Cyclocross World Championships 2022: Course, predictions and contenders

The town of Fayetteville in Arkansas will welcome some of the biggest talent in CX at the end of this month to fight for those rainbow bands

While most road rider’s race bikes have been hibernating in Europe for the past couple of months, the same can’t be said for those cyclo-cross steeds. Week in week out, ‘cross riders have been putting them to use all over the continent, accumulating World Cup points and very muddy skinsuits, all in preparation for the big event: the World Championships in Arkansas on the 29th and 30th of January.

We can expect tight battles in every category, especially without the pre-race favourites of Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert taking to the start in the men’s event. In the women’s race, reigning World Champion Lucinda Brand is the front runner, but with Marianne Vos beating her at the Dutch Championships recently, has Brand peaked too soon this year? Either way, it’s going to be a weekend of fascinating racing. 

The course

The 2022 Cyclo-cross World Championships will be held at Centennial Park in Fayetteville on a 2-mile course that sits atop the Millsap Mountain. It’s a venue which has been purpose-built for cyclo-cross racing, a relatively rare occurrence in the sport where most races are held in fields or parks that have had fencing and obstacles added to them temporarily for the upcoming event. 

A tarmac straight begins the lap and we can expect to see a furious start here as positioning will be crucial heading into first the sharp turn. A grassy descent follows on a relatively wide stretch of road – if conditions are dry, the riders could reach high speeds of over 40km/h. Arguably the most physically demanding section of the course follows: a steep uphill which has gradients reaching 17%. The 2022 World Cyclo-cross Championships course map (Credit: UCI/Fayetteville Flyer)

More technical areas of the lap follow, with two off-camber sections, a small tunnel and a winding run through a section of woods. A small area of rocks will likely require competitors to dismount and run with the bike. Riders will stay on foot as they hit a long staircase which will really test the legs in the latter stages of the race. After taking on a 21% descent from the top of the stairs, they'll go through the pits for a second time before taking on a section of corkscrew berms to finish the lap.

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How the race plays out is going to be largely dependent on the weather on the day. Should the conditions be dry, the course likens itself to a road crit, and we can expect high average speeds that might better suit younger riders with fast-twitch muscle fibres. Line choices will be important around corners, and riders will be pushing the limit of how fast they can get through the technical sections while staying upright. 

If the conditions are wet, however, the course will suit an entirely different type of athlete. The grass sections could get slippery and slow if the heavens open, making them the favoured terrain for a high power rider with a big endurance base. Bike changes will be crucial if the conditions are muddy, and mechanics will likely be making adjustments to kit and tyre choices accordingly. A strong wind will also make the wider, more exposed sections of the course especially challenging. 

Contenders - Men’s event

The biggest news surrounding the 2022 World Cyclo-cross Championships so far has been the absence of both Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel on the start list, the two pre-race favourites. Defending champion Van der Poel is suffering with a recurring back injury and announced he would not be travelling to America after not finishing the Heusden-Zolder World Cup round at the end of December. 

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Jumbo-Visma rider Van Aert argued that attending the World Championships would hinder preparation for his spring Classics campaign which will begin at the start of March.Tom Pidcock at the X20 Trofee in Herentals (Image: CorVos/SWpix)

Though the non-attendance of these two riders will change the dynamic of the race and potentially create a slightly weaker field, it could make the event a better watch for spectators. There are more riders who could go for the win, which could lead to a tighter run race and some exciting battles for the rainbow jersey. 

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In the absence of Van Aert and Van der Poel, British rider Tom Pidcock starts as the bookie’s favourite to win. At just 22-years-old, Pidcock will be well suited to the repeated accelerations and his background on the road, specifically in the criterium scene, could be an asset to him if the race is dry. Speaking on the Rouleur Podcast, ex-’cross riders and experts, Helen Wyman and Ian Field, also tipped Pidcock as the rider to watch, especially if the course isn’t too muddy.Should it be wet, however, Wyman named Belgian rider Toon Aerts to be the biggest obstacle on the course for the Brit as he looks to take the victory. A rider who excels in the mud and rarely finishes outside the top 5 in the World Cup scene, Aerts is experienced and reliable, and will be gunning for his first ever rainbow bands. Michael Vanthourenhout is also someone we could likely see on the podium; he beat Pidcock at the Namur World Cup round only a few weeks ago, and his most recent podium finish at the UCI World Cup in Flamanville is also a good indicator that he is coming into form.

