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PEZ Previews: World Cyclocross Championships

The Cyclocross season hits its frenzied pinnacle this weekend at the World Championships, and once again the man out front is Sven Nys. Sven Nys is the best cyclo-cross rider ever and he’s a shoe-in for the Worlds on Sunday at Hooglede in Flanders, right?

Wrong, on both counts.

Sven Nys is certainly the most consistent cyclo-cross rider ever, but it’s those rainbow bands that count, that’s what the crowds want to see and what the organisers pay the big-euros start-money for (current champ Erwin Vervecken of Belgium pockets 5,000 euros every time he signs-on. Comment: showing that the Worlds doesn’t mean everything: he has only won one race this season, the Hofstade World Cup).

For those of us not lucky enough to join 50,000 screaming Belgians trackside, thankfully the guys at Cycling.tv will be broadcasting all the action live, so we’ll soon know whether our predictions are right or … out in the weeds.

Last year’s podium: Vervecken (1st), Wellens (2nd), Mourey (3rd).

Nys has pulled-on the maillot arc-en-ciel three times; twice as under-23 champ (1997 and 1998) but only once as elite champion (2005); even if we count those under-23 wins he’s still four wins short of being best-ever, then again, his ridiculous number of wins over the rest of the cyclocross season does speak volumes – he’s nearing 155 wins at only 30 years old, and his wins in all of the major Series: World Cup, Superprestige, GVA, and Belgian Nats, are nearly innumerable.

As for being a shoe-in; last season he won more races in a single Cross season than any other rider before him, but it was big, strong Vervecken who added to his 2001 title with Nys out of the picture after a spectacular crash.

A wreck ended Nys’ hopes of back to back World Championships…the ensuing hairline fracture almost cost him his GVA and Superprestige titles as well, but he rebounded and finished the rest of the season strong.

Let’s take a look at the cross champ stats then we’ll talk about what’s going to happen on Sunday.

How About Some Cross History
The first championship was held in Paris in 1950 and it was the French who won the first nine races, with Jean Robic, Roger Rondeaux (3) and Andre Dufraisse (5). For the next seven years, Italian Renato Longo and German Rolf Wolshohl swapped the title between them.

Wolfshohl was an excellent roadman winning the Vuelta in 1965 and Paris-Nice in 1968 among his palmares, his final score would be three world cross titles plus five silvers and three bronze in a medal-winning career that lasted from 1958 until 1973 – surely one of the most consistent performers in cycling history.

Longo would end his career with five titles, his dominance eventually ended by the man who is the ‘daddy’ of all cyclo-cross riders; the erratic but brilliant Erik De Vlaeminck, who won the title on seven occasions including an unprecedented six times straight from 1968 until 1973.

Erik’s brother, Roger, ‘Monsieur Paris Roubaix’, gave the clan another two titles, taking the amateur event on the second occasion it was held in 1968, in Luxemburg, to make a family am/pro ‘double.’ Roger also won the pro title in 1975 to make it nine world championships for the two East Flandrians.

In the 80’s the mud-world was dominated by two men, Belgian perfectionist Roland Liboton with four wins and the Swiss, Albert Zwiefel with five titles. Zweifel’s record is remarkable, in the eleven years between 1975 and 1986 he only missed the podium once, taking three silver and two bronze medals to go with the five gold.

In the post-Liboton/Zweifel era there was no clear ‘capo’, Germany (Thaler and Kluge), Switzerland (Runkel and Richard, yeah, the Olympic road champ), Belgium (De Bie and Herijgers), Holland (Baars and Van Der Poel), Czechoslovakia (Simunek), Italy (Pontoni) and even France (Arnould) all entered the role of honour.

That Arnould win demonstrates that in cyclo-cross there are no ‘sure things’; big German, Mike Kluge was comfortably alone at the head of the 1993 race when his chain came off, a hard chasing Arnould couldn’t believe his luck as he sailed past the broken hearted ex-mountain biker.

Czech, Radomir Simunek is in possession of an enviable and unique stat: world champion as a junior, (1980), amateur (1983 and 1984) and professional (1991). In addition, son Radomir junior landed silvers as a junior in 2001 and an under-23 in 2005, as well as a World Cup win in 2006/2007, like father . . .

Speaking of Simunek…his son, Jr, took a World Cup round this season…on Lightweights.

The man who Simunek beat to the line in 1991 was Adri Van Der Poel; his fifth silver medal; before his career ended he would add two bronzes and one gold. Van Der Poel had a great road career with the 1986 Tour of Flanders as the jewel in the crown.

Off-road, he first stood on the pro podium in 1985 with silver behind a man on his home snow (yup, snow) around the Munich Olympic stadium: Klaus Peter Thaler. Another four silvers and a bronze later it looked like Adri would never get the jersey he wanted so badly. In 1996 however, a frozen, super-fast course at Montreuil, France saw Van Der Poel change Colnagos on the last lap, to one with cross tyres at road pressures to out-sprint Italians Pontoni and Bramati in a race run-off at a frenzied 29 kph.

The current Belgian ‘total cross’ era began in 1998 when Mario De Clercq won the first of three titles. Only Dutchman Richard Groenendaal in 2000 on home ground at Sint Michielsgestel has taken a rainbow jersey from the Belgian juggernaut since; even then he needed a bit of help from Belgian Rabobank team mate Nys, to win. Nys wasn’t ‘Belgium’s favourite’ that day when he steadfastly refused to work with his national teammate De Clercq as ‘Super-Mario’ tried to reel-in Nijs’ trade team mate Groenendaal, who went on to win. Ha, that never seems to happen at Road Worlds…does it?

