Ostend is about to host the 2021 UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships (January 30-31), an event that promises to be a spectacular first at the Belgian ‘Queen of Beaches’. The current coronavirus pandemic has led to the cancellation of the Junior races but four rainbow jerseys will be up for grabs across the weekend as women and men from the Elite and Under 23 categories get ready for battle.
They will face a 2,900m circuit connecting the beach and the Wellington hippodrome. The two sectors will be linked by an impressive bridge which features a 21% gradient. This unique course is set to provide exciting races and the weather conditions could add further spice to the action.
Men Under 23: Ryan Kamp aims for the double
Riders from the Men Under 23 category will kick off the action on Saturday afternoon (13:30 CET). The young Dutchman Ryan Kamp comes to Ostend as a hot favourite to retain the rainbow jersey he claimed a year ago in Dübendorf, Switzerland. He only raced one Under 23 event this season, where he claimed victory in the European Championships held in s’Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands.
The 20-year-old rising star enjoyed this season, gaining experience as he vied with the Men Elite. He raced in four UCI World Cup events and finished inside the top 20 on each occasion, including 9th place in Hulst, also in his homeland, in early January.
His main rival hails from Great Britain: Thomas Mein, winner of the only Under 23 race held in this year's UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup, in Tábor, Czech Republic, in late November – although he's been less successful among the Elite riders (nevertheless 12th in Dendermonde, Belgium). His British teammate Cameron Mason and the Dutch rider Mees Hendrikx also have a shot at the podium.
Women Elite: is Dutch domination bound to happen?
Who can challenge the Oranje talents? Dutch women claimed the three steps of the podium at last year's UCI Worlds and they have been proving to be dominant again this winter. With three victories in five rounds, Lucinda Brand has claimed the 2020-2021 UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup overall ahead of her compatriots Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado and Denise Betsema, winners of one round each.
It's hard to pick a favourite between the three Dutch stars but defending UCI World Champion Alvarado impressed most recently with a beautiful victory in Overijse last Sunday.
Clara Honsinger may be the most dangerous challenger. The young American (23 years old) finished 4th overall in the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup with two second places: in Namur and Dendermonde. With her three rainbow jerseys claimed from 2017 to 2019, the Belgian Sanne Cant can never be underestimated, especially when racing at home.
Women Under 23: Hungarian wonderkid Blanka Kata Vas challenges the Dutch youngsters
The first race on Sunday afternoon will bring together the brightest young female talents ahead of the Men Elite event. Riders vying for the front spots in the Women Under 23 ranks already had the chance to gain experience against their elders at the UCI World Cup rounds – and Blanka Kata Vas left an impressive mark this season. The 19-year-old Hungarian, already a silver medallist in the U23 race at the 2020 UCI Worlds, finished inside the top 10 in all five rounds of the UCI World Cup this season.
For success in Ostend, she'll need to fend off the Dutch armada led by the likes of Puck Pieterse (Under 23 European Champion), Manon Bakker (3rd in Overijse) and Fem van Empel (4th in Namur). This race is shaping to be very open with the young Briton Anna Kay also amongst the contenders ready to fight for the rainbow jersey.
Men Elite: the MVDP-WVA showdown
Most eyes are on the Dutchman Mathieu Van der Poel and the Belgian Wout van Aert, who, between them, have won every rainbow jersey in the Men Elite category since 2015. They're tied with three titles, each aiming for a historic fourth success on Sunday (15:10 CET).
After eight battles this winter, Van der Poel has a small advantage (5 victories to 3) but Van Aert impressed last Sunday. His win in Overijse granted him his third overall victory in the UCI World Cup, the first since 2017. These two rivals attract most of the attention but Great Britain’s Tom Pidcock has forced his way into the fight and already claimed silver last year in the Men Elite race. The Belgian contingent has an impressive depth of talents to compete at home, with a roster including Toon Aerts, Eli Iserbyt, Laurens Sweeck and Michael Vanthourenhout.