KALMTHOUT, Belgium (VN) — With light snow falling on an already icy, snow-covered course in the woods north of Antwerp, American Katie Compton (Planet Bike) powered away from both her familiar rival Katerina Nash (Luna Pro Team) and world champion Marianne Vos (Nederland-Bloeit) to take her third World Cup win of the season on Sunday.
Vos, who made her return to World Cup competition after several months spent training in Australia preparing to defend her 2008 Olympic gold on the track, stormed back from a last-row start to take second ahead of newly crowned Czech champion Nash.
Though British champion Helen Wyman (Kona) surged to the front from the gun, the Netherlands’ Sanne Van Paassen (BrainWash) took initial control of the race, leading through the first lap ahead of Nash and Belgian champion Sanne Cant (BKCP-Powerplus). While Compton started slowly, she was within striking distance by the end of the first lap, accompanied by Germany’s Hanka Kupfernagel.
Vos, meanwhile, with essentially no race experience so far this season, was forced to start in the last row, and battle her way to the front. By the end of the first lap she was sitting in seventh, some 20 seconds behind the leaders.
Nash took control of the race during the second lap, while Compton made contact with the front group, sitting comfortably in fourth place behind Cant and Van Paassen. Vos, meanwhile, continued moving up as well, unleashing one of the fastest laps anyone would ride all day to pull within 10 seconds of the lead group.
It was near the race’s midpoint that Compton finally took charge, powering through the snow and into first, quickly opening a significant gap between her and Nash, who led the chase. While Compton pulled away, Vos was also closing, first coming around Cant and reaching the leaders just as both Nash and Van Paassen went down in a deep, slippery mud pit. Vos, one of only a few riders who handled the mud cleanly during the race, used the opportunity to take over second place.
While Compton cruised to what looked like an easy solo win, Vos stretched her lead over Nash and Van Paassen. Vos couldn’t gain time on Compton, however, and would finish 30 seconds off the lead, but several seconds ahead of Nash. Vos, who spent the first lap of the race just finding her way around most of the 47 women in the field on her way to the front, showed decisively that she remains a force despite the early season layoff.
Sue Butler (Hudz-Subaru) was the best American behind Compton, finishing 23rd, while Christine Vardaros (Baboco-Revor) 36th. Meredith Miller (California Giant) was 38th.
Fast finish, but a slow start
“Once I got to the front, I just tried to keep the pressure on, because I knew Marianne was coming up, and she was coming up fast,” Compton told VeloNews. “You can’t give her any room to catch you, because she’ll catch and attack.”
Compton, who this year has started slowly at a number of races before opening huge gaps, said Sunday’s slow start was not part of a plan, but didn’t hurt her too much either.
“I’m aware that I need to start better, but for some reason this year I’m just struggling with my starts,” she explained. “But I kind of like following at first, and then knowing when to attack because I know I how people are riding. I’ve learned to be patient. I’ve tried to force it too many times and made too many mistakes and crashed and lost time. So now if I don’t get a good start I try to relax and be patient and wait for my times to pass and attack.
Compton added that the return of Vos is likely to mean big changes at the top of the world of women’s cyclocross.
“I know she’s fast and is only going to get faster,” she said. “If you spend more time on the track you’re going to get the track legs, and I know she’s going to be fast and she’s coming up to the front row. I know today was a little bit of a head start for us, because she was on the back row. But she’ll move up fast.”
Vos is back
Vos, who finished second in her first race of the season at Scheldecross Saturday as well, told reporters she was glad to have an effort in her legs ahead of the World Cup race.
“This was only the third time I rode my ’cross bike this season. So ultimately I’m glad I started yesterday,” she said. “I was a little bit tapped out in the finale then; that didn’t happen here. Yesterday I knew already a lot of what ’cross feels like.”
Vos echoed Compton, saying that her poor starting position meant she went into the race at a disadvantage.
“Today I never really had Compton in my sights. Just as I approached her lead group she put in her attack,” she said. “After this weekend my start position will improve by several rows.”
Nash, meanwhile, said Vos got the better of her because of a bobble late in the race.
“(Marianne) caught up with us on the pavement, and going into the last lap she put in a really good effort. I actually happened to crash right behind her, and that’s how we got the little gap,” she said. “I was close, but I could never quite close the gap on her.”
“I’m not quite sure how it would work out to sprint with her either,” she added, with a laugh.
Butler still struggling
Butler, the top American finisher behind Compton, told VeloNews that she had struggled with the unusually cold weather.
“I love this race, but my body just shut down I was so cold. I just started going backwards,” she said. “I had such a good start, and I was where I wanted to be. I wore a lot of clothes, but after jetlag — I didn’t sleep well last night — I think it’s just really hard for your body to do it. I think next week it should be better after being here a week.
Butler said that she has been recovering from illness that slowed her down in the final weeks of the U.S. racing season, including at the national championship race.
“Right now, everyone else is just faster and I’m a little slower, it just wasn’t where I wanted to be today,” said the American.
Christine Vardaros, the Belgium-based American — in fact, the only American woman to contest every World Cup race this season — said she wasn’t thrilled with her results, but enjoyed the day nonetheless.
“I’ve never really been one for the ice, so I was kind of happy (despite the result),” she told VeloNews. “My power is there, but on a course like this it’s really hard to pass unless you’re Sven Nys. It looks like it’s a wide course, but it’s actually singletrack. It’s always a party on wheels, and I’m glad I got the opportunity to race here, because I hate to know there’s a party going on without me.”
Van Paassen, with a fourth-place finish, takes over the World Cup lead from Daphny Van Den Brand, who was sidelined by illness for the race. Compton, with wins in all but one World Cup race this season — she opted to sit out the second round in Plzen in October — takes over second place, five points behind Van Paassen.
Editor’s note: Dan Seaton started writing about cyclocross when he moved from New Hampshire to Belgium in 2008. He started covering European cyclocross for VeloNews in October 2010. Dan has a Ph.D. in physics and spends most of his time working as mission scientist for a spaceborne solar telescope at the Royal Observatory of Belgium. He somehow finds time to race as an amateur ‘crosser in Belgium during the fall and winter. Dan and his wife, Mindi, live in Brussels.