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CX Worlds: Who Are the U23 Women to Watch?

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The somewhat mysterious U23 peloton rides at last!

Cyclocross: 30th WC GP Adrie Van der Poel Hoogerheide 2018 / Women Photo by Luc Claessen/Tim De Waele/Getty Images

I spent a few minutes of my second straight sick day today rewatching the women’s race from Hoogerheide, finale of the Cyclocross World Cup, where Sanne Cant ground down the field in time to secure the win and the season’s crown. The scene after the line was amusing because Evie Richards was very excited to take third place behind Cant and Eva Lechner. She hugged Lechner, who seems like a very cheerful person, and then exchanged minimal pleasantries with Cant, who was about as amused by this scene is as my beloved adult dog is with the kitten we just got. Bubbly 20-year-old Richards and dour elder stateswoman Cant are pretty much oil and water, and Cant is the sport’s dominating force, but Richards is the infusion of youth that should make things fun next weekend.

And by fun, I am referring to what should be a cool event, the women’s U23 race. It’s a bit weird because few races during the year run a women’s U23 category, but the UCI added it a couple years ago as a way to showcase the stars of tomorrow, who might be able to hang around the elite race anonymously but could use a day of their own. Richards won it in 2016 and Dutch rider Annemarie Worst took the title last year. Only Richards, still only 20, is back as a former winner.

She also comes in as the clear favorite to win. Richards settled for third last year, but has been going great guns for a while now at the elite level. Her best result was a shocking victory in the Namur World Cup race -- a nice data point considering that the hilly parcours resembles the Cauberg terrain. If you are looking for a suspenseful event this weekend, it might not be the women’s U23. On the downside, she’s only started a handful of events, but taking third in a pitched battle on Sunday in Hoogerheide shows that all that mountain biking hasn’t hurt her form.

Last year’s winner Worst has moved up to elite, as has American Ellen Noble — two potential challengers to Richards. Possibly the next strongest rider would be Laura Verdonschot of Belgium, who has hung in there at the elite level including sixth in Baal and fourth in the Belgian championships before sitting out Hoogerheide. Health will be an issue to watch, though the best I can glean from translating Flemish news reports is that she’s struggled with a fungal infection. Regardless, a fit Verdonschot is a medal favorite, just behind Richards.

Next may or may not be Chiara Teocchi, the reigning European champion. Teocchi won her national U23 title two weeks ago but was hardly noticed in Hoogerheide, and hasn’t raced very much (I am guessing she has other disciplines getting in the way?) with only a couple nice results to her name this entire season. Form is everything now and there isn’t much evidence of Teocchi being at her best.

The Dutch squad should be lining up behind Ceylin del Carmen Avarado, who has a dozen top-ten results in Elite races this season and is regarded as a top favorite for the slippery hills of Valkenburg. U23 national champ Inge van der Heijden and compatriot Manon Bakker would be next on the list for the home nation, who always seem to do well at Worlds, except maybe when they are the home nation. Emma White would be the top American contender, after a fairly dominant season at home, but she hasn’t registered much in the way of results in Europe.

One more would-have-been contender is Czech Nikola Noskova, who started the season with a string of top tens in the Elite category, but a crash in Namur left her knees unfit and she won’t make it to the start.

The Pick: Richards. Form, confidence, and likes the hills. A lethal combination.