Editor’s note: Dan Seaton, an American who lives and works in Belgium, has covered the European cyclocross season for VeloNews.com. We published his preview of the men’s world championship race Tuesday. Please check in this weekend for full coverage of the worlds.
BRUSSELS, Belgium (VN) —There are plenty of ways to lead off a preview of America’s chances in Sunday’s cyclocross world championship race in Saint Wendel, Germany.
We could point out that American women have repeatedly proven themselves capable of matching the best cyclocross racers in the world this season. We could count the huge number of top-10 finishes American women have recorded in European competition in recent years. We could talk about how difficult a task the selection committee must have faced in picking just five riders to go to the championship race, leaving behind Laura Van Gilder, who topped the UCI’s world rankings early in the season, Maureen Bruno Roy, who claimed a series of top-10 finishes during Europe’s busy Christmas racing season, and a host of other talented racers fully capable of top finishes in world class races.
We could start with any of those points, but let’s cut straight to the heart of the matter: in two-time worlds medalist Katie Compton, the United States appears to have its best ever chance to win an elite world cyclocross title this year.
The 32-year-old Colorado-based rider did not just win five World Cup races and her seventh straight US national title this year, she repeatedly obliterated the best racers in the world in a campaign that included a two-and-a-half minute victory over former world champion Daphny Van Den Brand in the dunes of Koksijde during the World Cup’s third round in November.
With a new treatment program for low thyroid function apparently working, and a carefully plotted training and travel schedule that seems to have prevented the mysterious leg cramps that have derailed her in more than one past season, all signs point to success in Germany. It is a dramatic turnaround from the final weeks before worlds in 2010, when, unable to ride because of leg cramps, Compton watched World Cups in Roubaix and Hoogerheide from the sidelines and was forced to withdraw from the championship race after only ten minutes of riding.
This year, a smiling, confident Compton told VeloNews after her race in Hoogerheide that her victory came in spite of not yet having top form.
“I was a little bit off in Hoogerheide” she said. “I think I kind of had to get rid of some cobwebs. I was coming off of a recovery week, and that first effort is always hard.”
Compton said she heads to Germany feeling as confident as she ever has, but nonetheless expects a tough race. Defending champion Marianne Vos and four-time champion Hanka Kupfernagel, who won a world title in Saint Wendel six years ago and will have the overwhelming support of the German fans, both figure to be strong rivals for the American.
“I always come to these races feeling good and feeling confident,” said Compton. “But everybody brings their A-game to worlds, and it’s always a different race. So I’m confident, but I also know that there are three or four other girls who will be riding fast next weekend, so I just have to come in and do the best I can and have a smart race and hopefully that’s enough. Marianne is going to be coming around and the same with Hanka. Hanka had a great day (in Hoogerheide). She’s riding well and she wants to do well; it’s her home country and she’s won there before, and I know she’s going to be gunning for it. It’s going to be a tough one and an exciting race.”
While Compton may be the overwhelming favorite going into Sunday’s race, her teammates, veterans Meredith Miller, Amy Dombroski, Sue Butler and rising star Kaitlin Antonneau have equally good chances for top finishes, and have to be considered as at least outside threats for medals.
Miller and Dombroski both finished just outside the top ten in last year’s race in Tábor, and Butler, who didn’t race at last year’s Worlds, took 17th in the 2009 race in Hoogerheide. Only Antonneau is new to international cyclocross: last week’s World Cup race was her first outside of the United States.
“I’ve done road races in Europe before, so I kind of know how it feels to race in a different place,” said the 19-year-old Antonneau after Sunday’s race. “But I’d never raced in (these heavy conditions) before, it was different. I liked it, but it was hard.”
Antonneau, who balances her racing for the Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com team with first year studies at Marian University, had a breakout season in 2009, scoring both a silver medal in the U.S. junior national championships and a 12th place in the elite race. She followed those up with a tenth place finish in this year, and made the Worlds team based on her huge potential for future results as she continues to develop.
She told VeloNews that Hoogerheide had served as a good opportunity to work through her nerves about racing among the world’s best. “I’m excited about worlds,” she said, “but I’m glad I got to do a race before next weekend.”
With racing advice from both coach Katie Compton and three teammates with decades of combined experience racing on the international scene, Antonneau certainly seems to be headed in the right direction. Look for her to improve on her 31st place finish in Hoogerheide this weekend.
Miller, meanwhile, has plenty of international experience, but not all of it has been positive. The 37-year-old former national champion on the road had a disappointing post-nationals trip to Europe, with a 38th place finish in a snowy Kalmthout World Cup, and a DNF following a scary near-crash on the icy Formula 1 track in Zolder.
But she seems to be back on a rising trajectory again following a 12th place finish in Hoogerheide.
“Today definitely helped my head,” she told VeloNews after the race. “After last trip around I was hurting pretty bad mentally, but I got home, recovered, rejuvenated, and watched some ’cross races on TV. I’m ready to go back and get some revenge.”
Dombroski, who has posted the best European results of any American woman other than Compton this season, said she improved her late season form by racing less and focusing more on recovery this year. Though she was disappointed with an 18th place finish in Hoogerheide, she said she expects to be able to improve on that considerably in Saint Wendel.
“I’m excited,” said the 23-year-old Vermont native. “I’m definitely a lot more motivated this year than I was last year, and more excited to race this year. I was kind of feeling burnt out at this point last year. So I’m looking forward to next weekend.”
With top-10 finishes earlier this month in Pétange, Luxembourg, and Tervuren, she’s proven she is capable of matching up well with Europe’s best. And with conditions in Sankt Wendel expected to be cold, with a muddy—and quite possibly snow-covered—course not unlike those earlier races, a top ten finish is well within her reach.
Rounding out the group is 39-year-old Sue Butler, the oldest member of the team and the top ranked American behind Compton heading into her third world championships. Butler nabbed a 14th place in the second round of this year’s World Cup in Plzen in the Czech Republic, along with two other top-twenty World Cup finishes.
Butler struggled on the long running stretches in Hoogerheide, and attributed her disappointing result to the toll the long trip from her home in Oregon to Europe took on her body.
“The jetlag kind of throws off your biorhythms a little bit,” she said. “(Portland cyclocross stalwart) Erik Tonkin and I were training last week, and he told me, ‘You know, Sue, if you have a bad race in Hoogerheide just blow it off. It doesn’t mean anything. Two days off the plane it’s just a good opener, a good training race.’ So I’m still setting my sites high for next week and hope I have the race of my season.”
Butler, of course, is hardly alone in her sentiments, and, more importantly, not at all unrealistic. All season American women have been producing great results; with ten riders in the top 40 in the world, the US leads all countries in the number of top ranked UCI ’crossers. Should things come together for the American women, it’s entirely possible they could walk away with a good fraction of the day’s top ten results.
But, no matter what the American women do, all eyes will be on the surging Katie Compton as she continues her quest for that elusive rainbow jersey. If her past few races are any indication, this could be her year.
Women’s racing kicks off Sunday at 11 o’clock local time. VeloNews’ senior online editor, Charles Pelkey, will be reporting from the scene, and photographer Graham Watson will be providing photos.