No rider on the starting line at the 2024 UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Tábor will attract more attention than Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and not just because he’s the defending world champion.
Van der Poel’s cyclocross season comes after an enormously successful year on the road that saw him rack up wins in Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix and the rainbow jersey at the UCI Road World Championships in Glasgow.
He’s also been almost unstoppable in cyclocross this season. He would have probably gone undefeated had he not run into a post during the Benidorm World Cup and crashed.
Van der Poel is the hot property amid a strong elite men’s field that will be missing his other ‘big three’ rivals Wout van Aert and Tom Pidcock, but includes the cream of the ‘cross crop.
Belgian champion Eli Iserbyt (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal) looks set to secure the UCI World Cup if he can hold off Joris Nieuwenhuis (Baloise Trek) in Hoogerheide this weekend and is a perennial podium contender, along with teammate Michael Vanthourenhout – the two main hopes for Belgium.
At Worlds, Nieuwenhuis and teammates Pim Ronhaar and Lars van der Haar will likely not be challenging their compatriot Van der Poel but, if he runs into a pole again, they’ll most certainly be strong back-up contenders.
Ronhaar was the only rider to hang with Van der Poel (for a while) at the X2O race in Koksijde and won the World Cup in Ireland, was second in Namur and third in Flamanville.
British champion Cameron Mason is the big outside hopeful who could profit from the team tactics between Belgium and the Netherlands. Mason has taken a huge leap forward this year, scoring podiums in the European championships and five other races.
With Van der Poel storming away to solo victories in many of the races this season, more excitement has been found in the women’s contests. While she’s had some ups and downs, Fem van Empel (Visma-Lease a Bike) is the main favourite as defending champion and the dominant rider this year with 17 wins.
Her most recent challenges have come from Puck Pieterse (Alpecin-Deceuninck), the runner-up to Van Empel last year. The winner in Tábor will undoubtedly come from within the Dutch team which is so packed with talent, they don’t have to worry about using team tactics.
Expect an inter-team battle between Van Empel, Pieterse and Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado (Alpecin-Deceuninck), who have been consistently at the top in the absence of Shirin van Anrooij.
Dutch champion Lucinda Brand (Baloise Trek) has had to overcome a lot of bad luck including a broken nose from a crash in Zonhoven but is the fourth major prospect for the rainbow jersey after a season of consistent podiums.
Unless outsiders like Canadians Maghalie Rochette and Isabella Holmgren, Italy’s Sara Casasola or Belgian Laura Verdonschot can pull off a surprise, the podium is likely to be a Dutch sweep as it has been for three of the past four years.
Of the under-23 women, Czech rider Kristyna Zemanova is the host country’s best candidate for a medal after a solid season racing in the elites including a fourth at the World Cup in Val di Sole, fifth in Zonhoven and sixth in Dendermonde, as well as the bronze medal in Hoogerheide at last year’s Worlds.
The espoir (Under-23) women don’t get too many chances to have separate races, but without having to fight through elite-sized race traffic, Britain’s Zoe Backstedt is the clear favourite, having won the under-23 European title in Pontchàteau and finished second at Worlds last year to Shirin van Anrooij.
Luxembourg champion Marie Schreiber (SD Worx) has been another consistent performer this season with an elite podium finish in Flamanville, the same for Dutch rider Leonie Bentveld (Pauwels Sauzen-Bingoal), while last year’s junior world champion Isabella Holmgren (Canada) can never be discounted.
World Cup leader Tibor Del Grosso appears to be the top contender in the espoir men’s field, although Belgians Emiel Verstrynge, Jente Michels and Ward Huybs are equally talented.
Del Grosso finished a close second behind last year’s under-23 winner Thibau Nys, who has since started racing as an elite although he is only 21.
Verstrynge got the better of both Del Grosso and his Belgian teammates in Benidorm and looks to be the top favourite.
Dutch rider David Haverdings, leader of the X2O Trophy, and 2023 junior world champion Frenchman Léo Bisiaux are other podium prospects.
Andrew Strohmeyer showed in the American races this season that he is well-suited to a fast course, and a top 10 in the under-23 race in Benidorm was a good indicator of his current form.
World Cup leader Célia Gery (France) and Briton Cat Ferguson have been the top junior women this year, but keep an eye on American Vida Lopez de San Roman, winner of the Vestingcross in Hulst, and Slovakian Viktória Chladonová, runner-up in the Benidorm and Namur World Cups.
French rider Aubin Sparfel, with three World Cup wins, is the hot favourite for the junior men’s race. He’s gone head-to-head with Italian Stefano Viezzi for most of the season, with Keije Solen (Netherlands) a close second in Benidorm.
Keep an eye on Belgian champion Arthur Van Den Boer, US champion David Thompson (USA) and Czech hopeful Krystof Bazant.