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2012 Cyclocross Worlds: The PEZ Take

It’s that time – the Tour Down Under has been and gone, San Luis is nearly finished, we’re running out of six days (which means I get my life back!) and the Belgian ‘cross supporters are making sure that their scarves, coats and hats are looking pristine for Sunday. It’s Cross Worlds time!

The TV pundits are thinking about their sage ‘one liners,’ the breweries are on overtime, and the question that really matters is; ‘can Sven do it?’

Here at PEZ we’re very lucky to have had a man on the ground throughout most of this year’s ‘cross season – Stephen Cheung has been getting his trousers covered in mud, eating hamburgers and drinking pils with the hard core ‘cross fans.

His ‘take’ is based on getting wet, dirty and suffering from indigestion all over the flatlands; not from the second hand opinions of guys like me, holed up in cosy six day stadiums – however, that will not stop Mr. Gruber and I from commenting on Stephen’s judgements.

Stephen, over to you:

Sven Nys
Season to date: The Kanibaal simply gets better and better with age, it seems.

Every year is supposed to be the year he gets put out to pasture, and all he does is lead the Superprestige yet again, absolutely thrash the field at the Belgian Champs, and enjoy another season with more than 10 victories.

Why he will win: He’s only won a single Worlds in 12 years of utter domination.

Simple laws of averages say that universe has to align properly for him sometime soon.

Also, at the Koksijde World Cup, Nys showed amazing form on the sand and tactical acumen in a thrilling dogfight with Pauwels in the closing two laps, leading to a hard attack right before the final corner and the controversial sprint win where he rode Pauwels from one side to the other.

Can Koksijde be the venue for Nys’s second career World Championship victory?

Great technical rider puts him a step above the others.

Why he won’t win: The amazing consistency also means Nys doesn’t seem to peak for a particular race, unlike Albert and Stybar.

After dominating the Belgian champs, he’s been very off the boil the past two weekends, including a season-worst 6th place this past weekend.

Kevin Pauwels
Season to date: This has been the big breakthrough year for the quiet Belgian, who seems to this non-Flemish speaker completely uncomfortable on camera or on the podium, rarely ever smiling or saying more than the absolute minimum.

But he still has the second biggest supporters club behind Nys.

He absolutely blew the doors off early in the season on the fast dry courses then took a pounding in the really muddy races, including a dreadful Belgian Champs.

However, on slick but not crazy-muddy courses like Zolder and Hooglede, he showed his mettle by winning handily.

Why he will win: There’s simply nobody better on a fast course than Pauwels.

At Koksijde, he was gapped by Nys through the tricky sections, but each time hauled back big time on the faster sections, showing his pure speed and pace.

Recent World Cup overall winner, Kevin Pauwels, will be very much in the running in Koksijde on Sunday.

He’s demonstrated that sand doesn’t scare him, with that thrilling battle with Nys in Koksijde in early December.

On anything less than pure mud slop, he’s the man in my view.

Why he won’t win: If the weather really degenerates, or if Nys sneaks ahead of him before the final short, 75 metre sprint to the finish.

Niels Albert:
Season to date: It has been a roller coaster season for Niels that has me scratching my head.

He broke his hand in early November and then dedicated his season to peaking for the Worlds.

We missed a preview of his Worlds due to his missing the Koksijde race though.

How has that worked out so far?
He came back like a man possessed in mid-December, jumping right back into victories and podium placings in the first couple of weeks.

In January though, his form has been on and off thanks to sickness.

He was the only rider within the same time zone as Nys at the Belgian champs, but otherwise has been lacklustre.

There are few with the innate class of Niels Albert, but this season, he has always seemed an inconsistent half step off. If things come around for him on Sunday though, he could win this going away. Such is the talent of Albert.

He’s used a mid-season injury to come back and win the Worlds before in 2009, but can lightning strike twice?

Why he will win: Well-known as the best rider in the sand.

He knows how to peak for races and seems to be raging when he’s not sick.

Why he won’t win: His form in January has been OK but not the typical Niels we’re used to seeing.

Zdenek Stybar:
Season to date: This guy just loves cyclo-cross, and I’ve written about that before.

Even though he’s eyeing the road as his future, it hasn’t dampened his commitment to off road this season.

He started slowly, attacking hard at the start of every race but seeming to fade at about the 40 minute mark.

Since the Holy Week, he seems to be back to his best though, solidly on the podium at pretty much every race and then winning a hard fast WC in Lievien two weeks ago.

Stybar can do it all, and he’s destined for glory on the road…but can he bring down the two best crossers of the season in Nys and Pauwels?

