International Cyclocross Report & Power Ranking – Week #1

Editor’s Note – The first International CX Report & Power Ranking comes a bit late this week due to our expanded Worlds coverage.  Next week, look for Erik’s column to resume it’s usual Thursday time slot.

The European cross season kicked-off in grand fashion with the Steenbergcross race in Belgium two weekends ago. When all was said and done, Belgian National Champion Sven Nys crossed the line in first place after he unleashed an impressive uphill sprint that left Bart Aernouts settling for second—ahead of a strong Kevin Pauwels. Klaas Vantornout also showed great form, but was dropped from the lead group after suffering a mechanical. Perhaps the most impressive performance came from Belgian U23 standout Tom Meeusen, who finished fifth in the first race of his first full elite season.

With one race under their belts, several riders made the trip to the Netherlands for Openingsveldrit van Harderwijk last Saturday. However, riders like Nys, Aernouts and Pauwels opted not to travel, instead staying in Belgium for a race on Sunday. In their absence, Dieter Vanthourenhout picked-up a hard fought victory. Tom van den Bosh (Bel) finished second, while Patrick van Leeuwen (Ned) took third.

The Toi Toi Cup, the Czech Republic’s national series, got a serious boost in star power when World Champion Zdenek Stybar opted to start his season on home soil. Stybar proved that last season was no fluke with a commanding victory over a largely Czech field. Belgian Rob Peeters took second, while Czech standout David Kasek finished third.

Back to Belgium, where after a hot and dry start to the season at the Steenbergcross, the GP Neerpelt Wisseltrofee provided a more traditional affair with a wet, technical course. Sven Nys grabbed his second victory, in as many races, with a mad dash to the line. Nys used his technical skills and raw power to attack a lead group containing Vantornout, Aernouts and Pauwels through the course’s last sandpit. (It’s definitely something worth watching.) Vantournout held-on for second and Aernouts beat Pauwels to the line, picking-up third. More importantly, Nys has become the talk of Belgium—the cannibal is back.

While Belgium is abuzz with Nys’ impressive performance, Stybar continued his home soil domination with another impressive victory in round two of the Toi Toi Cup. Stybar won Tuesday’s race by over two minutes. Jiri Polnicky finished second and David Kasek finished third, making it a Czech sweep.

For the first time ever, a group of European superstars made their way over to the US for several weeks of racing. The biggest name, and stand out, was French National Champion Francis Mourey. Mourey picked up three straight victories (StarCrossed, Rad Racing GP and CrossVegas) along with a podium appearance at roun two of the USGP. Joining Mourey were Jonathan Page and Christian Heule, both of whom have used the early start to the US season as a launching pad over the past few years.

Heule, who will most likely retire at the end of this season, also had some impressive results. In five races, Heule picked up five top-five finishes, making it one of his best starts in nearly a decade. Page, who announced that he would only do a handful of races in the US, had a lukewarm start to the season. While Page raced well, he failed to every truly make it out of the chase group in all five races that he did. However, with nearly four months left in the European season, Page may be taking a slower start to the season than in years past.

With a bevy of action on both continents, several riders have made impressive debuts this season. One name missing from the results is former World Champion Niels Albert. After he recovered from a pre-season illness, Albert learned that he had a minor tear in his knee. Albert plans to be back for the first World Cup round. However, he will miss the first rounds of the GVA Trophy and Superprestige series.

Perhaps the biggest news that came out right before the season started was the return of former World Champion Lars Boom. While Boom didn’t make an exact schedule clear, he did say he’ll do half a dozen races, beginning in December. He also made it clear that due to his road commitments, he will miss out on Worlds. Depending on what races he does, he could throw a wrench in a lot of racers season and goals.

What a couple of weeks it has been. It’s hard to believe that the first big race of the season is finally upon us, but feels like it’s time for a big showdown. Nys and Stybar have proved dominant, but there are a handful of riders, old and new, that have thrown their hat in the ring. Where does everyone fall in the first rankings of the season? Time to find out:

International Power Ranking:

1. Sven Nys (4) – Last year, Nys had a rough start to the season and faced a lot of criticism. As the season wound down, his lack of domination allowed that criticism to linger. The best way to leave all that behind, dominate the start of this year’s season. Which is exactly what Nys did. However, the lack of Albert and Stybar, his biggest competition last year, allows some of that criticism to linger. This Sunday will be Nys’ chance to finally silence all the critics.