The Belgian Years
To put the Belgian dominance into stats; since 1998, of the 27 elite medals available, Belgium has won 22, or 81%. The bronze medal that Francis Mourey of France won last year was the first non-Belgian elite medal since 2001.

Fidea has had quite the purple patch over the last season – U23 World Champ Zdenek Stybar, World Champ Erwin Vervecken, and now Belgian Champ Bart Wellens – it’ll be a tall order to match two World titles again this weekend.

Apart from Orangeman Groenendaal and the now-retired De Clercq (champ in 1998, 1999 and 2002) three Belgians have passed the title round in recent times: Erwin Vervecken in 2001 and 2006, Bart Wellens in 2003 and 2004 and Nijs in 2005. Whilst Nys has the consistency (and ridiculous strength, ability, and dominance to provide for such consistency) both Vervecken and Wellens are seasoned, wily competitors; despite Nys’ dominance last year it was strong-man Vervecken who hit form on Worlds day after a season that lacked sparkle when compared to Nijs’ glittering 05/06 palmares.

Bart Wellens has enjoyed a solid 06/07 campaign, highlighted by a return to the Belgian National Champ jersey.

The 2007 Belgian championship illustrated graphically that super-consistency and ‘big ride temperament’ are two different things as Bart Wellens grabbed the red, yellow and black champion’s jersey with Nijs only third.

Jered weighs in: I’m going to have to disagree with that take on Nys – true he didn’t win the Belgian Nats this year, but it was run on a course where he would always ride poorly at: one that involved a LOT of running. Nys is good in basically all conditions, usually the harder the better, but he’s not much of a runner – hence a huge advantage to Wellens. This will not be the case this weekend.

Better put a lot of money on Nys if you plan to make any money, because his odds are ridiculous: 1.50.

As for super-consistency – that’s brought about by being the most dominant rider of this generation and perhaps ever. True, he only has one elite Cross title to his credit, but is it worth looking at the rest of his palmares, which includes more wins than anyone cares to count? Let’s see: 6 Superprestige overall titles (with one to come this year), 4 Belgian National Championships, 3 GVA Overalls (plus another still to come for this season), 4 World Cup overall titles, etc etc etc ad nauseam. The man has a hard time with the World Championships, but when he wins another 2-3, which he will, there will most likely be no doubt that this is the best cross racer in history. That’s my take.

Nys’ technical skills are unmatched. Combine that with an engine the size of a 747…he goes fast.

Back to Ed: Nys is the classiest, the power of Gonchar combined with the agility and grace of Fred Astaire (Jered: I’m thinking more along the lines of Lance Armstrong in terms of power and dominance, I like the Fred Astaire part); Vervecken is the strongest, and the big danger if it freezes, but Wellens is the gutsiest and he absolutely loved being world champion.

Ed is going with the Karate Kid for Sunday.

My money is on the wiry little man from Vorselaar straightening the rainbow jersey over his Belgian skinsuit on Sunday; the other medals? To these guys, there’s only one that counts.

Jered: I’m going with Nys – I think he’s the strongest, classiest, most agile, best skilled (8 Belgian BMX Championships should go a ways in explaining that), he can do anything. Of course, it is the World Championships and Nys has shown a predilection for less than superb performances here, but now’s the time for the King – he’s the man on Sunday.

There’s More Than Just Three Riders Though
Yes, of course there’s a rather large field for Sunday’s Championship – and Wellens, Vervecken, and Nys will be only three of the many vying for the Rainbow Jersey.

After the Belgian top runners, there’s a lengthy list of outside chances, but more than likely Wellens and Nys will be on the podium, leaving only long-shots – Petr Dlask has really been coming into form of late, which is reflected in his pretty fair odds for the win. Gerben De Knegt has started doing some good rides of late as well, and is a possibility.

Mourey beat Vervecken and Nys in a straight-up sprint in a World Cup round in Italy this year. More of a surprise that he beat Vervecken, as Vervecken has a smokin sprint.

The real X-Factor seems to be the Frenchmen: Gadret and Mourey. They have a habit of really pushing the Belgians, sometimes. At the second to last World Cup in Nommay, France, Francis Mourey set a blistering, nearly ridiculous pace early on and seemed to be ready to run away with the day until he detonated and finished a dismal 13th place – still Gadret and Mourey are good picks as outsiders.

Jonathan Page cracked the top 10 at Worlds last year, could a top 5 be a possibility in 07?

Don’t forget about the American duo of Page and Trebon either – Page and Trebon have both been threatening some big results of late, culminating with 9th and 10th at last World Cup round.

Ryan Trebon won’t threaten for the win this weekend, but give him another couple of years…

Unibet Odds For The Weekend
Nys 1.50
Wellens 4.50
Vervecken 9.00
Dlask 22.00
Vanthourenhout 22.00
De Knegt 30.00
Groenendaal 30.00
Gadret 40.00
Franzoi 50.00
Simunek 75.00
What about Francis Mourey?

Check out these odds from Unibet.com for the number of Belgians in the top 3:

1 3 Belgians 2.25
2 Exactly 2 Belgians 1.90
3 Exactly 1 Belgian 8.00
4 No Belgian 50.00

Bet on some Belgians making the podium.

A real bet for the most entertaining race of the weekend? Watch the two stars of the future: Lars Boom (Holland) and Niels Albert (Belgium) duke it out in the U23 race. Boom won the Elite Dutch Championships outright a few weeks ago, and Albert won a fairly well represented Elite race a little while back – they’re the future dominators.

• Be sure to catch all the live action this weekend on Cycling.tv

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