The coronavirus pandemic depriving fans of early-season road racing combined with the blockbuster billing of Mathieu van der Poel, Wout Van Aert and Tom Pidcock could make the 2021 Cyclocross World Championships a watershed moment for the discipline.
Van der Poel and Van Aert have won the last six rainbow jerseys between them, but as both riders' stock rises on the road and their rivalry intensifies, their battles in the mud are putting more bums on seats. Add into the mix the burgeoning talent of very-soon-to-be Ineos talent Tom Pidcock, and it's almost enough to forget for a second about how long we'll have to wait for the next instalment of any cycling action.
On Sunday, Van der Poel will look to win his third title in a row on the sandy North Sea beach of Ostend, Belgium. The 2.9km-long course features 1.4km of 'grass', 400m of cinder, 600m of sand, 200m of asphalt and 300m of bridges.
Should the Dutchman prevail, he will overtake Van Aert, his four titles moving him up into a select group of only six riders in history who've won that many.
"The World Championships is my main goal because the other cyclocross races are no longer so important nowadays. I don't have any rankings to defend and I don't have to prove myself anymore," Van der Poel said in the week preceding the race. This season he's won nine of the thirteen CX races he's lined up for.
Due to the course, Van Aert is considered the slight favourite, but Van der Poel has highlighted where he can hopefully do damage to his rivals.
"It is certainly a course where we can both do our thing," he explained. "On the [grass sections] I have the advantage, the bridge and the beach will be better for Wout. The beach is treacherous. It is possible to quickly collect a bonus of 20 seconds, but you can also lose 20 the next round. It is important to remain calm."
Wout van Aert came into the cyclocross season off the back of a breathtaking road campaign, winning Strade Bianche, Milan - San Remo and stages at the Tour de France. Changing disciplines for the colder months, he's won five of the 13 cyclocross races he's lined up at. For the biggest meet of the season, the Belgian will look to lead from the front.
"I hope that I can position myself well. It is especially important to have a good start yourself," Van Aert said. "In the right scenario, it is already everyone for themselves. My team-mates also know that [the start] is a crucial point to be of service. The goal is to ride to the beach in a good position."
Tom Pidcock secured GB's first-ever Cyclocross Worlds medal last year, finishing runner-up behind Van der Poel and two places ahead of Van Aert. The 21-year-old has impressed this winter, winning the Telenet Superprestige Gavere and often finishing third behind the 'two kings' of cyclocross, as Pidcock and many others describe the pair. While the young talent is expected to be the closest challenger for the crown, he admits he is still only on the path to becoming the "third king of 'cross".
"I don’t think I am on their level, not yet. I’m certainly close. But that’s my ambition. I want to join their league," Pidcock told the Telegraph. At the moment they’re the two guys of ’cross. When I do well, people say ‘now there are three kings of ’cross’. But then I do a race where I’m not as good, and then there’s only two. I want to try and confirm my place with those guys at the top.”
Although Pidcock admits the course doesn't necessarily suit him, he still believes it will come down to who the best overall 'cross racers at the end. Fans will be hoping this is the case, relishing the prospect of Van der Poel, Van Aert and Pidcock fighting it out for the rainbow bands.
"It’s probably the worst course for the Worlds [for me], but I think at the end of the day the fittest guys will be at the front come the finish line, unless I make many mistakes, which I hope I won’t.
"For me, if I take the lead, I ride much faster, if I ride my own race, that’s always been the best way for me to race."
Coverage of the elite men's race begins at 14.10 (GMT) on Sunday January 31, with racing action available to UK viewers on Eurosport and via the GCN Race Pass.
American viewers can watch the race on FloBikes. If you find yourself abroad and unable to watch the race in your current region, you can download and install a VPN.
It is expected to continue raining into Saturday evening in Ostend, but the weather should dry out overnight and improve heading towards the start time tomorrrow.
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