or, roughly a 1 in 4 chance of winning.
The How: Having the biggest motor on a heavy, running-intensive course. Klaas' horsepower is immense, and it really shines when the course prevents riders from ever accumulating much speed (see Gavere or the Belgian championships). But, as things dry up, his lack of sprint and ability to make really hard accelerations keep him from winning often.
Likelihood: If you look at the course, you'll see it's not one that will favor Klaas. It's nowhere near muddy or climby enough for the recently crowned Belgian national champion. Sorry dude, it's another top-five-but-no-win year for you.
The How: Beat the kids in a sprint. Meeusen is one of the best sprinters in the cross business and has a killer last lap on fast courses. In Ruddervoorde this year, Meeusen took the front of a large lead group with one lap remaining and nobody could get around him. When the group hit the paved finishing stretch, Meeusen led out and won the sprint. A more appropriate example may be the final World Cup last season. On a slippery but not heavy course in Nommay, France, Meeusen stayed with Francis Mourey and Philipp Walsleben and came around a powerful Mourey in the finishing stretch. When he hits the final 100 meters with a group, Meeusen rarely loses the sprint.
Likelihood: The course conditions are shaping up to be in Meeusen's favor as overnight freezes keep deep mud from developing. If the course were snowy and icy, Tom would be a major favorite as few riders are as technically skilled on frozen tracks as he. But, the real question mark is Meeusen's mental state. He was on a hot streak of form in December and January, even taking second in a very muddy Belgian National Championships in conditions that do not suit him. In other races in that period, he's often been second or third behind the kids so he's close to their level. But, a doping investigation surrounding a doctor Meeusen was affiliated with more than two years ago resulted in a week of "will-he-won't-he" concerning Meeusen's participation at Worlds. He was allowed to race last weekend's World Cup, but on the shortest of notices. The battle to be allowed to ride Worlds clearly affected him and he finished an uncharacteristic 18th last Sunday. Meekness has said he will be able to arrive on the start line with an entirely different attitude this Sunday, but whether he's fully recovered is still questionable. If he's on his A game, I'd put his odds at one in six.
Lars van der Haar
The How: Go early and count on tactical racing behind him. Lars does have a good sprint and late-race burst of power on him - it won him a World Cup round in Zolder last year, after all - but it's unlikely to be better than Wout's, or even Mathieu's. Instead, van der Haar usually wins when one of his early attacks - and he will attack early and often - gets some separation as his contenders play chicken and wait for each other to chase. Once on his own on a fast course, van der Haar is exceptional and is hard to reel back in. Need examples? Check out Valkenberg last year and this year, Zolder this year, and Tabor last year.
Likelihood: The course in Tabor is wonderful for little Lars, and the conditions won't phase him much as he's gotten smoother in the mud over the past two seasons. Unfortunately, Lars has the same modus operandi as both van der Poel and Van Aert - especially the latter. I particularly don't see Wout letting Lars get a 20-30 second gap by midway through the race. Prediction? Third.
The How: Power. Just, power. Mourey is no technical slouch, but he is prone to making mistakes - it is no accident he's often referred to as a bull in a china shop. But when Mourey is on his a-game, his raw horsepower make him a contender for the podium, and occasionally allow him to win, like in Namur last year.
Likelihood: Not great. Mourey is riding well, with a 7th in Hoogerheide, but not on the level he needs to out-power van der Poel or Van Aert.