With 20 elite victories, Belgian Sanne Cant ended her 2015-16 cyclocross season in February on top of the UCI rankings and with a fresh stack of colourful jerseys, gleaming medals and a glowing palmares to prove it.
The European Championships, the Belgian National Championships, the Superprestige series, the BPost Bank Trophy, the UCI World Cup – Cant won them all, and many of them for the second year in a row. But her winning streak would come to an end at the most inopportune moment.
At the 2016 UCI World Cyclocross World Championships on home soil in Heusden-Zolder, in the pouring rain, Cant beat Dutchwoman Sophie de Boer in a sprint for the last remaining podium spot. But there was no celebration for the Belgian champ, only tears of disappointment and the comfort of her dad’s shoulder after again missing out on that coveted top step at the most important race of the season.
She is the best female cyclocross racer in the world, but the rainbow jersey eludes her still.
Last month, at the start of a new cyclocross season, Cant finally got around to framing her three world championship medals – two bronze, one silver – and they now hang on the wall of her new house with room for at least one more, hopefully of a different colour.
On the eve of the Telenet UCI World Cup series opener, in a quiet neighbourhood a good twenty-minute drive away from the hustle and bustle of the Vegas Strip, Cant told me about her house, that one missing medal, her season ahead and yes, even her podium face.
Despite being only 25 years old, Sanne Cant has been in the sport for nearly two decades. She rode her first World Cup events 10 years ago and is among the few women who make a living solely from their professional cyclocross careers.
Cant remembers only ever wanting to be a cyclocrosser – a desire that was sparked when she was just seven years old.
“My cousin did cross as did her whole family so we went to watch and that was the beginning of it all,” said Cant. “I was into it right away.”
But in Belgium you had to be at least 12 years old to compete, so Cant and her family hopped the border into the Netherlands where there were races for kids as young as seven.
Her first bike? A dark blue frame she hand painted herself.
Her first win? That very first race.
Perhaps it was innate or perhaps it had something to do with growing up with two brothers –who are also cyclists –but the desire to win was there from an early age, Cant revealed.
When she was finally allowed to race in Belgium, she jumped in with full force and immediately showed promise, becoming the provincial champion of Antwerp, a feat she would repeat year in, year out, until she was no longer a junior.
Cant scored her first Belgian tri-colour jersey as a 14-year-old when she became the junior national mountain bike champion – a small indication of the long list of national and international cyclocross and mountain bike titles that would follow.
It wasn’t long before her life, and that of the whole Cant family, revolved around cyclocross.
“My parents weren’t cyclists but they have done everything to help us with our hobbies. We have been very fortunate in that they have always supported us 100 percent,” said Cant.
Today, Cant’s parents continue to be ever-present as mechanic, mental and emotional support. Even in Vegas, 8,600 kilometres away from home, mom and dad were there to support and alleviate the season opener nerves.
“Do I need them? Yes. I do need them. It’s comforting to be surrounded by those who will always support you, always be there for you and know exactly what you need in that moment,” Cant explained.
Cant remembers very well the turning point when cyclocross became more than a hobby.
“It was the World Cup race in Hofstade in 2006. It was in the sand. I was riding well and was among the leaders,” Cant’s eyes light up as she recounts the race. Nowadays she’s well known as the queen of the sand, but in 2006, she was a mere teenager riding among her idols.
“Someone ahead of me fell,” Cant continued. “Hanka Kupfernagel had a mechanical. Suddenly I was in the lead! No one knew me but the spectators went nuts.”
She may not have won that race, but a spark was ignited.
“From then on, from what I felt in that moment, that’s when I knew I wanted to keep doing this,” Cant said.
But a career in cycling, and in a niche discipline at that, wasn’t exactly a lucrative future.
“At the time, I didn’t even know if it was possible. Ten years ago, the idea of being a fulltime professional cyclocross racer, as a woman, that didn’t exist,” said Cant.
Even so, Cant wanted nothing but.
“Sanne Cant and cyclocross, it’s one and the same,” she said. “University was never for me. You can’t win at studying. You can’t be the best.
“Plus, I would have a very hard time mentally if I were in a race and I knew that I didn’t give it my all before, during or after,” Cant continued. “For me, only one thing matters and that’s cross… until I stop and then I will start my second life.”
And what will that look like?
“I haven’t a clue.”
Fortunately, Cant doesn’t have to worry about that yet. A professional since 2008, Cant is able to support herself with a salary, start and prize money.
She’s well aware that she’s among the few that can do that, and expressed gratitude.
“When I think back to when I first started, when we had to race at 9:30 in the morning and earned 27 euros when we won, I think we’re moving along quite well. We have made significant strides in the sport,” Cant said. “I think in cyclocross we are fortunate that we race on the same day, on the same course as the men, which has made televising and showcasing our sport easier. I think it’s absolutely terrible how little professional women’s road racing is shown on TV.”
A new season
There would be no shortage of fans or TV coverage at the World Cup opener in Vegas, and coming off one career-best season after another, Cant admitted to being nervous.
“I know the work I have put in, and I feel pretty good, but you never know how the first races are going to go and how strong your competition will be,” she explained, adding that it takes a month or two before she finds her stride.
“Usually around November I find my fitness. Sometimes you don’t need that fitness to win, sometimes it’s not enough to win. Perhaps that’s the best thing about cross. The best rider always wins…well, usually,” she said.
