Ah Zonhoven. One of the four or five races which vie yearly for the title of best CX race. But what sets it apart from the other top contenders? Mainly, it's this thing:
That's Zonhoven's famous enormous sandpit, called De Kuil, which is the one feature that Zonhoven revolves around. But that's okay, because it's such a tremendously amazing feature, even if it makes you forget what the rest of the course is like. Or indeed for. The race should go like this: riding around the rolling section pretty quickly -> some poor sod goes head over heels in the sand -> splits on the uphill section of the sandpit -> repeat.
The downhill isn't the only important feature, with a good bit of tough climbing for splits to be formed. Also, how often is it that a CX race has more altitude gain than a big road race on the same day?
Here are some highlights of last year's men's race, and what you should notice before anything else is the frankly ridiculous dominance of Wout van Aert. I mean, this guy wins a lot of races, and he often wins them by a lot of time, but last year he won Zonhoven by a minute and nine seconds from his own team mate, Rob Peeters, who came out of hibernation for policing the chase group, apparently. Only five people finished within two minutes, in comparison with nine in the 2014 and 2013 races.
Conclusion to draw from all of this? Wout van Aert likes Zonhoven, got it? And while I could paint the contenders list for this race as long and diverse, there are better sources of evidence than paintings. To be truthful, this race, like most races, is going to be between Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel. Van der Poel didn't compete in Zonhoven last year, when Van Aert did, and Van Aert didn't in 2014, when Van der Poel did.
We have very few data points to take information from, but let's look at Gieten two weeks ago for a little bit. Their duel came to a climax each lap, practically, on a tough sandy hill at the end of the lap. Since it was rideable, and Zonhoven's isn't (probably. You never know what these kids will do next) it's not a perfect comparison, but what I noticed was that Van Aert had a few problems with control in the sand, having to dismount two or three times, while Van der Poel was more reliable. However, when they both rode the whole way up, Van Aert seemed slightly stronger.
Another data point is Ronse. No sand, but they were racing together for only the second televised time this season, and we learned...nothing. Van Aert was strong but his chain slipped, and then Van der Poel looked strong before his crank snapped. They were rarely together for the entire race, and the only thing we do know is that they're stronger than everybody else.
And who'll be chasing them down? Well, here's a handy startlist. Look for Van der Haar, he's been around for a few weeks now and should get into a bit of form soon enough. Also check out Laurens Sweeck, who rode an understated if impressive race in Gieten, and Michael Vanthourenhout, who actually beat Van Aert in the Brico Cross in Kruibeke today. However, Van Aert seems to be doing that series a little bit of an injustice by using it to warm up.
I'm predicting a duel, finally, between Van Aert and Van der Poel tomorrow. Van Aert should just come out on top.
In the women's race, we're missing the world champion, who waltzed away to win last week in Ronse. That leaves Sanne Cant, a very strong rider in the sand, to take the victory for the third year running, if she holds off the challenge of Sophie De Boer. Jolien Verscheuren, winner in Kruibeke, shouldn't be a factor on the sand. Nikki Brammeier, second last year, may challenge.
The race is shown live on Sporza, Telenet and Sky's Bike Channel — yes, even I get to watch this one on TV, which I hope will be repeated throughout the season. Often.