Only two victories this season, but he has still done the rainbow skinsuit proud by being highly visible in every race and giving fans a show.

Like with Albert, Stybar knows how to peak for the Worlds.

Thanks to the new pink Specialized with matching fedora, along with the Pablo Nero off-bike clothing, definitely the snazziest dresser on and off-bike!

Why he will win: He knows how to peak and win Worlds.

His form is terrific right now and he seems energized by the new team and equipment.

Why he won’t win: I’m trawling my memory and can’t come up with an example of Styby winning a sprint at the end of a CX race.

Realistically, I can’t see anybody else with a shot at the podium.

Bart Aernouts and Tom Meeusen impressed earlier in the season, but have faded badly.

Unfortunately, Bart Wellens is out for the season. Klaas Vantournout is always there but it’ll take a miracle for him to jump the queue.

The only other rider on great form right now is Rob Peeters.

Ed’s view from the Berlin Six Day:
The Cyclo-Cross Worlds is a special race, often the form book means nothing.

I was speaking to English 60’s and 70’s cyclo-cross legend Keith Mernickle (watch out for the interview here on PEZ) and his view is that the criteria by which you must judge a ‘cross rider is ‘on Worlds success.’

On that basis, Sven Nys is ‘just another rider’ with his one win, rather than the multiple victories of riders like Longo and De Vlaeminck.

But in Nys’s case it’s hard to apply that logic; he’s a man who takes his responsibilities seriously – to his sponsors and to his fans.

Not for Nys the long, steady build up to a peak for the Worlds, he hits the ground running, providing exciting racing from the first time the studs on his Dugasts hit the mud.

It’s a frequent topic in the Belgian press and one which raises the normally placid Nys’s hackles a little – in his view a cyclo-cross season is about more than one day.

A graph of his form would show a steep rise and a long high plateau – he’s a true professional.

But it’s his commitment to racing at a high level for the whole season which leaves him exposed to the men whose sponsors allow them the luxury of building a season around one day.

Stybar seems like he was born to win World Championships. If he triumphs on Sunday – that will be three in a row.

But even with all the sports science and technology there are those inexplicable days when a rider doesn’t feel the pedals below his feet – if Sven has one of those days on the back of his huge base of strength and skill then he can win.

But whilst my heart says ‘Nys’ my head says Stybar, to the uninitiated his ‘poor’ early season meant that he was going to struggle to match Nys and Albert.

But the truth is that he was recovering from a busy road season, maintaining a certain level of form and thinking about one day late in January rather than what was happening the following weekend.

His upward curve speaks for itself and it’ll peak on Sunday – for me, the man with the pink bike will win.

Over to you, Mr. Gruber . . .

Every year, I pick Sven Nys, and every year, I’m wrong…well, save for that one time. The man has as classic of a World Championship jinx as we’ve seen in the last few decades. No one will question his legend and legacy in cyclocross, and anyone that does, is missing out on the pure, stunning list of accomplishments that Nys has amassed in his years at the top of the sport.

A second World Championship victory would give a decidedly different hue to Nys’s palmares.

I think Nys has a solid chance in Koksijde. He certainly has a better chance than he did last year in Germany. His performances of the last couple weeks can either be attributed to a downward spiral in form, or a last bit of super hard training in search of Worlds perfection. I’m hoping for the latter and a truly classic Kanibaal performance on Sunday. His legend deserves it.

Which is why it seems so unlikely. When the word ‘deserves’ comes out in anything sport, it almost always seems doomed to failure.

Look for a dog fight between Nys and Pauwels (above) on Sunday.

With all of that said, my head can’t help but give the nod to Kevin Pauwels. Pauwels has been excellent all year, a revelation in the truest sense. Ideally, we’ll see a rematch of the showdown Pauwels and Nys had back at the World Cup round in Koksijde.

Niels Albert and Zdenek Stybar are great, and they could easily win, but I just don’t see them on the level of Nys and Pauwels if everything goes ‘normally’. This is the World Championships though, so normal doesn’t seem to come into the equation. If normal played any role, Nys would be at least a five-time World Champion.

Looking for a women’s favorite? That easy – go with Marianne!

Now that I’ve successfully done a terrible job of picking a winner, I’ll switch to the women’s side and make the correct pick: Marianne Vos. If Vos doesn’t win, I’ll do something drastic like chew on my fist. It’s going to take an act of god to keep her from soaring to victory. Sure, there are some great challengers, but Vos has shown herself to be in a class wholly unto herself in everything she has done in 2011 (and 2012). Again, no disrespect to the likes of Katie Compton, Daphny Van Den Brand, and many others, but Marianne is on a Merckxian tear. I don’t think it will end on Sunday.

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