The UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup kicks off  on Sunday in Valkenburg, the Netherlands. The famous Cauberg hill, a key factor in numerous epic cycling events, will provide the setting for the best cyclo-cross riders in the world will as they battle for an early World Cup lead.

Dutch Champion Lars van der Haar (Giant-Shimano) and US Champion Katherine Compton (Trek Factory Racing) are the defending World Cup hampions in the Elite Men and Women category. This year six World Cup rounds will be contested. New in the series is a British round in Milton Keynes, England at the end of November.

Elite Men: local athlete van der Haar among the favourites

One of the top favourites for the win in the Elite Men category on Sunday afternoon is local rider Lars van der Haar (Giant-Shimano). The young Dutch Champion is the winner of last year’s World Cup and already showed great form this season, winning in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, last weekend. Compatriots David van der Poel, Corné van Kessel and Thijs van Amerongen are all capable of claiming a top-10 result on home soil. Don’t look out for in-form Mathieu van der Poel (BKCP-Powerplus) in this race as he’s planning to ride the World Cup series in the Men Under-23 category. Another top favourite is Belgian Champion Sven Nys (Crelan-AA Drink). The Belgian veteran impressed his rivals last weekend with a long solo ride at the Bpost Bank Trophy round in Ronse, Belgium. The rest of the Belgian contingent has been less impressive in recent races although teammates Kevin Pauwels and Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Napoleon Games) are always a factor in the big races. French Champion Francis Mourey (FDJ.fr) won on home soil last weekend and aims for the podium in Valkenburg. World Champion Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma – Quick-Step) will not be racing in Valkenburg. The Czech added two cyclo-cross races on the back of his road campaign and will now take a break before coming back to defend his world title in January.

Elite Women: Katherine Compton in good form

Katherine Compton (Trek Factory Racing) will be the top favourite in the Women’s category on Sunday. Compton has already shown good form this season in the USA. Travelling has had an impact on her racing in the past but if she can deal with this she’s definitely capable of winning in Valkenburg.

World Champion Marianne Vos (Rabo Liv Women) will sit out the opener in Valkenburg. Vos and team mate Sabrina Stultiens have both opted to take a break after their road season. Vos is planning to start her cyclo-cross campaign at the end of December at the penultimate World Cup round in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium. In the absence of Vos it is Sophie de Boer (Kalas-NNOF) who spearheads the Dutch selection. Last weekend the 23-year-old rider won the opening round of the Bpost Bank Trophy cyclo-cross series in Ronse, Belgium. Another notable name on the Dutch list is Sanne van Paassen (Boels-Dolmans), winner of the 2010-2011 edition of the World Cup. The 25 year-old Dutch rider makes her comeback in the World Cup after struggling with an upper leg injury for a year. Other top riders at the start in Valkenburg will be Belgian Champion Sanne Cant (Enertherm-BKCP), British Champion Helen Wyman (Kona) and her compatriot Nikki Harris (Young Telenet-Fidea).

Men Under-23: all eyes on van der Poel 

In the Men Under 23 category and Junior Men category four World Cup rounds will be contested with Valkenburg also featuring as opening round in these categories.

Top favourite in the Men Under-23 category is Mathieu van der Poel (BKCP-Powerplus). The Dutch ace, aged just 19, already showed off his class at top level when he beat all the best at the opening round of the Superprestige series in the Elite Men category. Last season Van der Poel easily won the World Cup in this category and it seems likely he could repeat that achievement this season. His most important rivals will be Belgian riders Wout Van Aert, Michael Vanthourenhout and the brothers Sweeck.

It’s too soon to make predictions about the outcome in the Junior Men category as there are often new names coming to the fore. Belgian Champion Eli Iserbyt, and Max Gulickx (the Netherlands) are performing well. Look out also for Thomas Bonnet (France), who won on home soil last weekend.