Updated: 7:49 pm (MST), Sunday, January 15, 2012
Two world champions, two world cup wins
LIÉVIN, France (VN) – After spending the holidays in Belgium — with races in Namur and Zolder — the UCI World Cup packed its bags and headed about an hour south to this old industrial village in northern France for its penultimate round. The unrelenting clouds and rain, which for weeks have kept pit crews busy and riders caked in mud, fled the area as well, bringing sun and cold to this part of Western Europe, and leaving the rolling course here semi-frozen, fast and very slick.
The change in conditions dictated a change in race strategy, meaning the combination of power and handling that has decided so many cyclocross races in recent weeks gave way to pure speed. And the change resulted in a treat for the fans; four races packed with both tactical battles and dramatic breakaways.
Dutchmen Van Der Poel & Van Der Haar Claim Early Races
The day’s early races — the third round of the World Cup for both Juniors and Under-23 racers — were frosty, high speed affairs. In the Junior’s race, World Cup leader Mathieu Van Der Poel (Boxx Veldritacademie) wasted little time in showing off his form, opening a substantial gap on the first lap from which he never looked back. He stretched his lead to nearly 45 seconds before sitting up late in the race, turning his final tour of the course into an early victory lap.
In the U23 race, World Champion Lars Van Der Haar (Rabobank) overcame a disastrous first lap — one that saw him in nearly 30th place at one point — to take a convincing 13 second victory over Julian Alaphilippe. The Dutch and World Champion Van Der Haar made his way through traffic by the end of the second lap and broke free of the other leaders about midway through the nine lap race.
Newly crowned U23 American champion Zach McDonald (Rapha-Focus), the only American in the race, found himself caught in the crowd field nearly straight off the line, but managed to claw his way up to a 18th place finish by the end of his day.
More Dutch Domination in the Women’s Race
When World Champion Marianne Vos (Nederland-Bloeit) and World Cup Leader Daphny Van Den Brand (AA Drink/Leontien.nl) powered away from the rest of the field in the first couple of minutes of the women’s race, it looked like it might be more of the same. But the sun-warmed course was melting, leaving a slick film of mud on top of the otherwise firm ground, and the changing conditions meant one thing: crashes.
American Katie Compton (Rabobank) was the first of the favorites to hit the deck, falling hard in a right hand turn just as she connected with the lead chase group after a very slow start. In the time it took her to collect herself, the newly re-crowned American champion lost perhaps 15 places and 30 seconds. She would be forced to restart the same chase she had nearly completed only moments before.
But a lap later — just as Vos and Van Den Brand’s lead began to look insurmountable — both went down in the same corner that caught Compton just minutes earlier. Van Den Brand was rolling again quickly, but Vos at first appeared hurt. She limped visibly and groaned with pain as she pushed her bike up the first big climb of the third lap.
For a moment it looked like she might be forced to abandon, leaving Van Den Brand free to take her second World Cup win of the season and secure the overall lead. But by half way through the lap Vos had regained her rhythm and by the end of the lap the two were together again.
Meanwhile, behind them, Compton was slowly making her way back in to the race as well, first catching her protégé — and new American U23 champion — Kaitie Antonneau (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com), then finally reconnecting with the lead chasers, Helen Wyman (Kona) and Caroline Mani. But the American remained with them for only a lap before striking out on her own with two to go, securing third place just as Vos was surging off the front again to lock in her third straight World Cup win and the Netherlands’ third victory of the day.
Antonneau, who found herself somewhat isolated for much of the day, nonetheless powered her way to a 16th place finish, while countrywoman Christine Vardaros (Baboco Cycling) finished 26th.
“I can’t blame my race on the bike. I just didn’t get off the line fast enough — well, I went fast, but backwards instead of forwards,” joked Compton in a post-race press conference. “And then I crashed at the start of the second lap. I just hit that line too fast and then slid out, and then I had to get into the right gear and straighten the bars, and run up the hill, and by that time, everybody had passed me. At least it was a good training day. I went as hard as I could and tried to be smooth after the crash and the bad start. I did what I could but it was really hard today. I’m actually pretty happy with today considering all that.”
Vos meanwhile, said that though her crash may have looked more serious than it turned out to be, the pain immediately after the fall almost cost her a chance at the lead.
“I crashed in a corner in a descent, and took Daphny with me, so we were both down,” Vos told reporters. “I had some trouble getting on my bike again, so Daphny got into the lead and the chase group caught me. I was in pain, so it took some time to get into my rhythm again, but after half a lap it was ok.”
Duels between Vos and Van Den Brand at the head of the race have been more or less the story of the past month, since Vos returned to cyclocross after an extended training block earlier in the season. And, together with Compton, they form a group of clear favorites for the World Championships in two weeks. But the American has been hampered by bad luck and bad form, so the three have had very few opportunities to really test one another ahead of the the big race.
Nonetheless, they were fully confident, and wouldn’t worry about where the other two were racing for the moment. Compton, for her part, said she was focusing on her own racing and technique right now.
“The race starts at the start line,” said Compton, “so it’s my own fault for not getting up to the other two. But hopefully by Worlds I’ll have that part figured out. I don’t know, I have to figure out the first part of the race to have a shot at the end of it.”
Vos, meanwhile, said she was confident, but will certainly watch out for both Van Den Brand and Compton in the coming weeks.
“We all know how strong Katie is, but in two weeks it will be a different race. It’s sandy, it’s the Worlds, and it’s always really special. Of course we are the three big favorites, but we all have to do it on that day. We saw last year how good Katie is in the sand, and that’s really different than today’s race, so we’ll just see.”
