It's time for the Superprestige Zonhoven, better known to casual Cyclocross fans as "oh, THAT race." Why? Because of the setting, which you can check out in this little MTB GoPro special...
Zonhoven is nuts. The dives into the sand pit are legend. People will demonstrate impressive bike-handling skills, except when they don't.
Yeah, that happened, and will continue happening, because sand does what it wants to your front wheel, if you let it. Speaking of which, if you have GIF-making capabilities, please let me know. There... will... be... GIFs...
If you want to know how the race will be won, here's a perfect demonstration. Scroll ahead to exactly 1:31:00 for the last lap of the Men's Elite race.
It's a two-man duel between the still-strong, ever-quick-punching Sven Nys and the buttery-smooth Kevin Pauwels. The not-so-notorious characteristic of Zonhoven is that, once you've exited the sand pit, it's a very different race. Here's the course map:
The race proceeds clockwise-ish, and the sand pit is that area in the lower left with the yellow circles. The start/finish area is by the red and green symbols. So they head straight for the pit, are in and out of it, then spend about 2/3 of every lap traversing the rolling, sandy, scrubby terrain. If it's a close race, like last year, this is where it will be decided. And there, Pauwels' technique won out over Nys' power, largely due to Nys biffing a left turn in the sand that Pauwels flowed through with customary grace.
Can Pauwels double up? Maybe, but apart from last year Zonhoven has not been kind to him. Wout Van Aert, meanwhile, has two U23 wins from the pit, and Lars van der Haar has done well enough there too. Sven Nys isn't done yet either. So Pauwels will have to be well on top of his game. And let's not even talk about bike issues.
World champion Mathieu van der Poel, by the way, isn't slated to come back for another month, which is too bad because I distinctly remember him riding up some of the sandy slopes that everyone else chose to run. Kids today...
On the women's side, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot's career conflicts assure that we won't see any rainbows Sunday (even U23 WC Michael Vanthorenhout is missing from the startlist). No video exists from last year's women's event in Zonhoven, though I can tell you that Sanne Cant soloed home with 12 seconds over Nikki Harris, and nobody else particularly close. Pavla Havlikova is also away, so expect Cant -- a self-described sand specialist -- to mix it up with the British duo of Harris and Wyman, with Sanne van Paassen perhaps up for a challenge.
A few tidbits...
- Emma Johansson is among those taking the start in the Swedish national CX championships this weekend. If anyone knows her history with the dirt, do tell. I'm guessing this is nothing new?
- Klaas Vantornout is battling some sort of infection and has been on antibiotics. Sandbagging ahead of the sand?
- Sven Vanthorenhout, Michael's cousin, is planning to stop his pro CX career after this season, though he might still continue as Nys' key training partner. Because Nys is never retiring.
- Chris Froome is in Japan, and though I can only point you in the direction of his tryout with a Sumo squad, I can at least pass along a picture of his turn as an archer. You're welcome.