The news that neither Wout van Aert or Mathieu van der Poel will be riding the cyclocross World Championships truly opens the door up for other contenders to pull on the rainbow stripes.
The pair have won the last seven titles between them, with Van der Poel winning in 2015, 2019, 2020 and 2021, and Van Aert winning in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The last time both didn't finish on the podium was in 2016.
Speaking to Sporza after winning the X20 Trophy in Herentals on Wednesday, Van Aert said: "In this point in my career, we're focussing on other things. I really want to win a Monument in the spring which I missed out on in the previous years.
"Looking to that, we think it's better to finish my season after Nationals on Sunday and after that focussing on the road."
His long-time rival Van der Poel will miss the worlds due to a back injury that has plagued his 'cross season.
Van Aert has won all but one of the cyclocross races he has raced this winter, so his absence will give those who have been chasing his wheels a real chance to taste victory.
The men's elite Cyclocross World Championship race will take place on 30 January in Fayetteville, Arkansas in the USA. Here are some of the contenders to unseat the Van Aert/Van der Poel duopoly.
Toon Aerts (Baloise Trek Lions)
If the World Championships were decided by the man who has been the next best to Van Aert and Van der Poel in recent years, then Toon Aerts would win. The Belgian has finished third in the race for three years in a row, and has often been in the mix next to those greats.
Aerts won the World Cup overall standings in 2018-19 and 2019-20, and has also won the Belgian national championships, beating Van Aert in 2019. This season, he has only won three races, but finished third in the World Cup and has consistently finished in the top five. He is certainly one to watch in Arkansas.
Lars van der Haar (Baloise Trek Lions)
Lars van der Haar won the European Championships back in November, so has proved already this season that he can win a top one-off race, beating most of the people on this list in the process.
It is the second time that Van der Haar has been European champion, but the closest he has come to world glory was second behind - you guessed it - Van Aert in 2016. He has won just one World Cup race this season, but will surely be targeting the worlds at the end of the month.
Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers)
One of the most promising British riders of his generation, Tom Pidcock could cap of a truly remarkable year with victory at the World Championships. He won gold in the Olympic mountain bike event at Tokyo last summer, and impressed on the road in his first season with Ineos Grenadiers in 2021, winning Brabantse Pijl.
Pidcock has already had a great 'cross season, winning two World Cup races. He might also be set to benefit most from Van Aert's absence, seeing as he has finished second behind him three times this season. He came second at the World Championships back in 2020, and will be looking to go one step higher this time around.
Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal)
Statistically the best cyclocross rider in the world at the moment, Eli Iserbyt has had the best season of his young career so far. The Belgian has won the World Cup, winning five individual races in the process, and is also top of the Superprestige standings.
However, the 24-year old failed to win a race after Van Aert turned up on the 'cross season this winter. Therefore, he might be very appreciative of his fellow Belgian's absence at the World Championships. He finished seventh last year in the elite version, but is a previous winner of the under-23 version, back in 2018.
Michael Vanthourenhout (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal)
Another rider on this list who has finished second to Van Aert at the World Championships before, Michael Vanthourenhout also finished second on the World Cup rankings this season. The Belgian won just one World Cup race, at Namur, but has repeatedly finished on the podium this season too.
Vanthourenhout also finished third behind Van der Haar at the European Championships race back in November, and will be another hoping that the absence of Van Aert opens up the door for him to challenge for the world title.
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