Meanwhile, the twenty year old Antonneau, whose European results this season have said she was happy just to continue to progress in tough international competition after her second place finish at American nationals one week ago.
“I’m finishing consistently in the top twenty (in World Cups) now, and I’m happy with that,” she said. “Last year I was in the thirties, so I’m improving. But that was a really hard course with no room to rest at all.”
Pauwels’ Late Fall Helps Stybar Snap a Streak
By the time the men hit the course the thaw had progressed even further, leaving the course coated in mud that was alternately slick and tacky. And again a fast, tactical race would be punctuated by decisive crashes. And again the race would come down to a battle between World Cup Leader and World Champion — Belgian Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor) and Czech Zdenek Stybar (Omega-Pharma-Quickstep).
The pair emerged at the front of the race during the third lap, blasting out of a group of more than a dozen riders with the help of Stybar’s countryman Radomir Simunek (BKCP-Powerplus). The three worked together to stretch a lead of nearly a minute until Simunek began to come off the pace with four to go, leaving the two men brilliant white skinsuits of the World Cup and World Champion to battle between themselves.
Meanwhile, tactics seemed to derail any hope of a successful chase behind in the group them, where the responsibility for leading the attack fell largely on Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet), who himself had just powered his way back from a very slow start just to reach the group. A mishap on the stairs between American Jonathan Page (Planet Bike) and another rider dropped both of them out of the case group. Others simply couldn’t maintain the fast pace. Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) lost contact with four to go; his teammate Dieter Vanthourenhout faded in the final lap.
In front, Pauwels and Stybar continued together, frequently riding side-by-side ahead of the bigger battles behind them. But as the two approached the stairs on the final lap, something went wrong for the Belgian, carrying too much speed he failed to dismount cleanly, stumbled and fell hard. He was only down for a moment, but the mistake cost him dearly. With a glance back to see he was well clear of his fallen rival, Stybar had time to roll across the line, step off his bike — painted a dramatic shade of pink — and mug for the cameras briefly, reveling in his first win in international competition in two months. Simunek rolled across the line in third, while Nys managed to fend off Frenchman Francis Mourey (FDJ-Big Mat) to claim fourth.
While the two man duel unfolded in the front, American fans were treated to something of a replay of last week’s championship race. After Page’s encounter on the stairs knocked him from the lead group, he managed reconnect with a group that included last week’s winner, Jeremy Powers (Rapha-Focus); and the pair were soon joined by a hard charging Ryan Trebon (LTS/Felt), rebounding from a horrible start. Racing, this time, for thirteenth place, the three again traded pulls and attacks — albeit interspersed with a more diverse cast of characters including Belgium’s Bart Aernouts, Poland’s Mariusz Gil, and close to ten others.
Trebon, already tired from his efforts to reconnect with the race, and faded from the group with a couple of laps to go after taking perhaps one too many turns on the front. He would finish 22nd. Powers, meanwhile, managed to grab hold of a last-minute attack by Gil and connect with a fading Niels Albert just ahead of the finish line, winding up 14th. Page, who was trapped in the group when Powers went clear, rolled across the line 17th.
American Jamey Driscoll (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com)finished 30th, while his teammate Tim Johnson abandoned after a hard fall early on. Canadian Craig Richey (Renner, the only other North American to finish the race, was 51st.
Afterwards, Stybar — whose antics on the finish line betrayed just how happy he was to finally win a race — was circumspect in his comments to reporters.
“I really came down here to France for the training,” said Stybar, whose two months without a win had clearly started to worry him. “I wasn’t totally focused today, and I even got to the start line a little late. But I won anyway. Now the important thing is to just keep getting better and better. My national title gave me some confidence; I have two weeks to try to peak for the World Championships.”
Instead, it was Simunek, who has rarely seen the podium in recent years, who seemed to be the most excited.
“I am really happy to be on the podium,” he told reporters. “It’s been a really long time since I did that in such a big race, and I’ve never been in the front like that. Stybar and Pauwels were just a little too strong for me. Stybar seemed the strongest of the two; when he was on the front I was really suffering.”
The top American finisher, Powers, said a week celebrating his first national championship left him with some doubts about today’s race, but he was nonetheless satisfied.
“It’s not a bad result after a week of celebrating,” he told VeloNews.com. “Sunday night I didn’t get any sleep, Monday no sleep, Tuesday I flew here. So Wednesday and Thursday I had a sore throat and felt kind of like crap. I wasn’t even sure if I could race. But yesterday and today I probably focused as much as I’ve ever focused, because I really want to do the jersey proud and do the best I can. So I did as much as I could yesterday trying to get ready, and get a good result today. If you wear the jersey, when you come here, you want to try to be the best you can be.”
Page, who spent much of the day in the same group as Powers after falling out of contention for a top ten after another rider tangled with him on the stairs, said he too felt like he was finding his best form just in time for Worlds.
“It seemed like I had made the lead split. I was just hanging on, but eventually it would slow down for a minute and I could catch my breath,” he said, “and then all I’d have to do is follow through, but of course something had to happen. But I did get back, and I didn’t really feel that great today either, I had some heavy legs, so I know I can still be better.”
Fellow New Englander Jamey Driscoll, who also made the trip to Europe from Madison last weekend, said he was still feeling the effects of the travel, but the course was so hard that it didn’t matter so much.
“These uphills are brutal,” he said. “Just out of the saddle, gutwrenching, every single time. And I think there are probably five of those kind of efforts each lap, and you have to be full gas, every single time. We did more than ten laps, so that’s fifty all out efforts in the race. So I’m ok with my result. We had some trouble coming over here, getting our equipment here, getting here Friday and just having two nights over here before, it was a tough call. But it’s not like when you flew over here was going to matter that much; the course was just so hard.”