This Sunday will mark the start of the 2011/2012 European cyclocross season. After a spectacular 2010/2011 season that saw Sven Nys pick up his 10th Superprestige title, Zdenek Stybar won a second consecutive World Championship, and Niels Albert capture a Belgian and World Cup title, this season could be the most competitive and exciting yet. In addition to the aforementioned stars, there a almost a dozen riders who are capable of taking the top step of the podium on any given day.
Our European preview is going to be a bit different then any of the other previews we have done. Over the past few years, there has been a shift from the â€œold guardâ€ to â€œyoung guns,â€ who have risen through the ranks and are now starting to dominate the European scene. In light of this shift, this preview will breakdown these two groups of riders and give an idea of who you should keep your eye on. One last note, each riders age is denoted next to their name.
The Old Guard
36 year-old Belgian superstar Sven Nys had a rough go of it last season with a string of bad luck, illness and freak accidents. However, he managed to pick up the Superprestiges and GvA Trofee titles along with a dozen victories. His consistent results also made him the UCI points leader. Nys no longer dominates like he used to, but he is still the man to beat in the cross world.
French National Champion, Francis Mourey (32), dominated racing on his home soil last season. Mourey has chosen to spend more time at home over the past few years, but still ventures out to participate in the World Cup races. Last year, Mourey finished inside the top-10 at all but one World Cup race and managed an impressive fourth at Worlds. Mourey still seems capable of a major victory, but without any real help, itâ€™s a hard task to accomplish.
Bart Wellens (34) only managed one victory last year (in Cauberg) and at times was considered a fading star. However, Wellens finished the season very strong including his victory and an eigth at Worlds. This will be another tough season for the four-time World Champion, but if he can find his form, he can still be competitive with the best in the world.
At 30 years-old, Bart Aernouts still has plenty of time to come into his own. Like Wellens, Aernouts only picked up one victory last year, but beyond that he never really reached a podium in a major race. Aernouts doesnâ€™t have to dominate to have a successful season, a World Cup podium should do the trick.
Last, but certainly not least, is Gerben de Knegt. The 37 year-old Dutchman struggled at the World Cups last year, but still found his way onto a podium or two. A victory for de Knegt would be a pleasant surprise this year, but wouldnâ€™t be totally unexpected.
The Young Guns
Zdenek Stybar (27) started the season with a bang last year and seemed unbeatable at times. Eventually, his domination faded, but Styby bounced back in time for a World Championship win in St-Wendel. With the rainbow stripes on his back for a second consecutive year, Stybar will be a heavily marked man. The real question will be how his first road season will effect his cross season.
Despite finishing a dismal 24th at Worlds, Niels Albert (26) had a successful season last year. He picked up the World Cup overall and a Belgian National title along with eight victories. If Albert can stay injury free this season, he could easily win any race he enters and potentially pick up another World Championship.
The past few seasons have seen consistent improvement from the young Belgian, Kevin Pauwels (28). Last year Pauwels had five wins and a podium at World Championships, not to mention a serious shot at winning the GvA Trofee. Look for Pauwels to be a real force this season.
Philipp Walsleben (25) came out of nowhere last year and was often found at the front of the race in the early going. Towards the end of last season, Walsleben found himself regularly on the podium. This year will be very interesting for the German as he tryâ€™s to pick up a marquee victory.
Last season, Tom Meeusen (25) picked up a win at the fifth round of the Superprestige and World Cup, he spent a lot of energy trying to battle for a World Cup spot on the Belgian team. If he can stay on the World Cup team and ride a bit more consistently, Meeusen could have a spectacular season.
The 2011/2012 European cyclocross season is shaping up to be one of the best yet. With several riders getting an early jump on things by racing in the US, it will be a few weeks before everyone comes together for the first real throw-down of the season. Once that happens, it promises to be the most exciting season ever as Nys, Albert, Stybar and the rest go head-to-head for five months of action.