Yesterday we looked at some of the best domestic riders heading into the 2010-2011 cyclocross season. Today we look abroad at the men expected to dominate the sport internationally.
Zdenek Stybar enters the fall following of a dream season capped with a World Championship victory on home soil in Tabor. On his way to the rainbow stripes, Stybar picked-up the World Cup and Superprestige overall titles as well—not too shabby. Oh, and last year’s UCI-points leader is only 26-years-old. Stybar’s consistency and ability to dictate a race from start to finish make him a true threat to dominate for years to come—even with a huge target on his back. In January he proved he can deal with the pressure of being the favorite at Worlds; this year we’ll see if he can handle it for an entire season.
By mid-December, Niels Albert seemed to have most of the season’s major competitions all locked up. He was the defending World Champion and the Superprestige, GVA Trophy, World Cup and UCI-points leader—he seemingly couldn’t be stopped. However, around Christmas chinks had appeared in Albert’s armor—by the second week in January, the unraveling had begun. In the end, Albert had some impressive statistics (he won nearly 50% of his races and almost always finished on the podium), but no titles to show for his efforts. Hopefully he can find consistent success this season, putting the last few pieces in place for a tremendous campaign.
They often say, “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish”. Last year Sven Nys started slow and finished with his worst season in half a decade. However, “worst season in a decade” for Nys might be “best season ever” for most. He won the GVA Trophy, the Belgian National Championship, and a bronze medal at Worlds. All in all, great results, but last season was the first time since 2003-2004 that Nys did not win either the Superprestige or World Cup title. But with five years of pure domination, a down year is easy to forgive. That said, 2010-2011 could be the most important season for the Belgian legend in a long time —was last year just a hiccup or the end of an era?
Kevin Pauwels came in as a strong underdog last year and picked-up a marquee win at the Zolder World Cup, further proving the 26-year-old has what it takes to become a cross superstar. Much like Stybar, Pauwels gained success through consistent riding, reaching the podium in 12 out of 33 races in 2009-2010. The downside: when Pauwels was off his game, he was far off, finishing outside the top-10 on seven occasions. This season, Pauwels looks on target to win three or four major races, but will have to figure-out how to have a bad day and place well if he wants to be mentioned with the likes of Stybar, Albert and Nys.
Every racer in Europe needs to be glad there aren’t more major cross events in France. If there were, Francis Mourey might just be the most dominant rider in the sport. Mourey won seven races last year (including a national title)—five of which were in France. However, it’s Mourey’s ventures out of France, particularly in the World Cup, that make him a true wildcard. Last season, he competed in eight World Cups, finishing fifth 4 times—he also finished fifth at Worlds in Tabor. If he continues to dominate at home and race well against the big boys, this 30-year-old could be on his way to the top. Perhaps France should bid to host Worlds, non?
Klaas Vantornout capped a solid season with a silver medal at Worlds. While many were surprised, his results indicated that a breakthrough was inevitable. Often the last man dropped from the Nys/Albert/Stybar trio, Vantornout contended for the win until the final few laps. But while he finished outside the top-10 only once last season, he failed to take a victory. A few more podiums—and of course, some victories—Is all that separates Vantornout from the cyclocross elite.
Meeusen dominated the U23 ranks last year, but the Belgian fell just short of a World Title, finishing third behind the now-discredited Polish Szczepaniak brothers. That said, Meeusen’s “other” third-place finish—in the Belgian Elite National Championships—proves the youngster is ready to mix it up with the big boys this year. Meeusen won 13 out of 32 races last year and only finished outside the top-5 four times. It’s easy to understand the hype and hope in Belgium for the man considered by many to be the “next Sven Nys”. It will be interesting to see how he handles the pressure, especially since he’ll be lining-up against the legend himself.
Jonathan Page’s 2009-2010 was one heck of a roller coaster ride. He dominated the early part of the season in the US and managed to earn some late-season top-10’s in Europe. In between, he struggled for results, barely finishing inside the top-20 and finishing as poorly as 30th and 40th on two occasions. However, this season may be one of his best yet as Page revealed he has contracts for all of the major series and races in Europe. As a result, he raced a short US season and will most likely skip the National Championships in December. It’s a big price to pay—will the gamble pay-off?
The “Old(er)” Guys
At the end of the last season, there were six riders over the age of 30 in the top-15 of the UCI rankings. Furthermore, half of the top-10 finishers at Worlds could have raced as Masters. Removing Nys and Mourey from the list, we’re left with Gerben de Knegt, Christian Heule, Erwin Vervecken and Bart Wellens. Vervecken retired, leaving Heule and de Knegt as the oldest men in cross—at 36, both are still the best in their respective countries, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Meanwhile, Wellens battled back from a bizarre illness to dominate the last half of the season, including a win at the last race of the year. If can begin this season as he finished the last, he could return to the form that saw him take consecutive World titles in 2003 and 2004. Look-out, these veterans could pull some surprises!
While things get underway this weekend in the States, the European season doesn’t kick-off until next weekend. As a result, next week I’ll offer a preview of the major European series along with some showdowns we can look forward to witnessing.
Thanks for reading—share your comments and riders to watch below.