When, a year ago at the cyclocross world championships in Koksijde, Belgium, the host country's elite men's national team posted an unprecedented sweep of the top seven spots, cyclocross fans began to wonder if the Belgians, long a force in the sport, had become truly invincible. Is there anyone capable of knocking them back a year later when the men roll off on Sunday afternoon in Louisville, Ky?
Belgian dominance in cyclocross is nothing new, of course. Since 1998, when the country's 'cross renaissance began, almost three-quarters of all men's world championship podium places belong to Belgians. And, until a week ago, Belgian men had not failed to earn at least one podium spot in every World Cup race held for more than a decade.
But last Sunday's snowy race in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, went to Martin Bina (Czech Republic), Lars van der Haar (Netherlands) and Simon Zahner (Switzerland). The three may have profited from their skills in unusual conditions and a highly tactical race between Belgian World Cup leader Niels Albert and second-place Kevin Pauwels, both of whom were looking to limit risk in pursuit of the overall World Cup title, but last week's results proved that, on the right day, it is possible to beat the Belgians.
Still Belgium is coming into Sunday's worlds at Eva Bandman Park with a seven-man squad that includes both defending champion Albert and Sven Nys, whose palmares include some 250 wins, including eight Belgian titles and a world championship. The light blue-clad team head to the worlds with six men in the top 10 of the UCI cyclocross rankings, and, as a result, Belgium remains the hands down favorite in the elite men's race. So who, if anyone, might be able to break the Belgian stranglehold on world class cyclocross?
The top contender has to be van der Haar, a two-time U23 world champion and newly crowned Dutch elite champion who will race among the elites at the worlds for the first time. Van der Haar excels in fast, tactical races, but he showed in Hoogerheide that he is capable of performing on a highly technical track as well.
He is the only non-Belgian ranked among the top five in the world, and, with a CrossVegas victory in 2011, is one of only a few foreigners headed to Louisville to have won a race in the United States. Albert went so far as to tip him as the top favorite for the race in an interview a few months ago.
Though van der Haar said last week that he wasn't sure if he could carry his recent streak of good form all the way to the championship race, he'll be the man to watch if the weather yields a fast, hard track.
Repping the birthplace of 'cross
Second on the list would be the only other non-Belgian in the top nine in the world, French champion Francis Mourey. Mourey, 33, started his season slow and carefully targeted races with maximum potential for payoff for his UCI ranking, skipping a number of major Belgian races in favor of better odds in France. Nonetheless, the skillful French rider has three finishes inside the top four in World Cup competition, including a third-place finish in Koksijde, Belgium, in November. And, with a CrossVegas win of his own -- one of several top results during a U.S. tour in 2010 -- Mourey also is not new to the rigors of travel from Europe to the U.S.
With a decade more experience in the elite ranks than van der Haar, Mourey is the more rounded rider of the two. He has posted good results in races held in sand, heavy mud, steep hills and fast, hard-packed tracks this year. So whatever the weather brings in Louisville, Mourey is likely to be a factor.
Other riders to watch include Czech Radomir Simunek, Dutchman Thijs Van Amerongen and Swiss riders Simon Zahner and Julien Taramarcaz.
Of the four, Simunek appears to be the best positioned for a good result at Eva Bandman Park. In addition to being the first finisher behind the Belgians at last year's world championships, he has quietly been gobbling up World Cup top-10s all season. With countryman Stybar focused on the spring classics, he will also be the Czechs' best chance for a top result.
Van Amerongen, Zahner and Taramarcaz, meanwhile, have each been consistently racing to top-10 results in Europe all season, and are highly capable of riding onto the podium this weekend.
And what of the Americans? Don't count them out. Home-field advantage has boosted more than one rider to good results in world championship races in recent years. Martin Bina pulled off a surprising fourth-place finish in his home country, the Czech Republic, in 2010 -- the same year Stybar won his first elite world title. In 2011, Philipp Walsleben had his best result ever with a fifth place at worlds in Sankt Wendel, Germany, his home country. And, of course, there is the stunning Belgian result in Koksijde last year. Both motivation and familiarity with the Louisville course could lift American racers to better than expected results.
The most heralded contender on the team is likely Jeremy Powers, whose 11th-place world ranking will earn him a good position in the starting grid.
Coming off a block of heavy training and illness, Powers looked off his game at the national championships two weeks ago. He has been training in Louisville since then, however, and finished third, behind Belgians Albert and Wietse Bosmans, in Cincinnati on Saturday. Powers’ biggest strength is his prowess on fast, flowy courses, and good weather could produce a race that suits him well.
National champion Jonathan Page, meanwhile, has experienced something of a rebirth since late December after an otherwise lackluster season.
Page is the most accomplished American man at elite cyclocross worlds. Two other American team members -- Tim Johnson and Danny Summerhill -- earned silver medals in the U23 and junior ranks, respectively, at the worlds, but Page, with silver in Hooglede-Gits, Belgium, in 2007, earned the sole American medal by an elite man at worlds.
Page, who told VeloNews last week that he was riding in subzero weather in New Hampshire in preparation for Sunday's race, is still searching for a title sponsor. His 2007 ride earned him a place on the Belgian Subweb team, and a good ride in Louisville would likely go a long way in helping him earn another such prize. Though he is a good all-around rider, he is best on heavy, demanding courses, and undoubtedly is hoping for terrible weather in Louisville.
Whether the Americans -- or any of the others -- can really make a dent in Belgium's grip on the sport is, perhaps, the biggest unanswered question ahead of worlds. It is also a question with lasting implications for the sport itself. In awarding worlds to the United States, the UCI sent a clear message about its intentions for internationalizing a sport that has long been dominated by just a handful of European countries.
If the Belgians once again walk away with everything, can cyclocross justify its aspirations to Olympic status and worldwide growth? The answer -- the beginning of it, at any rate -- is just six days away.