A long 2017-2018 Telenet UCI cyclo-cross World Cup season led the world's best cyclo-cross riders from the USA, where they raced the first two rounds last September, to Europe for the remaining seven rounds, finishing in the Netherlands for the ninth and final round in Hoogerheide. One week later, on February 3 and 4, the season reaches its climax in the same country at the 69th edition of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Valkenburg-Limburg. More than 300 riders from 23 nations will race up and around the famous Cauberg climb for one of the five events that will be held over the weekend.
The weather forecast appears to be perfect… for cyclo-cross. There have been a lot of rain showers in Valkenburg the last few days. The course is muddy and will stay that way. Luckily, there's only a small chance of rain on race days, and temperatures will hover between freezing point and five degrees Celsius.
The race course has been praised by cyclo-cross icon Sven Nys as the best of the past 20 years. Course designer Adrie van der Poel neatly tweaked the course that was used in the 2016 World Cup round.
The start/finish is completely new. Just after the start, riders will enter a forest section which although bumpy, is largely downhill. However the muddy conditions mean it will not be unduly fast.
In the middle of the 3.350m loop the riders will tackle the long climb that characterised the Valkenburg round of the UCI World Cup last October. However they will still need plenty of energy in the tank as the finish is long and difficult with a natural climb then stairs and a bridge just before the last turn and run-in to the line.
Racing kicks of at 11am Saturday with the Men Junior category. Last year, the Great-Britain team led by Thomas Pidcock managed a 1-2-3. This year, there are countless favourites from multiple countries like UCI World Cup winner Tomas Kopecky (Czech Republic). Local riders Pim Ronhaar and Mees Hendrickx have a good chance to please the home crowd.
Evie Richards (Great-Britain) is the top favourite in the Women Under 23 category which starts at 1pm. She won the first Women U23 world title in 2016 and was third last year. This season, she won the Namur World Cup round in the Elite Women category. Defending UCI World Champion Annemarie Worst is no longer in this category. On a good day, Laura Verdonschot (Belgium) and Emma White (USA) might challenge Richards.
The Women Elite category has provided the most entertaining races so far this season, so expect a real battle on Saturday afternoon. Sanne Cant (Belgium) is the defending UCI World Champion and the top favourite after winning five World Cup rounds and the overall classification. Then again, the Valkenburg course suits many other riders like 2015 UCI World Champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot (France), UCI World Cup runner-up Kaitlin Keough (USA), Katherine Compton (USA), Eva Lechner (Italy), Katerina Nash (Czech Republic) and British riders Helen Wyman and Nikki Brammeier. The home riders usually field a great team but they didn't have the best build-up. Then again, never count out seven-fold UCI World Champion Marianne Vos, 2016 UCI World Champion Thalita de Jong, Lucinda Brand and Maud Kaptheijns in front of their home crowd.
On Sunday, a big duel is expected to unfold in the Men Under 23 category. UCI World Cup winner and 2017 Junior UCI World Champion Thomas Pidcock and 2016 U23 World Champion Eli Iserbyt fought out exciting duels this season. Outsiders for the title are defending UCI World Champion Joris Nieuwenhuis racing in front of his home crowd, Belgian Champion Thijs Aerts and Adam Toupalik (Czech Republic).
The big race on Sunday is the one in the Men Elite category at 3pm. Some expect home rider Mathieu van der Poel to blow the race apart, as he has been doing throughout the season. Others are waiting to witness a big duel with Wout Van Aert (Belgium). These two riders will be the only previous UCI World Champions at the start line. Van der Poel will want revenge for last year's unlucky race in Bieles. Defending double UCI World Champion Wout Van Aert has never won in Valkenburg and will be looking to break that tradition. The top-2 seems certain but it's hard to predict number 3. In this field, Lars van der Haar (the Netherlands) is the only other rider with podium experience at worlds, apart from veteran Francis Mourey (France). Valkenburg specialist Michael Vanthourenhout (Belgium) could also be a good pick.
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