BRUSSELS -- The UCI elite cyclocross world championships open one month from today in Louisville, Ky., and with two weeks of non-stop Kerstperiode racing in the books, the road to the Ohio River is becoming clearer every day.
Nys stumbles, Albert, Pauwels step up
Two weeks and eight races ago -- though it might seem like much longer for anyone who has watched them all -- Sven Nys (Crelan-Euphony) was all but invincible. The Belgian champion had won eight of 12 races and had not finished off the podium since October. He extended his run of good results in the past two weeks during Belgium's ultra-intense Kerstperiode with wins in C2 races in Sint-Niklaas and Bredene, a World Cup win in Zolder and a second-place finish in Namur.
But even Nys couldn't maintain his perfect record through the last two grueling weeks. He finished fifth in Essen on Dec. 22, seventh in Diegem on Sunday, and abandoned his race in Loenhout shortly after leaving the course mid-race to admonish a spectator for repeatedly splashing beer on him as he rode past. Nys spent Tuesday, the day of his namesake race, in bed with an apparently serious case of bronchitis. Before missing the 14th edition of the GP Sven Nys, he had racked up 11 wins in Baal, his hometown, and had never finished worse than second. But the massively popular Nys is apparently human once again.
In his place, the three men who dominated cyclocross in seasons past found themselves returning to prominence. World champion Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) took wins in Loenhout and Diegem, Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Napoleon Games) was victorious in Namur and Baal, and two-time world champion Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) returned from the road to cyclocross and immediately snapped up five podium places. Stybar could have earned a victory in Essen as well, but was relegated for causing a collision with Jan Denuwaelare (Style & Concept) during that race's dramatic sprint finish.
The race forecast for the elite men at the worlds is, if anything, even more clouded than it was before. Only one question has been answered with any certainty these past two weeks: Stybar, despite showing impressive form from the moment he returned, will not make the trip to worlds.
"I really decided already before the season (not to go to worlds), and I'm going to keep it like that," he told VeloNews. "Maybe there is a chance I could ride for the top three there, but once I decided to focus on the road, I want to really be good for the classics, and if I go to the worlds, I'll lose three weeks of preparation. And that's really too much. To train long-distance for the road, then fly to the U.S. and race, and then just come back and think you'll be good is just not possible."
In his absence -- especially if Nys' health does not improve quickly -- the man with the most to gain is likely Albert, whose frustration with a winless streak in major series races dating to October had become visible both on his face and in his increasingly desperate racing. Albert said that his recent success, with three wins in the past two-and-a-half weeks, has been a major boost ahead of the championship season.
"I started the season really well; the condition was, I think, 90 or 95 percent," he said after winning in Diegem on Sunday night. "And then it was always 90, 95, and sometimes I win, sometimes I lose -- second, third -- my worst places were two times sixth. But now the feeling is 100 percent, I think, and it's just at the right moment. The championships are right there and we'll see what happens."
Albert has said that, given the uncertainty associated with a transatlantic transfer for the worlds, a second Belgian championship on Jan. 13 was his primary focus at the moment. But he has been quick to point out that, despite the uncertainty, he will do everything he can to defend his world title. American fans can look forward to seeing him race not just in Louisville, but at the Cincinnati Kings event the weekend before as well.
Jonathan Page is back
Meanwhile, just as Albert's rise has blurred the Belgian championship picture, so too has the rebirth of the Jonathan Page thrown the American championship picture out of focus.
Prior to Kerstperiode, the single bright spot in a season of disappointment was a 12th-place finish in a difficult race in Gavere in November. But Page finished 12th in Essen two weeks ago and followed that up with 15th in the Namur World Cup, all but assuring himself a slot on the United States' worlds team. Page went on to prove that his form is truly coming around with a fifth-place finish in Bredene on Saturday and a ninth-place finish in Baal on Tuesday, despite breaking a frame during his warm-up for the latter race.
The reinvigorated Page will race in Surhuisterveen, Netherlands, on Thursday, then travel to the U.S. in preparation for a bid for a fourth national title in Madison, Wis., on Jan. 13.
"I'm feeling really happy," he said after the race in Baal. "I basically just kept my cool. After the first lap I felt that I was good, but I had to pace myself, stay cool, and use my energy wisely. Now I feel very good. If I stay healthy I think have a good shot at the national championship."
And indeed, Page, had the best results of any American man in every race he entered in the last two weeks, despite the presence of both national champion Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus) and the No. 3-ranked American, Tim Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com), though he was quick to point out that racing essentially at home gave him a considerable advantage over those who had made the trip from the U.S.
