Hoogerheide. A small town in the Netherlands, only known to most of us thanks to the race there. The scene of two of the last six world championships annd positioned one week before them this year, it has played host to Niels Albert and Zdenek Stybar both taking the rainbow jersey. It entered the World Cup eight years ago, and is a sought after race.
The course itself may not be the most exciting of the lot, but it's not the worst. It is rarely a very muddy race, but has some quite boggy sections, with ruts, and sweeping descents, where Bina and Van der Haar crashed in the worlds last year. There's also a bridge or two. It doesn't appear to have been raining this week, although (possible wintry) showers are forecast for Saturday and Sunday Last year's Worlds course was quite dry, but still caused quite a selection, with Stybar and Nys pulling away early. Stybar finished forty seconds ahead of third place, and none of the top ten arrived at the finish line accompanied by another rider.
This week, we have a very stacked field, as Van Aert and Van der Poel have signed their souls away whatever you sign to stop you from being an under-23 any longer, in time to race worlds in Tabor. Therefore, Van Aert will forfeit his under-23 world cup lead. Sven Nys will also be riding his first World Cup since finishing eighth in Milton Keynes, and the new Belgian champion Vantornout will also ride his first World Cup since finishing second in that same race. Tom Meeusen is the only notable absentee, after he was controversially taken out of the Worlds squad, but negotiations are ongoing. He is is not on the startlist.
So? Who'll Win?
As I have said, Wout Van Aert will return to the World Cup for the first time since winning Koksijde in November. He only actually rode that race as it is not in the under-23 World Cup. He won Zonnebeke last Sunday, and has lost few races since mid-December, bad fortune only finding him in the Belgian Championships, as it did in 2013. He has plenty of time to win it. Van Aert will surely be the favourite to win in Hoogerheide, he can win in a sprint on the long finishing straight or pull away on difficult sections as he did last year, to win the under-23 worlds.
Lars Van der Haar: If someone had told me that Lars Van der Haar would have won two World Cup races, finished second in another, and third in a fourth, then I would have believed you. If you, however, had continued to tell me that it would be unreasonable to think that he would win the World Cup after those results, then I would have been just a tad more sceptical. But so it has proven. Despite dominating wins in Valkenburg and Zolder, and a second place in Namur, Van der Haar finds himself eighty points behind World Cup leader Kevin Pauwels. For him to take home a second white jersey would require nothing less than a victory, with Pauwels not scoring any points at all. This is rather improbable, unless Pauwels becomes ill. Van der Haar will be racing in front of his home fans. As an aside, it will be his first televised race in his new Giant-Alpecin colours.
Kevin Pauwels: Kevin Pauwels must finish in 50th place to win the World Cup. Daunting as this sounds, I think he may just manage it, really, the only way he can avoid it is to not start the race. He will one of the favourites for the win, anyway. He was not so good in Erpe-Mere, but he would not be expected to, he is not good in ankle-deep mud.
Mathieu Van der Poel: As with Van Aert, Van der Poel can no longer ride under-23 races, so will focus his attention on the Elite. As this is the last chance before Tabor, Van der Poel will be on top of his game and ready to fight for victory on his Dad's course, in front of the Dutch fans.
Klaas Vantornout: After KVT's very impressive Belgian championships victory, we can no longer arguing that his form is on the wane, no. But still, the course at Hoogerheide will only suit the Sunweb rider when the Netherlands' yearly average amount of rainfall is unceremoniously dumped onto the course. He will not be able to drop Van Aert, Van der Haar or Pauwels on a dry course, or outsprint them.
Sven Nys: With only a week to worlds, Sven Nys' body, if it is still functioning probably, will manufacture form if it kills him. That's the simple truth. As I said before, it is a brave man who leaves Sven out of a list of favourites, and he doesn't deserve it just yet. Will the form come? It remains to be seen.
Outsiders include Corné Van Kessel, who would like to hold on to his World Cup podium, Philipp Walsleben, who would like to make up the 14-point deficit to take his second in two seasons.
As this is the last race in the World Cup, there are positions to tie up:
Kevin Pauwels wins the World Cup if he finishes 50th or higher.
Lars Van der Haar guarantees second place if he beats Van Kessel, or loses by less than 7 points, Walsleben, or loses by less than 22 points and Adams, by less than 79 points, or wins.
Van Kessel comes third by not letting Walsleben score more than fifteen points more than him, e.g. If Van Kessel is fifth, Walsleben must be 12th.
Walsleben needs to beat Van Kessel by more than fifteen points to take third.
Adams needs to win, and Van Kessel to finish no higher than 42nd, to take third.
Complicated enough?But What About the Women?
Marianne Vos: Vos will be the absolute favourite here. She is on home mud, and it is a week before the focal point of her cross season The course suits her, it is where she won her rainbow jersey last year, I doubt there's anyone who can stop her.
Perhaps the one woman who can stop her is Katerina Nash, Czech champion and Namur winner. She beat Vos on her first day out, and again in Loenhout, in possibly the toughest race all season. She has skills, but is not good at sprinting, and that will be exploited by Vos. She will, however, be at top form, waiting for her home worlds next week.
:Stars: :Stars: :Stars: :Stars:
Katie Compton: Compton has had good days and bad days in this World Cup. Valkenburg and Milton Keynes were good days. The rest...not so much. A good day here, or better, a great one, would leave her with a chance of the World Cup, but a slim one. a good day amounts to, say, third place, worth 45 points. If she finished there, Cant would only require 16, or 15th place, to make her 29-point lead unassailable, unless Van Loy beats her. A win, however, is a different story. If Compton can find a way to beat Vos, and all the rest, Can would need 31 points, or 5th place. That could be a more difficult task.
Pauline Ferrand-Prevot: PFP retained her French jersey easily enough last on the 11th, but it was undeservedly, her only win all season. She will seek to rectify this, but I just don't see her beating Vos.
Sanne Cant: Sanne Cant took back her Belgian colours in Erpe-Mere, but will wear a different jersey on Sunday. She needs 5th place to win the World Cup, which I would say would constitute a rather excellent season, along with that huge pile of wins she's carrying about the place.
Ellen Van Loy can technically win the World Cup on Sunday, she's just one point behind Compton. It's unlikely however, she was dropped by Cant in Erpe-Mere.
Keep an eye on the UCI youtube for race coverage, unless you're an American. Oh, you are? Try Sporza as usual. Enjoy the race; it's the last World Cup you'll be getting until somewhere around October.