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Winner in Flamanville, Eli Iserbyt, is also a contender for the overall win, as is Dutch rider Lars van der Haar.

Contenders - Women’s event

It’s also set to be a tight run race in the elite women’s event. Defending World Champion Lucinda Brand looks to be on track to defend her stripes with an extremely strong ‘cross campaign this season, winning six World Cup rounds so far.Lucinda Brand and Denise Betsema at the World Championships 2021 (Alex Whitehead/SWpix)

One of the few riders who has got the better of Brand, however, is her compatriot and 7-time World Champion Marianne Vos. The more experienced rider won the 2022 Dutch National CX Championships and has taken three World Cup rounds ahead of Brand this season, proving she could pose a threat and her form is peaking perfectly in time for the World Championships. Third place finisher in the Dutch National Championships, Ceylin Del Carmen Alvarado, has also shown a steady return to her best this year and could definitely be on track for a podium finish.

Related: Marianne Vos interview

Marianne Vos at the Val di Sole World Cup (Giacomo Podetti/Val di Sole/via SWpix)

Spurred on by a home crowd, Clara Honsinger will be, in the words of Helen Wyman, “hunting for the win.” The American rider finished third at the World Cup in Fayetteville earlier in the season so is clearly comfortable on this course. Wyman also noted that Canadian rider Maghalie Rochette is a dark horse, the 28-year-old has had an impressive European campaign, notably finishing on the podium at both the Vale di Sole and Besancon World Cup rounds. The likes of Yara Kastelijn and Inge van der Heijden will also all be fighting for a spot on that elusive podium.Clara Honsinger (Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)

Other events

U23 Women - With many of those who will be contending for the rainbow stripes in the U23 women’s category also showing themselves as able to win the elite women’s events throughout the season, this is likely to be one of the most hard-fought races of the championships. The Dutch pairing of Fem van Empel and Puck Pieterse have proved to be neck and neck throughout this season, shown in their enthralling battle for the win at the Flamanville World Cup. They are likely to take up the first two steps of the podium in the U23 women’s event. Shirin van Anrooij could likely make up the top three. 

Related: Gallery: Cyclo-cross World Championships 2021

U23 Men - Though ‘cross expert Helen Wyman admitted on the Rouleur Podcast that she’s hoping for a British winner in Cameron Mason in this category, defending World Champion Pim Ronhaar is the bookie’s favourite. The Dutch rider has been performing well regularly this season, although he hasn’t been dominant. Thibau Nys could challenge both Rohaar and Mason too, making the U23 men's event a race that's difficult to predict.Zoe Backstedt at the World Cup in Tabor (Image: CorVos/SWPix)

Junior Women - British rider Zoe Backstedt starts as the big favourite to take the win in the junior women’s event. The European Champion has won every junior women’s race she’s entered so far this season, as well as putting in some impressive performances among the elites. However, Backstedt was forced to miss the British Cyclo-cross Championships due to contracting Covid-19, and how well she has recovered is not yet known. Should she not be on top form, and Dutch junior World Cup winner Leonie Bentveld will be hot on her heels.

Junior Men - David Haverdings has won 15 out of the 18 events he’s competed in this season, so it’s going to be a big ask for anyone to knock him off the top step of the podium at the World Championships. The Dutch rider was beaten only by Aaron Dockx at the European Championships this year, who will be representing Belgium in Fayetteville in a weeks’ time. British rider Nathan Smith also has a good shot at a top three finish. 

Where to watch the Cyclo-cross World Championships:

The Cyclo-cross World Championships will be shown on Eurosport/GCN. The junior men’s, U23 men’s and elite women’s race will be on 29th January 2022, while the junior women’s, U23 women’s and elite men’s race will take place on the 30th January 2022.

Cover image: CorVos/SWpix