The road season is winding down, the nights are drawing in, which means cyclo-cross season is about to kick into gear.
The UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup calendar opens this Sunday with the first of 14 rounds. This year, the calendar begins in Waterloo - no, not the major train station in London - the city in the US state of Wisconsin, and the chosen home of bike brand Trek.
The day’s racing will begin with the women’s event at 12:40 local time (18:40 BST), with the men’s event following at 14:10 (20:10 BST).
Sadly for road cycling fans, none of the power trio Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock will be on the start line, but here are five other names to keep an eye out for in their absence.
Last year’s winner in Waterloo, the diminutive Eli Iserbyt is a consistent performer on the cyclo-cross circuit. The 25-year-old, a two-time world champion at under-23 level, has lived much of his senior career in the shadow of Van Aert and Van der Poel, but savours his opportunities to shine.
Eight victories last season followed the Belgian’s most illustrious campaign to date, when he won 14 times across the winter of 2021-2022, and claimed the overall UCI World Cup.
In Waterloo, Iserbyt will no doubt be encouraged by the absence of the reigning World Cup champion, Laurens Sweeck, who is recovering from a muscle tear in his calf.
Thibau Nys, son of cyclo-cross great Sven Nys, is the one of the most promising new kids on the block.
At just 20 years old, the Baloise Trek Lions rider won his first elite race last weekend, taking victory on his season debut in Beringen, Belgium. What’s even more impressive is that he beat a field containing the top four UCI-ranked riders in the world; Sweeck, Lars van der Haar, Michael Vanthourenhout and Iserbyt .
Victory stateside might not come as easily to Nys, but expect the under-23 world champion to be in the mix throughout.
Fem van Empel
In the women’s race, world champion Fem van Empel is the standout favourite for victory. The Dutchwoman was almost untouchable last season, finishing on the podium of every event she took part in, save for a DNF at Val di Sole.
It will take a lot to match the 17 victories she amassed last winter, but her tally is already underway. Last weekend in Beringen, Van Empel laid waste to her competition, winning by one minute and 18 seconds over her compatriot and runner-up Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado.
The only question mark over the 22-year-old’s head is her level of fatigue. Riding for Jumbo-Visma, she completed a road calendar for the first time in her career this season, and took part in the recent UCI Gravel World Championships, where she earned herself a bronze medal.
Shirin van Anrooij
Like Van Empel, Shirin Van Anrooij is another who balances cyclo-cross ambitions with a career on the road.
This year, the Dutchwoman reached new heights with Lidl-Trek, as she won her first WorldTour race in the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, and claimed victory in the debut edition of the Tour de l’Avenir Femmes.
Her cyclo-cross prowess is also developing. Van Anrooij is currently the third-ranked rider in the world, behind Van Empel and Puck Pieterse, and is the reigning under-23 world champion.
Nineteen-year-old Zoe Bäckstedt has already been out racing in the States for the past week, and has two wins under her belt, both taken at the Major Taylor Cross Cup.
Still a handful of years younger than the rest of the field, the British national champion’s goal this season is likely to score her first UCI World Cup podium. She came close last year, with fourth place finishes at Gavere and Besançon.
Now, there’s a feeling that the breakthrough elite ride is just around the corner for the former junior world champion. The muddier the better for Bäckstedt.
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