Before the World Cups showed up in the United States in September, Valkenburg in the Netherlands was one of the common earliest World Cups, a race that many UCI athletes looked forward to with fear or ambition as their points would reset to include all of the early races of the season.
This year, Valkenburg will instead host the World Championships of Cyclocross in early February. When making predictions for the race, it would be easy to fall into a trap of using riders’ past performances on the course. The biggest problem with this is that the typically dry Valkenburg course of October is likely going to look nothing like the near guaranteed slop fest of February (rain is predicted for almost every day between now and next weekend).
Secondly, we have it on good authority that Adri Van Der Poel (former World Champion and father of Mathieu), is going to be bombarding the course with unique features that riders haven’t encountered before. Sure, the long Valkenburg staircase is likely still going to be there, but riders hopefully are not going to expect the rest of the course to be the blazing fast, technically tame (for a Euro World Cup) course that they’ve encountered or watched play out before.
I didn’t want to jump on the overhype bandwagon, but unless the mud turns to superglue peanut butter for the weekend, this race is shaping up to be just as good as the World Championships in 2015 when Pauline Ferrand-Prévot drag raced Sanne Cant to the line with three other riders not far off in tow. Still, some of the biggest players have loads of incentive to break away earlier in the race, so there is a solid chance that we’ll see a lone frontrunner with two or three laps to go.
Sunday early morning, my money would have been on Ferrand-Prévot to take her second World Championship win. The course isn’t a far stretch from the features of Tábor, although that Czech Republic course was loads colder than the well above freezing conditions in Valkenburg this upcoming weekend. In any case, PFP has been on an absolute tear in December and January from a bad row call-up.
But that crash at Hoogerheide leaves her fans in doubt of her even making an appearance at the World Championships, let alone having a 100% showing. No, she doesn’t have any fractures, unlike Jolanda Neff, who is having surgery on a collarbone, but that crash must have left Ferrand-Prévot feeling a bit battered. If she bounces back to form though, I think she’ll employ her usual tactics of keeping the group together and hunting down any breakaways, leaving the race to an exciting finish.
The big contender who won’t be a presence in the Elite Race is Evie Richards. The first-ever U23 World Championship winner will be racing in the U23s again for the third year in a row. Considering she has won an elite level World Cup in mid-December and stood on the podium at Hoogerheide, Richards is plenty capable to race at the big show. Still, the choice to jump to the elites is irreversible, and Richards still has many, many years ahead to showcase her talent at the Elite World Championships.
Because of the few aforementioned factors, I think the closest thing to a bet with 1:1 odds or better should be on Sanne Cant.
Cant has once again raced a very long season, and found herself on the top step of the podium in close to half her races. She wrapped up the overall World Cup winner in France, not even needing her Hoogerheide win to take the series. However, she’s far from invincible, as her two 12th place finishes in the later World Cup rounds reveal. A few of her World Cup loses have come on courses with heavy conditions in sand and mud, leaving me to wonder if she’d prefer a day of greasy mud or a fast, dry course to leg-sapping conditions.
And what if Valkenburg turns into a heavy, powering course? Well, forget what I said about the overhype bandwagon. Americans should be loving Katie Compton’s chances if the course looks remotely anything like Nommay. Her best shot is not an exciting finishing sprint, but putting the whole field in the red early. Don’t let her results at Hoogerheide dissuade you from thinking she’s not a contender: she has never had a good relationship with that course. Compton is looking just as good as ever going into the World Championships.
I usually fanboy Eva Lechner in my Championship predictions, and usually eat my cycling cap because of it. That now makes me a little more tentative to really boost her chances, even though she’s ranked in the top five in the UCI standings and has been consistently getting stronger with each World Cup showing this year. Did she look very good at Hoogerheide? Absolutely. But, unlike Compton, she has a friendly history with that course, including a win right before the World Championships three years ago. If Valkenburg ends up soaking in most of the rain and the new course features don’t heavily factor into the race, Lechner has a great shot here. She’s the last rider to win in Valkenburg (which was a bit wetter that year than usual), but again, it’s doubtful that this course is going to play out in the same way that it does in the early autumn.
The rider who I’m guessing will throw a wrench in everyone’s fantasy draft list one way or another is Marianne Vos. Never in her career has she had a full season of cyclocross racing under her belt like Ellen Van Loy or Sanne Cant, but never has she gone to a World Championship event with so few races in her legs. How will that pan out? Well, judging by her fourth place result on Sunday, she has the ability to stay near the front. I think with her history as one of the winningest cyclocross worlds racers in history, she’ll be on everyone’s mind to take a win on home soil, but between her missing the Dutch National Championship and not finding the podium yet this season, a 4th-6th place finish is likely a safer bet. Still with so many top riders injured, sick, or like in the case of Sophie de Boer, just taking a recovery from the sport, Vos could take advantage. If she is lingering near the front in the finishing stretch, she will take advantage of that frightening sprint of hers.
Having said that, Sanne Cant has been especially wary this season of last minute heroics, and when she is near the front of a major race, she has consistently attacked in the last lap and a half, depriving sprinters of their chance to shine in the last 200m.
The two racers this year that played the role of the chaser were Katie Keough and Helen Wyman. There’s a good reason why both of these women are ranked so well in the UCI standings, and both have well deserved a front row call up out of amazing consistent results. I wouldn’t be surprised one bit to see either or both of them on the podium. They both have the ability to win, but they also have a knack to over-churn themselves inside out when they are at the front of a race. A lot of their consistency comes from chasing down a lone leader rather than being the one to solo break from the field. Having said that, this is cyclocross, and those consistent second or third places could turn into a victory. If they are pursuing someone near the last few laps who is making mental mistakes, either Keough or Wyman will pounce to rainbow stripes. It’s also worth mentioning that Valkenburg will make Wyman the female rider with the most World Championship experience: she’s been continually racing the championship race since 2004, marking this year as number 15.
There are a few riders that I am admittingly overlooking, with the biggest two being Katerina Nash and Maud Kaptheijns. Both riders have won a World Cup this season, with Nash taking the first race at JingleCross and Kaptheijns capturing arguably the best result of her career at Koksijde, although at the time it didn’t come as a big surprise considering how she had been ripping up the Superprestige series. It would be hard to argue against labeling Kaptheijns as the best cyclocross racer in October. But with a long season heading into February, neither Nash nor Kaptheijns have posted World Cup results like they did earlier in the season. Still, both racers are more than capable then making me look like an idiot for downplaying their chances. Nash has a long track record of capping off her season near the front of the race. On the other hand, this will be Kaptheijns’ first ever Elite World Championship. She landed on the podium during the inaugural U23 World Championships, and didn’t compete last year.
Jalapeno Cycling will be watching the races live on Saturday and Sunday! During our Anniversary Party on Sunday afternoon between 1-5PM, we’ll be celebrating with VonHof, Van Dessel, and Ritchey, loads of local cyclocrossers and other cycling friends with drinks and snacks. We’ll be watching full replays of the Elite Races, so if you leave a comment either here or on Facebook, you can feel free to swing by a rub my face in the fact that Lucinda Brand bounced back from being sick and completely shattered my thoughts on the Elite Women’s Championship predictions.