Seven gold medals. Six consecutive world championships. Wrapping one's head around the achievements of Marianne Vos is a challenge, especially in a discipline so fraught with opportunities for bad luck, untimely flats and crashes, as cyclocross. But as Vos lines up to defend her title yet again, the odds that the world champion's stripes will adorn another rider next year are creeping up.
Vos certainly isn't slowing down - she is only 27, after all, and took wins at the World Cup round in Zolder and the Superprestige race in Diegem. But, since returning to cyclocross with her customary bang, Vos' results began to drop. She finished an uncharacteristic 12th in last Sunday's World Cup finale in Hoogerheide. A hamstring injury was acting up and cutting back her power output a mere six days from the biggest race of the season.
The battle for the top step of the podium was already getting tighter than usual this year with Pauline Ferrand Prevot, Katarina Nash, and Eva Lechner throwing their names into the hat as possible winners. What was often a presumed two-person battle between Vos and American Katie Compton now appears a five person shootout. And, with Vos' injury not completely healed, the odds of someone taking the title from her look increasingly good. Who, then, is likely to win?
Every year is Katie Compton's chance to finally dethrone Vos, but maybe not this year. Compton is probably the most consistent racer on the cross circuit and has twice convincingly won the World Cup overall and has over 100 UCI victories to her name. Her record is even more impressive when one factors in the poor starts that plague most of Compton's races, leaving her to make up ground in the first two laps before striking out on her own. This year, however, has been a rough one for Compton, who has struggled with asthma for much of the season. Even when the condition has kept her from racing au bloc, she has managed to finish on several World Cup podiums. If she shows up unhindered, she could surprise and has to be a favorite to win on the power course in Tabor. However, her 21st place finish last Sunday isn't promising at all. Get better soon, Katie.
Of the four non-Vos contenders, Czech native Katarina Nash is the best poised to take a win. Nash's background as a mountain biker means her technical skills are phenomenal; she was noticeably faster than Vos in several tricky sections in Namur just over a month ago. But, she's raced few international cross events in the past few years, racing a low-key and sparse schedule of UCI races in the United States. But, with Worlds in her home country, she raced a few World Cup events and is holder of the most convincing victory over Vos this season with a dominant solo win in Namur. Bonus: of the five favorites, Nash is probably the most experienced on snow and has top-four finishes on partially frozen tracks in Sankt Wendel (2011) and Tabor (2010) to her name.
Pauline Ferrand Prevot
Vos' heir apparent on the road could very well usurp her reign in the mud-slickened world of cross too. At only 22 and already a world champion on the world, Ferrand Prevot is an astounding talent across nearly every discipline. She is the reigning French champion in road, time trial, cyclocross, and cross country mountain biking. Phew. Oh, and she won Flèche Wallonne and finished the Giro d'Italia Feminine in second overall this year. But, this year has been the year PFP really made an impact in cyclocross. She took second in Hasselt, Overijse, and Diegem in December and also notched third place finishes at the World Cup events in Zolder and Namur. Though an excellent mountain biker - often the only woman in a race to bunny-hop the barriers - she has seemed to slip up technically a little more than her competitors. Nash looks stronger now, but PFP does look better than Vos and a slick, frozen course will favor her power.
A full-time cross country racer, Lechner appears in January every year to take a few high profile results. Last year it was leading for most of the first lap at Worlds before finishing second; this year, Lechner hit the front in the first lap at Hoogerheide last Sunday and rode to a convincing solo win. She's superb technically, though I'm guessing she will not fare quite as well in Tabor on a flatter, less challenging course. Though she'll surely shred the descent, I'm not sure if she will have the power to distance Nash on a faster course.