DEFENDING champion Mathieu van der Poel starts as favourite for the Elite men's World Championship race on Sunday afternoon.

Organisers announced that they had already pre-sold 46,000 tickets on Thursday and with many more expected to pay to see the biggest races of the season over the weekend the atmosphere will be fantastic.

The course and conditions

The often fast Zolder course was dry for practice on Friday but with heavy rain throughout Saturday and more expected on Sunday conditions are getting heavier and more technical. Several riders came out yesterday saying that the heavier conditions will suit them including Sven Nys and defending champion Mathieu van der Poel.

"Normally I'm not too happy with rain, but the track is much more technical. And I'm really pleased by that," Van der Poel said in a TV interview.

Sven Nys was quoted as saying that "Van der Poel's only opponent is himself", but that of course does not mean that the Belgian team will unite (to a degree) to give the young Dutchman a tough battle. The Worlds is a race where team tactics can come into play and with muddier conditions Van der Poel may well rule out the early solo attack option which he's used to good effect recently. This could leave the way open for a Belgian like Michael Vanthourenhout, Laurens Sweeck, Nys or Pauwels to attack early or even Van der Poel's compatriot Lars van der Haar.

Lars Boom - seen training here on Friday - is one of three riders in the race who have won the World title (Photo: Kike Abelleira).

Belgians Michael Vanthourenhout and Kevin Pauwels have the added incentive of a €37,500 bonus from their Marlux-Napoleon Games team should they win the world title. The biggest shock would be if 2008 World champion Lars Boom (above) could feature at the front of the race or perhaps play his part in a Dutch victory. Boom must attempt to fight his way up from the eighth, and very back, row of the grid of 61 riders.

It's hard to see the medals not being shared by Belgium and The Netherlands and it is not out of the question that the Elite men's podium will be an exact repeat of twelve months ago in Tabor: Van der Poel; Van Aert; and Van der Haar.

Live feeds

Sunday: Under-23 Men starting at 10.00 UTC/GMT

Sunday: Elite Men starting at 14.00 UTC/GMT

Studio Brussels' Linde Merckpoel explores the Zolder course with Thibau Nys the teenage son of Sven.