After four months of adrenaline-filled muddy (and sandy) action, it is almost time to find out who will be cyclo-cross world champion for the next 12 months. It would take a brave person to bet against the defending holders, Mathieu van der Poel and Fem van Empel, winners of 12 out of 13 and 17 out of 19 CX races this season to date, but anything could happen in Tabór.
The big talking point going into this weekend's cyclo-cross World Championships is undoubtedly the absence of two former champions in the men's elite race - Wout van Aert of Belgium and Great Britain’s Tom Pidcock. Both riders have opted to skip the worlds in order to fully prepare for the opening of the European road season.
Despite their absences, the championships will see a raft of star riders across all the different categories get set to take to the course in Tábor as they look to add a rainbow jersey to their collection. The women's elite race will have all the big names involved, even if it seems like it could be a race to finish second to Van Empel, and the age groups are filled to the brim with talent.
Here’s seven for you to watch out for once the action gets underway this weekend. The favourites, predictably, are both Dutch.
Mathieu van der Poel
The reigning world champion heads to the Czech Republic in scintillating form. Van der Poel has well and truly dominated the cyclo-cross calendar this winter, winning all but one of the races that he lined up at.
Van der Poel currently has five CX world titles to his name. One more would see him become the second most successful male rider in the discipline's history.
Despite Van Aert sitting this one out, the Belgians still possess significant strength in depth which could cause Van der Poel some issues. Nevertheless, the flying Dutchman has the ability and the panache to do enough to ensure that he takes the title home once more.
Scotsman Cameron Mason has enjoyed arguably his best cyclo-cross season yet this winter. The 23-year-old recently successfully defended his title at the British national championships on home soil.
Earlier in the season, he took one of his most impressive and important results yet. A silver medal at the European Championships behind Michael Vanthourenhout of Belgium. As well as this the Cyclocross Reds star has also achieved a handful of top 20 finishes in UCI CX World Cup rounds and impressive second places at both the Otegem cross race and the Hexia race in Gullegem.
A top ten finish, to match his ninth place in Hoogerheide last year, would be a huge achievement.
Fem van Empel
Last year's world champion will be the rider to beat, having won 17 of the races she has started so far this season, including three World Cup rounds.
The Dutch strength in depth should ensure they get the job done in the elite women’s race. Van Empel’s most recent challenges have come from the likes of Puck Pieterse, who took second place to Van Empel last year in Hoogerheide, and the likes of Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado.
Even with Van Empel leading the charge for the Dutch, an inter team scrap for the win is highly likely to play out. However, having won her last five races, Van Empel is in a rich vein of form and will undoubtedly be the favourite to come out on top.
Gateshead-born Anna Kay will line up as one of Great Britain’s top women for this year’s elite worlds and could be a potential dark horse for a spot on the podium.
Kay has had a solid CX season and has achieved plenty of decent results. Her crowning achievement was winning the elite women’s British national championships race recently in Falkirk, Scotland.
In Europe riding for the Cyclocross Reds team she has also impressed too. Kay took 12th place at the notoriously tough Namur round of the UCI CX World Cup as well as third at the brutal Koppenberg cross.
One of Belgium's top hopes in the elite men's race in the absence of Wout Van Aert, World Cup series leader Iserbyt has eight wins under his belt already this season, including two World Cups and a very muddy Belgian nationals.
His recent form suggests that he’ll be right in contention in Tábor, although it will be a big surprise if he manages to get the better of Van der Poel on this occasion.
Straight off the back of winning the Belgian national title, Iserbyt has won the Otegem race before taking fourth at the World Cup round in Benidorm.
He then finished third at the X2O Badkamers Trofee Flandriencross behind Van der Poel, before finishing fifth in the World Cup round in Hoogerheide behind the flying Dutchman.
Zoe Bäckstedt is continuing to make waves across all of the cycling disciplines and is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.
The 19-year-old has just become a sponsored Red Bull athlete and will start the under-23 race as a major favourite for a world title and rainbow jersey. Bäckstedt has enjoyed a solid CX campaign so far and added a European Under 23 title to her rapidly growing trophy cabinet in November.
As well as this, she podiumed at the UCI World Cup round in Dublin and has taken several top ten World Cup finishes. Bäckstedt also won the Hexia CX race in Gullegem which only adds to her status as one of the favourites for the rainbow bands this weekend.
Son of the legendary CX rider Sven Nys, Thibau Nys is well on his way to following in his father’s footsteps, and is another Belgian to watch.
The 21-year-old rides for the Baloise Trek Lions team, managed by his father, and is set to step onto the road scene this season for Lidl-Trek too. Nys won the Waterloo round of the UCI CX World Cup last October and has followed that up with top ten finishes in nearly all of the World Cup rounds that he’s started this season.
Most recently he took third in Benidorm behind Wout van Aert before finishing fourth at the World Cup round in Hoogerheide.
Based on current form, there’s no reason why he can’t follow that up with a top fiv finish in the Czech Republic this weekend.
The Course in Tábor
Unlike the course at last year’s championships in Hoogerheide, the course favours a more technically astute approach as opposed to raw power.
It features a sweeping opening section on tarmac which will enable a flying start, before two ramps in quick succession before a series of sharp climbs. From there it continues with an array of sharp, twisty corners which will force riders to brake before they climb into a wooded section of the terrain in which they will find two sets of stairs.
Out of there they will be able to see the finish, but will first need to navigate a set of hurdles followed by another steep ramp before they’re back onto the tarmac and able to sprint for the line.
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