International Cyclocross Report & Power Ranking: Weeks #12 & 13

Photo by Ciaran O'Grady, http://ogradyc.blogspot.com/

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through Belgium,

not a creature was stirring, except for dozens of cross riders.

Their bikes were all clean and their bags were all packed;

The skinsuits were ready, the wheels were all stacked.

Sven Nys is once again king after four more podium appearances and a pair of wins over the last two weeks.  It all started at the Rouwmoer round of the GVA Trophy in Essen, Belgium where Nys and Klaas Vantornout were able to capitalize on a Niels Albert mechanical. Vantornout went toe-to-toe with Nys, but was unable to beat the Belgian National Champion and had to settle for second. Kevin Pauwels came across in third. Albert held-on for fifth, with Bart Wellens sneaking by him to take fourth.

The very next day, Nys dominated the Vlaamse Druivenveldrit in Overijse after launching a devastating mid-race attack on the technical and hilly circuit. Lars Boom animated the race as well, and nearly closed the gap to Nys. The former World Champion would have most likely made it if it weren’t for a flat tire. Kevin Pauwels came across in second after spending the bulk of the race riding just behind Nys. Klaas Vantornout continued his successful weekend with a third-place finish. Bart Aernouts finished fourth ahead of Tom Meeusen. Boom wound-up seventh.

The following weekend, all appeared to be going well for Nys until a dropped chain forced him to go on the defensive, destroying any hopes he had of winning the Scheldecross in Antwerp, Belgium. A surprising Radomir Simunek Jr capitalized on Nys’ mechanical to take the victory. Bart Aernouts—who spent the bulk of the race in the lead—finished third, behind Sven Vanthourenhout.. Two Dutch riders, Lars Boom and Eddy van Ijzendoorn, rounded-out the top five.

The fifth round of the World Cup in Kalmthout, Belgium featured one of the most exciting battles of the season, with Belgian neo-pro Tom Meeusen coming-out on top. Once again, Nys was the man to beat as a large group of six riders was whittled down to three: Meeusen, Nys and Kevin Pauwels. The snowy, single-track kept the lead trio together until the finishing straight, where Meeusen was able to edge out Nys and Pauwels in the sprint. French National Champion Francis Mourey took the fourth spot ahead of World Cup lead Niels Albert.

Now that the dust has settled, it’s for Christmas—but there’s no rest in store for Europe’s best, as Belgium will play host to six races in ten days. In addition to the usual field, a slew of American riders have made the trip across the pond for some European experience ahead of the World Championships in January. Needless to say, this is the biggest week of cross in the world.

As I look out the window at what’s still to come,

I see a fast-moving sleigh painted black, red, and yellow.

“Now Nys! Now, Albert! Now, Pauwels and Aernouts!

On, Vantornout! On, Wellens! On Meeusen and Peeters!”

And as the sleigh pulled away and into the night,

“Merry Cross-mas to all and to all a good fight.”

And with that, here’s this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Sven Nys (2) – Early in the season many said I might have been a bit too critical of the Belgian National Champion. I’m actually a huge Nys fan, but I try to keep an objective mindset when doing the rankings. That said, Nys is on to something special right now. Had he not dropped his chain in Antwerpen he would have had three straight victories. Had he bettered Meeusen in Kalmthout, he could have made it four in a row. He’s my pick to decimate the competition this week.

2. Kevin Pauwels (5) – In the two weeks since I last did a Power Ranking, Pauwels has netted three podium appearances in three major races. He has clearly found his form again and is once again a rider to keep your eye on. Last year I picked Pauwels as my Breakout Rider of the Year—he hasn’t disappointed. This year I hoped for a few major victories from the Belgian—with half a dozen races this week, it’s a good time for him to grab another.

3. Niels Albert (1) – Albert drops a couple of spots this week after two weeks of less than stellar results. While he has done enough to maintain his World Cup lead, he has been unable to truly capitalize on the absence of Zdenek Stybar. In fact, Albert was only able to muster a pair of fifth-place finishes over the past few weeks. Perhaps he’s taking a break before peaking for Worlds, or perhaps it’s a repeat of last year’s collapse.

4. Francis Mourey (4) – “Mr. Fourth-Place” is back. Mourey continued his domination in France before a solid fourth-place finish at the World Cup round in Kalmthout. Hopefully we will see some more of him over the next few weeks. I think he’s a podium contender for Worlds right now.

5. Bart Wellens (3) – Wellens seems to have hit a minor lull, missing-out on the podium over the past two weeks. He’s finished inside the top-10, but has been rarely seen as part of the lead group. If he finds his legs again, he could pull-off a major coup. He is a four-time world champion after all.

6. Bart Aernouts (6) – After scoring four-consecutive top-10 finishes, my hopes for Aernouts to pull-off a major victory are higher than ever. While he hasn’t shown the great form he had at the start of the season, he has looked unstoppable lately. If he can delay his winning move, or make it last a bit longer, he could come up with something special.

7. Tom Meeusen (7) – As you know by now, I reward consistency over major victories, thus Meeusen remains in the seven spot. Yes, a World Cup victory is a major deal, but his up and down season makes me hold-off on declaring him one of the greats. That said, he no longer has to worry about fighting for a spot on the Belgian World Cup team. Hopefully this helps him relax and ride like we all know he is capable.

8. Klaas Vantornout (9) - Vantornout should probably sit a bit higher after posting a pair of podium appearances two weeks ago. However, he followed those results with some poor showings, especially in the World Cup. As a result, he moves-up one spot to eighth. There’s still plenty of season left for the Belgian to prove he belongs in the top-5 again.

9. Gerben de Knegt (8) – de Knegt’s biggest race is in a few weeks time when he lines up against Lars Boom for the Dutch National Championships. Last year, Boom made a spectacular last lap effort to reel in de Knegt and pick-up the victory. Boom’s minor foray into cross this year has proved that the former world champion still has what it takes. If de Knegt can dethrone him, it would be an impressive feat.

10. Zdenek Stybar (10) – The world champion will return to action this week following some quality “r-and-r” and solid training. More importantly, the Czech is prepared to throw a wrench in the Belgian domination of the past month or so. Will he win? Probably not, but he will remind a lot of people why he’s the best in the world.

And there you have it. (Please forgive my attempt at some sort of Christmas themed column.) Next week we will be back on track with the European Rankings along with a special look at what the US riders are up to as they invade Europe. Thanks for reading, have a happy and safe holiday, and share your comments below.

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