She was undoubtedly referring to Tabor, the 2015 UCI World Cyclocross Championships and a sore point in her career for various reasons. It’s the closest she’s come to the rainbow jersey. After a long season that saw her on top of the podium a remarkable 25 times, she lost the sprint for the win in Tabor to Frenchwoman Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, who would take out four world championships that season as she dominated across disciplines.
The loss combined with the media frenzy that followed after her emotion-filled post-race interview and podium appearance took a long time to get over.
“It kept me up at night for a long time. It’s been the biggest disappointment for me,” said Cant.
This year’s world championships, when she barely hung on for third place behind a dominant Thalita de Jong and Caroline Mani, wasn’t quite as bitter.
“This year’s disappointment wasn’t as bad, I think, because I had already been through it once before,” Cant said. “Thalita [de Jong] was simply stronger. She had a better day and that happens in cross. It’s easier to make peace with that.”
Still, it kept her up that night. A world championships, on home soil, after a career-best season. She had wanted it so badly.
“The next morning, you replay the race a few times. Analyse it. Look for the moments when mistakes were made,” Cant recounted.
“Nothing!” she said laughing. “That was the problem! I simply didn’t have the legs that day. You can be in excellent shape and then there’s someone who’s just better, faster, stronger. You never know quite what’s going to happen.
“But I have faith in my training and I continue to make progress. That jersey will come one day…I hope,” she said. She makes no predictions of when, however.
“Last year I said I wanted the jersey in Zolder, on home soil, but that didn’t happen, so I’m not going to say it again,” she explained.
Plus, when it comes to Cant’s ultimate career goals, it’s not a rainbow jersey that tops the list.
“The rainbow jersey is a dream, sure, but my biggest dream is to contribute to women’s cycling. To have done something that will have had an impact. Only then will my career have been successful,” she said.
With that said, the need to win and the desire to be the best are ingrained in Cant.
“I have to win. Always. And in everything. And I am a very bad loser…that’s obvious,” she said with a smile.
She is again talking about Tabor but this time she’s referring to the podium picture that sparked a social media frenzy. In the middle there’s Ferrand-Prevot, freshly crowned world champion and smiling from ear to ear. To the right, Marianne Vos has made peace with a bronze medal and smiles politely. To the left, a devastated Sanne Cant sulks.
There are several more podium photos like it and now, Cant has become quite known for her less-than-enthused podium face. Yet there is a stark contrast between the Sanne Cant in those images and the Sanne Cant sitting across for me, who breaks out laughing as I broach this topic.
“Sometimes I’m bummed that people don’t know who I am in real life. But on the other hand, when I am on the podium I don’t want to pretend to be someone I’m not,” she explained. “If I’m disappointed with getting second or third, I don’t think I should have to stand up there and smile just to make myself more popular with the people. In the moment, I simply can’t do that, and I don’t want to either. I just try to be myself as much as possible.”
Being herself, however, hasn’t been the easiest. The Belgian media and fans are some of the harshest critics in the sport of cycling, and Cant has experienced more than her fair share of bad headlines.
“When I was younger, I didn’t do myself any favours by not thinking before I spoke. I now know better. You can’t just say whatever pops in your head because the next day it’ll appear big and bold in the papers,” she said. “I also know to read as few papers as possible…and to never look at the comments.”
“But all the things that were written about me after Tabor and with Pauline…that was really bad. I was devastated,” she said.
In her frustration-filled post-race interviews in Tabor, Cant criticised riders like Ferrand-Prevot for being part-timers or opportunists who only come out with fresh legs at the end of the season while full-time cyclocrossers struggle to stay fit weekend after weekend for five months. She would later walk back on her comments but the backlash was fierce.
“You won’t believe the kind of stuff I get on Instagram. Still,” Cant said as she pulled out her phone to show me what she had received that day.
With a name like Cant –pronounced Kahnt –you don’t need a lot of creativity to imagine the kind of jeers and insults that are hurled at her from people hiding behind keyboards.
“Sanne Can’t Win”, “Sanne Can’t Smile,” “Sanne ‘Bitchy Resting Face’ Cant” – none of them are very original but they’re still not something an athlete wants to see before a big race.
Cant’s got a thick skin, however, and even cracks a few jokes at her own expense.
Yet coming off two career-best seasons, the bar is set high for Cant.
“I would love to get another 20 victories but I also know that it will be very difficult to do so,” she commented. “[The fans and media] do expect you to always perform. If I get 10th in my race tomorrow, I know my performance will get analysed and critiqued in the media the following day.
“They expect me to always win even though it’s not realistic,” Cant continued. “But only I know what exactly happened in the race, and I am able to put my performance in perspective. And I’ll try again the next week. I don’t let the pressure get to me, I put enough pressure on myself as is.
“In the end, I simply try every week to be my best. I can’t do more than that. And by giving it my all, the results will follow.”
After a rocky start in the Telenet UCI World Cup with a 10th place finish at CrossVegas and 13th at JingleCross, Cant took out the win in the first Superprestige series race in Gieten last weekend. The BPost Bank Trophy kicks off in Ronse this weekend and the Telenet World Cup continues October 23rd in Valkenburg, The Netherlands. Cant’s got a busy season ahead of her. What do you think, will she get the rainbow jersey this year?