Two back-to-back weekends of World Cup races point the International cyclocross circuit squarely at a huge weekend and give us an opportunity to see how contenders stack up when they toe the line together. In advance of tomorrow’s Weekend Preview, let’s take a look at the strongest riders on ‘cross bikes right now:
1. Kevin Pauwels – Pauwels is, without a doubt, the strongest in the world right now. More importantly, his performance over the past few weeks shows he can perform in several ways. He rode away from a strong chase group in Tabor, aided by a Stybar flat tire. Lest you think he couldn’t have won without Stybar’s misfortune, don’t forget that he outsprinted Stybar the previous weekend – and has a reputation for unleashing a devastating sprint in bunch finishes. He takes a commanding lead of the World Cup series.
2. Zdenek Stybar - the reigning World Champion is still looking for a big win this season but if his performance on his way to two World Cup podiums are of any indication, it’ll come soon. Stybar hasn’t been able to snap the elastic connecting other capable riders to him, but hes been at the front, putting others in difficulty. Look for more aggressive performances from him.
3. Sven Nys - Nys may had a quiet Tabor after his win in Plzen, but don’t be fooled. He’s a tactical and capable rider, and with a clutch of points from his World Cup victory, may have been taking it easy with eyes on upcoming Superprestige and GvA rounds.
4. Klaas Vantornout - the combination of Vantornout and his teammate Pauwels is looking like a potent one-two punch: Pauwels is a constant threat for victory and Vantornout is developing some killer form. His performance at Tabor was anything but passive teamwork – he patrolled the front of a high-powered chase group and then when Pauwels was safely away, piloted the separation that he and Stybar achieved together.
5. Francis Mourey - Mourey’s a rider who can keep up with a face-paced race and then sneak forward at the end to sprint for fourth. I’m still waiting for a big win from Mourey. Back to back podium near-misses (in placement, if not in time) bode well for his form, but I can’t help but wonder if his performances owe to being opportunistic and savvy, a follower of wheels, in ways that make it hard to crack higher results.
6. Tom Meeusen - Telenet-Fidea’s rising star had several big wins last season, and is starting to rise into form with a pair of 6th place finishes at the World Cup races. Look for him on the podium very soon.
7. Niels Albert - Albert won the World Cup last year, so one must wonder if he’s disappointed by two races in which his performance is most notable for an interrupted start at Plzen. Is it possible that his poor performance was a petulant reaction to Plzen’s start not being re-run? He’s been in good form, as his victories before the World Cup weekends show – will he take his revenge soon and turn his eye toward Superprestige and GvA victories?
8. Bart Aernouts - Consistently in the top ten with podiums and fine performances in smaller races, Aernouts is looking increasingly ready for high-performance riding.
9. Radomir Simunek - if Albert is going to go on a rampage – which he’s capable of – then the support of his teammate Simunek will be valuable. In Tabor it looked like Simu was going to put pressure on Stybar and Vantornout’s, to set Albert up for a podium-capturing move, but Albert failed and Simu looked strong enough on his own.
10. Bart Wellens - Ah, Bartje. We had high hopes for you after you won our hearts with your North American campaign. The more the rest of the European field finds its legs, the more the ex World Champion rides anonymous races. Will he find his sea legs and capture that elusive victory?