Editor’s note: Dan Seaton has been literally crawling through the Belgian mud covering European cyclocross since 2008. Each week this season he’ll look ahead to the weekend’s races and answer your questions about ’cross on the other side of the Atlantic. Got a question for your favorite Euro star? Want to know the inside story about the legendary Flemish fields? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
BRUSSELS, Belgium (VN) — The first weekend of December sees two very different events on offer for European ’cross fans. On Saturday we have the always entertaining — if not particularly serious — charity race, Boonen and Friends. Held on the sandy beach and wooded surroundings of a small lake in Boonen’s hometown of Mol, in northeast Belgium, the event will mark the start of two-time cyclocross world champion Zdenek Stybar’s abbreviated season. But, rather than his traditional rivals, Stybar will find himself matched up against his Omega Pharma-Quick Step teammate Tom Boonen, Tour de France points winner Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale), 2011 Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Sharp) and 2011 Tour of Flanders winner Nick Nuyens (Saxo-Tinkoff) among a host of other racers much better known for their exploits on the road than in the fields.
The obvious favorite, Stybar, who will start with a handicap, will have to watch out for Sagan in particular. The Slovak won a silver medal in the juniors race at 2008 worlds and gold as a junior at mountain bike worlds the same year. So, while he may be rusty, he certainly has the skills to match Stybar and the speed to capitalize on a one-minute gap.
Stybar won’t race again until the bpost Bank Trofee race in Essen, his Belgian home away from home, on December 22, so Sunday’s World Cup round in Roubaix, France, will run without either of its two Czech defending champions present. Stybar and Katerina Nash (Luna), who is scheduled to race in Los Angeles this weekend, won the men’s and women’s races, respectively, the last time the World Cup visited Roubaix, in 2010.
Instead, the race at the storied track, which doubles as the finish of Paris-Roubaix, looks likely to be a battle between the same handful of protagonists who have dominated cyclocross for most of the season. Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus), who holds the World Cup lead, will certainly be motivated to defend it, while Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet-Euphony) will look to return to the top of the podium after losing narrowly to Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor) in Gieten, Netherlands, last Sunday.
Among the women, with world champion Marianne Vos (Rabobank) headed to South Africa for training, all eyes will be on Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective), who leads the World Cup and cruised to an easy victory in Koksijde last Sunday. There’s no shortage of challengers for her to watch out for however, including Sanne Van Paassen (Rabobank), Nikki Harris (Telenet-Fidea), Helen Wyman (Kona), Sanne Cant (BKCP) and a host of others who would like to establish themselves as among cyclocross’ elite — but we’ll talk more about all of them in a minute when we look at one of your questions. So let’s get right to it.
Young women to watch for
It’s easy to see the future of the men’s sport in the juniors and u23. What young women should we be watching?
— Matthew in Maine
With Marianne Vos’ focus spread across the range of disciplines from ’cross to road and track, and Daphny Van Den Brand gone and Hanka Kupfernagel apparently not on top form at the moment, there’s a clear void at the top of the women’s sport. For me, the story of the year has been the rise of the British riders Helen Wyman and Nikki Harris from world-class to truly elite this year. They are now consistently challenging the best women’s riders in the world — Katie Compton, Sanne Van Paassen, Sanne Cant, and Marianne Vos — for podium places on a weekly basis. But plenty has been written about their exploits this season, so let’s go a bit deeper.
For me, the standout rider of the season so far is 24-year-old Rapha-Focus rider and Swiss national champion Jasmin Achermann. Achermann has transformed herself this year from a rider capable of solid, but comparatively unremarkable top-20 finishes in World Cups and podium finishes domestically last year to truly world-class this year. She has not finished worse than seventh in a World Cup so far this year and is currently ranked sixth in the World Cup standings. She is poised when riding difficult, technical sections and powerful on heavy courses, both of which abound in Swiss ’cross. She is definitely one to keep an eye on in Louisville, too, especially if the course turns muddy.
Behind her are Sophie De Boer, not new to the scene but continuing to ride well, even if her results this season are not quite as good as last season. Similarly, French 30-year-old Lucie Chainel-Lefevre is hardly new to cyclocross, but is consistently overlooked when discussing world class talent, even though she has made World Cup podiums and posted many other top results in the past year. Dutch rider Sabrina Stultiens has not quite broken into the ranks of the true elite, but she is also close, with improving results and a podium in a tough race in Zonhoven, Belgium, earlier this month.
Finally — though she too is no stranger to American fans — I’d be remiss not to mention Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com’s Kaitie Antonneau, who at just 20 has earned top 10s in World Cups, a silver at nationals, and is currently the second-ranked U.S. rider in the world. If you’re looking for the next Katie Compton, it very well might be “Le Petite Blairelle.”
The good news is that, with a large and growing talent pool, and newfound support for the women’s sport at the highest levels, the future is bright for both women racers and their fans. Sven Nys, athlete representative to the UCI’s cyclocross commission recently spoke out in favor of improved opportunities and equal prize money for women.
“We want to boost the level of women’s cycling further and we want the prize money for the women to continue to increase,” Nys told the Belgian website cyclo-cross.info. “Eventually we want it to be identical to that of the men. That step should help attract more women to the sport. This helps improve internationalization and, in turn, is an additional reason for cyclocross to be included in the Olympic program.”