2. Zdenek Stybar (1) – To say that Stybar dominated his first two races would be an understatement. He decimated the competition. However, it was a far weaker field then the ones that Nys faced in Belgium. While the Toi Toi Cup has produced a few strong riders of the past few years, the lack of depth dampens the impact of his wins. As with Nys, Sunday will be Stybar’s chance to prove that he’s the best in the World.

3. Klaas Vantornout (10) – Vantornout was one of a few people who were able to keep pace with Nys, picking up second place at the GP Neerpelt Wisseltrofee. He may have been able to stay with Nys at Steenbergcross if it weren’t for an ill-timed mechanical. Vantornout often found himself on the front of the chase group last season and seems to have made the jump to the front group this year. How long he can stay remains to be seen.

4. Bart Aernouts (8) – Aernouts is the only rider, besides Vantornout, who was able to keep pace with Nys. As a result, he managed to pick up a pair of third place finishes. The former Junior World Champion has continued to improve over the past few years. Much like Vantornout, Aernouts was chase group fodder for the bulk of last season. Both riders will face a true test this Sunday with the first round of the GVA Trophy.

5. Kevin Pauwels (3) – Last years revelation, the Belgian started off his season with a pair of solid fourth-place finishes. He was able to hang with the leaders at the GP Neerpelt Wisseltrofee race, but still has failed to truly impress. Last year Pauwels had a few breakout victories, the question is can he continue this trend. So far he looks just like he did last year.

6. Francis Mourey – Mourey finally showed he can dominate races outside of France. However, in previous years Christian Heule and Jonathan Page have shown similar success on US soil, only to struggle in Europe. Mourey’s palmares lead me to believe that this won’t happen, but for now he sits just outside the top-five. He returns to Europe this weekend and it will be very interesting to see how he fares.

7. Dieter Vanthourenhout (5) – Vanthourenhout was one of the few riders who ventured to the Netherlands for the Openingsveldrit van Harderwijk. It proved to be a great move as Vanthourenout picked up the win. Match that with a pair of top-ten finishes, and Vanthourenout looks very impressive. Last year he bounced back from a spectacular crash and was a constant face amongst the chase group. Perhaps his Netherlands victory was a sign of things to come.

8. Tom Meeusen – Meeusen had a very solid start in his first full season as an elite rider. Last year Meeusen dominated the U23 ranks and is considered by many the next Sven Nys. It will be a very interesting transitional season for Meeusen. If he remains consistently in the top-ten, he could become a major threat within the coming years.

9. Bart Wellens (2) – Wellens’ mid-season return last year was nothing short of amazing. He was consistently inside the top-ten and earned a spot on the highly competitive Belgian Worlds team. This year, he was looking forward to a very strong, full, cross season. It appears that he’s right on track for that with a pair of top-ten finishes, despite a crash at the Openingsveldrit van Harderwijk, which knocked him out of the lead group.

10. Gerben de Knegt (7) – The return of Lars Boom will give de Knegt a run for his money as the best Dutch cross racer. De Knegt had a solid third place finish at CrossVegas, as he eases his way into the season. Like the rest of the European racers who started their season in the US, de Knegt will return to Europe this weekend. It will be interesting to see how the second-oldest member of the cross peloton performs.

Even though Stybar’s wins came over significantly weaker fields, the margins of his victories are very impressive. Meanwhile, Nys has once again become the toast of the town. This Sunday, the two will finally go head-to-head in the first round of the GVA Trophy. In addition, all eyes will be on the half-dozen riders who are kicking off their European season after a stint in the US. The only other action on the European continent comes Saturday, in Slovakia. A solid field is expected, but most of the top riders will use Saturday to relax a head of the season’s first big race, when all eyes will focus on Namur, Belgium.

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