FORT COLLINS, Colo. (VN) — Nine women, 40 minutes, 5,280 feet above sea level.
Sunday’s elite women’s race at the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships in Boulder is shaping up as a nine-rider slugfest for the podium, a world championship selection, and the stars and stripes jersey.
There is no denying that two-time World Cup overall champion Katie Compton (Trek Cyclocross Collective) is the overwhelming favorite for a 10th consecutive national title. Even Compton’s rivals have acknowledged that the reigning worlds silver medalist would need to experience a significant mishap to miss the top podium step at Valmont Bike Park.
But behind Compton, or rather, alongside her when the elite women line up on Sunday in Boulder, is a deep well of riders set to wage a fierce battle for the podium — all three steps.
Chief among the contenders are two women who have never before stood on the elite women’s podium at nationals: breakout riders Elle Anderson (Cal Giant-Specialized) and Crystal Anthony (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies).
Anderson is arguably the most dangerous interceder in Compton’s nationals campaign. Earlier this season at the Providence festival, the California-based rider, who will start her third nationals on Sunday, became the first American woman to beat Compton since 2006. Anderson has ridden consistently throughout the season, save for a crash and abandon at the Boulder Cup, at the Valmont Park nationals site, in October, and she rode away with the $5,000 top prize in USA Cycling’s season-long Pro Cyclocross Calendar.
Anthony and Anderson each took to Belgium for the Kerstperiode races in December, and each improved throughout her trip to the motherland of cyclocross. Following 14th- and 20th-place rides at the Namur and Heusden-Zolder World Cups, respectively, Anthony rolled to fifth at the Superprestige Diegem, her final race of the trip. In that same race, Anderson landed on the podium, finishing third behind Belgian champion Sanne Cant and Italian champion Eva Lechner. Both riders showed their ever-improving bike handling skills and taste for vicious racing (two characteristics that landed Anthony’s brother Jesse multiple junior and under-23 titles in the mud), and should put on an exciting display come Sunday.
“I came back feeling pretty strong. In the five races I did in Belgium, I really ramped up. The first race was the hardest, but by the last two I was feeling better than I had for the first three. So that was a cool position to be in,” Anderson told VeloNews. “As long as I took a break after that block to absorb all that fitness, then I’d really be conditioned well for nationals. So, it’s pretty great timing and it does work out well.”
Of the two, Anthony has more on the line in Sunday’s race. Anderson met the selection criteria for the world championships team when she scored more points than any other American in the top six events on the U.S. ’cross circuit in 2013. With only one spot open on the five-woman team (Compton, Anderson, Meredith Miller, and Kaitlin Antonneau have each met the criteria), Anthony needs to impress USA Cycling cyclocross coordinator Marc Gullickson and the selection committee ahead of Monday’s team announcement. A win would net her an automatic nomination; a solid ride would elevate her already soaring stock for a discretionary pick.
“I’m hoping to make the world championship team,” Anthony told the Beverly Citizen earlier this week. “I definitely want to have a strong enough ride to secure a spot on the team. I’d like to better my [time] from last year. If I do that I think I’ll make the team for sure.”
But Sunday’s race is far from a two-woman assault on Compton’s stranglehold. With Miller (Cal Giant), under-23 national champion Antonneau (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com), Olympic bronze medalist Georgia Gould (Luna), and 2013 nationals bronze medalist Nicole Duke (Marin-Spy) each capable of standing on the top three steps at Valmont Park, the race for the women’s podium should be dynamic. Add to this list potential spoilers like Arley Kemmerer (Twenty20) and Maureen Bruno Roy (Bob’s Red Mill-Seven), who will each start on the front row, and Chloe Woodruff (Crankbrothers Race Club), who should quickly come from deep in the field on the somewhat technical course, and the race for the elite women’s podium will see nine viable contenders.
“To be honest, I think, I always look at Georgia because even though she’s not really focusing on ’cross, she’s still really strong and she’s a great bike racer … and then, of course, Elle, and then Meredith and Crystal Anthony, Kaitie Antonneau,” Compton told VeloNews. “Everybody’s riding pretty well. I think, actually, the top five would be a good battle. Then also Chloe [Woodruff]; she was riding well early. She’s got a really good turn of speed on her and technical skills. So, I’m curious to see how she’s doing, too.”
Gould, the cross-country bronze medalist at the London Games, is the wildest of the wildcards, having skipped the cyclocross season after Clif Bar CrossVegas, taking a long-needed break before building again for the 2014 mountain bike season. She won two tune-up races against small, local fields last weekend in nearby Longmont and previewed the course earlier this week. If her fitness is anywhere near race form, Gould, a former U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross overall winner, can drop in and ride at the front on nearly any day.
“Georgia Gould could surprise some people,” Todd Wells told VeloNews. “She hasn’t raced this year. She lives at altitude. She’s just been training at home. She got a medal at the Olympics two years ago. … If she is motivated for that race, I think she’s someone that a lot of people aren’t thinking about that could give our Katie a run for her money.”
If her rivals want to neutralize Gould’s deft bike handling abilities on the technical, hilly course, they’ll need to unleash a series of stiff surges early to capitalize on their race fitness. And if Gould hopes to roll to a podium in a race she expects to be “ridiculous, hard, and awesome,” she’ll need to maintain a steady pace and let her handling do the work.
Miller, on the other hand, will have to rely on her big, former-road-national-champion diesel engine to keep her in contention. Often a slow starter on the first day of racing, the former nationals runner-up may find an ally in Gould.
“My first year at nationals, I was seventh, and then the next year, I think I went third and then second and then the two years in Madison (2012-13) were a disaster so I’m due for a good results,” Miller said in a press release this week. “I’m due for a solid podium place at nationals and there would no better to do it than here, especially if it ends up being my last nationals.”
But the youngest of the podium contenders must not be overlooked. While Antonneau, whose “Petite Blairelle” nickname hints at her ferocity on the bike, has quietly made her way through the 2013-14 season, she made a brief trip to Belgium in December and racked up a seventh-place result at the Namur World Cup, which, like Boulder, features a long climb. She also sits second among Americans in the UCI standings, despite only having landed top-three results twice this season, both at the Cincinnati Festival in November.
Antonneau has for three years been heralded as the heir apparent to the throne occupied by Compton, her coach, and, like Compton, appears to be building for a late-season run at nationals and worlds. While the student may not yet be ready to supplant the teacher, at just 22 years old, it could very well be Antonneau teaching her elder rivals a lesson on the hillside overlooking Boulder come Sunday afternoon.