The course is set, the riders are in town, the tap lines are connected, so let's take a look at who might land on the podium tomorrow in St Wendel, Germany for Cyclo-cross' Super Bowl.
The race time forecast for start of the Elite Womens race is for sunny skies and about -3C and is expected start dropping about the time the Elite Men hit the podium. The photos coming back from the course look downright scary. Deep frozen ruts ('Fruts' coined by @20poundskull) and difficult no-traction off cambers that have been throwing the juniors/U-23 riders into the fences combined with foot hanging descents ensure that this course is tough enough to determine a champion.
Photo: © ispaphoto.com
If the course melts, it certainly favors Sven Nys, one of several Belgians that could hit the top step. He won his only rainbow jersey in St Wendel in 2005 and would love some muddy conditions that he thrives in. He hasn't had the dominating season that we have come to take for granted, but after last weeks confirmation in the Netherland round of the World Cup, he has shown that he is ready to be there at the end. He'll need luck on his side and some performance improvements from his pits to be free from mechanicals, something Nys hasn't always enjoyed this year.
I don't know if the dark horse moniker can be applied to a rider, when they lie third in the UCI standings, but I'm assigning it to Kevin Pauwels. The Belgian hasn't won a lot of races this year, but he is the measure of consistency this year. The 'Quiet One' has been on the podium a number of times this and riding strong at the right time of the year with his World Cup win in Pont-Château, France two weeks ago, and second last week in Hoogerheide.
The man who won the Hoogerheide round, Niels Albert, should probably be considered the favorite. However, if conditions get too rough, don't count on the 'delicate flower' to be there at the end. He handles the pressure of big races well, as evidenced by his rainbow and recently obtained Belgian National stipes, but he's to much of a dandy for my tastes.
My sentimental favorite and third Belgian on my list is Bart Wellens. The 'working mans' crosser knows what it take to win the big one and has shown some flashes of strength late in the season. My eyes will be watching for him in the Belgian train in the early laps.
Eventhough he started out like Daniele Pontoni last week in Hoogerheide, Zdenek Stybar faded late in the race which may have been a sign that he is missing too much strength due to his mid-season injury to defend his Rainbow stripes. Don't count him out though.
The American Men
Tim Johnson will be in the top ten and might even be a threat to an all Belgian podium. He is riding well, loves cold tough conditions and is mentally ready for a good showing. The only remaining question is whether or not the likeable rider from Massachusetts will choose to wear gloves in the cold St Wendel race.
Former World silver medalist, Johnathan Page, is expecting a baby ANY minute now, but whether that proves to be a distraction or a boost in motivation remains to be seen. A mid-season ruptured ankle tendon put a ditch in the lead-up to Worlds, but has described his current fitness on Twitter as 'the best form in my life' Page will have to avoid his seemingly endless bad luck and poor positioning to finish in the top five.
If you don't put your money on American Katie Compton to win, you're probably not a betting man anyway. She absolutely slayed the other women in the field in last week's World Cup. She's focused ready to claim her first Rainbow jersey. She's been free of health problems that have hampered her efforts in the past and seems at ease with the expectations placed on her.
Katie will have some riders with her though. Including three-time World Champ Marianne Vos. You might see the affable Vos try and hang with Compton to force a late struggle for the line, but is certainly capable of riding away from everyone.
If Vos needs some help to gang up on Compton, she might want to recruit is Germany's Hanka Kupfernagel or country mate Sanne van Paasse.
My dark horse is Katerina Nash. Finishing fourth last week Nash is a smart rider who could take advantage of any 'watching' that might take place with the favorites.
Waffles in one hand and mouse in the other, the women take off at 6am EST with the Men launching at 9am via live internet feeds. Check for my tweet @mudnwaffles for the link, once I confirm that I've found a reliable one. Probably Channel 7 or 3.