But the fact remains, for two Americans sure to be at worlds, the World Cup provided disappointing results. Powers had an impressive start in Namur, leading the race on the first lap before fading to 28th by the end. He appeared to be completely off his game in Zolder, where he finished 40th. Johnson was a disappointing 38th in Namur and saw his chances in Zolder evaporate after a series of crashes and mistakes.
Johnson said that he was disappointed with his results in Belgium, especially in light of his 13th-place finish the last time he raced in Zolder in the 2002 world championship race. Still, he said he was nonetheless optimistic about how the trip might pay off in the weeks ahead, adding, however, that with U.S. nationals immediately between the final two World Cups, it made little sense to return to Europe for further preparation, a sentiment echoed by nearly every American rider who made the trip to Belgium in the past two weeks.
"I think that -- and this is going to be semi-controversial -- if we had nationals two weeks ago, I would have been able to race in Rome and Hoogerheide," he said. "But because the U.S. has been forced to have their nationals the same weekend (as European nations) in January, it's just not possible to go back and forth. You can only do so much on your own, you can only do so much prep for the speed, to feel the pace of 65 minutes of absolute balls to the wall, it's going to be hard to recreate that. But hopefully our training will do that."
Women's clarity at the top
If Kerstperiode did little to clarify the situation among the men, it did shine some light on who to watch in the coming weeks in the women's field.
American Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective) fired the first shot with a resounding win in Namur, but she couldn't match the speed of world champion Marianne Vos (Rabobank) in Zolder. Nonetheless, Compton's efforts have earned her a 105-point lead over Nikki Harris (Telenet-Fidea) in the World Cup overall; she needs only to finish 15th in Sunday's race in Rome to ensure her victory in the series.
Compton raced in Loenhout despite the lingering effects of a bout of food poisoning, and an early crash with Vos knocked both riders off rhythm, opening the door for a win by Belgian Sanne Cant (BKCP). Vos, meanwhile, traveled to Luxembourg on Tuesday, where she took a decisive win over Swiss champion Jasmin Achermann (Rapha), while Katerina Nash (Luna) took wins in Diegem and Baal in her absence.
For Nash in particular, the past two weeks have been a boost. The U.S.-based Czech started her season late in order to have time both to recover from her bid for an Olympic mountain bike medal and to address lingering back problems.
"I think I still have a little bit of catching up to do," said Nash after her first European win of the season on Sunday. "This has been incredible. I think I've come out of this with good fitness, and with a little bit of training and recovery in January it should be really good in terms of setting myself up for the end of the season."
Miller solidifies her worlds case
American Meredith Miller (Cal Giant-Specialized) found herself in a similar position, returning to serious racing only weeks ago after recovering from a broken hand that limited her racing early in the season.
"This was a good build-up after my injury, and racing hard like this was exactly what I needed," she said after a seventh-place finish in Baal capped her European campaign. "This was five days of racing essentially every other day. To do all that in a week-and-a-half is quite a lot for me, especially just coming back, so now I'm going home to rest up and get ready for nationals."
Miller narrowly missed earning an automatic spot on the American worlds team with 11th place in Namur, a feat that matched Amy Dombroski (Telenet-Fidea), who earlier took back-to-back 11th-place finishes in the World Cups at Koksijde and Roubaix. As a result, the question of who will represent the United States at the worlds remains unresolved, although after solid results in Europe, especially in the last two weeks, the pair are likely front-runners for spots on a team that is certain to include automatic qualifiers Compton and Kaitie Antonneau (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com).
Big things from Owen
But the biggest revelation of Kerstperiode may have been American junior Logan Owen (Redline), a second-time participant in the EuroCrossCamp, who won in Namur before three consecutive second-place finishes behind defending world champion Mathieu van der Poel (Enertherm-BKCP). Owen has been the most dominant junior in American cyclocross for years, and his results in Belgium the past two weeks have cemented him as a real contender for a world title in Louisville.
Owen said much the same thing in an interview after his final Kerstperiode race in Diegem on Sunday.
"I've felt so much better on my bike in the last two weeks," he told VeloNews. "The training is really coming together. I haven't really been in too much pain being with (the top juniors) other than van der Poel, and he's unstoppable right now. I think going into Louisville I definitely have a home-field advantage, so hopefully I can have a really good day there. I do want him to show up and be as good as he can be there; if I beat him, I want to beat him at his best."
Two weeks of some of the best racing in recent memory has brought us here: a World Cup race in Rome, the national championships, a World Cup in Hoogerheide, and, for a few, a race in Cincinnati. Then the worlds.
We may not have any better idea of who's going to win at Eva Bandman Park, but this much is for sure: we all had better tighten our helmet straps. Worlds are just one month away and the trip from here to there is sure to be a bumpy -- and exciting -- ride.