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A tight and controversial battle in the Australian National Cyclocross Championships has seen the men’s title shift again, this time to Paul van der Ploeg (Giant), while reigning women’s champion Lisa Jacobs (Rapha-Focus) managed to overcome injury to keep a firm hold of the jersey for a third time.
Van der Ploeg, a former world champion in the mountain bike cross country eliminator, took out the win after a messy tussle in one of the final corners with defending champion Chris Jongewaard (Whippet’s Workshop). It involved a substantial amount of contact between the two and the situation became heated.
“It was a bit tactical toward the end and then there was a bit of a tangle, but I managed to get away from that and cross the line first,” van der Ploeg told Ella. “There were a few hundred spectators watching some pretty tense moments.”
For the women, the race went more smoothly, and Jacob’s Achilles injury of four weeks ago proved to be another barrier the three-time Australian champion could adeptly overcome
“I have been such a bundle of stress with the injury, so much rehab and not knowing whether I was going to be ready in time to be able to race. This is a huge relief,” said Jacobs.
Melissa Anset (My Mountain), who leads the National series, was the best of the rest, and Therese Rhodes (Liv) rounded out the women’s podium. In the under 23 men’s race, Chris Aitken (Focus) took out the title.
The National Championships was held on Australia’s first permanent purpose-built cyclocross course at Fields of Joy in the Melbourne suburb of Essendon. The 2.5km track was put together with an eye to the World Championships at Heusden-Zolder, Belgium in 2016.
The course incorporates a substantial step, called the Zolder step, right before a long and hard to ride climb. The step forces many riders to get off the bike and lose momentum before they head into the difficult to negotiate hill. Others can jump the step and then keep the power on as they take on the steep climb. With tight muddy corners, sand and an unrelenting format, the terrain made for a more undulating course than usually seen in Australia.
Elite Men: A Tight Battle With a Messy End
Jongewaard and Garry Millburn (Trek Australia) took the early lead in the initially tightly packed field of the nine lap, hour long race. It was when the battle reached the Zolder step and the first round up the long muddy climb that the shape of the race started to form. Van der Ploeg charged up the hill on the bike with imposing force to leap into first place.
“I knew it was going to be super aggressive from the gun. Chris went out so hard and I managed to catch them on the climb,” said van der Ploeg. “I went super hard to make sure that I was at the front because if you are not there at the beginning it is really hard to close time gaps in cyclocross.”
Millburn held onto the lead pair, and the leading three swapped positions throughout the next lap, but after that a gap started to form. It became a race for first between Jongewaard, who has secured the Australian cross country mountain bike jersey multiple times, and former cross country eliminator world champion van der Ploeg.
At times the pair raced hard. At other times, they soft pedalled to jockey for position. The lead continued to swap until lap six when Jongewaard got a gap and went all out to stretch his lead as far as he could.
“I laid a big attack on the road and then I made a silly mistake on a corner and ended up dropping it. That cost me my lead,” said Jongewaard. “They are defining moments. If you get a gap, then you crack the opponent’s confidence. I broke his confidence and then I broke my own confidence, so it was a double-edged sword.”
The pair came together after Jongewaard’s small stumble on an off-camber downhill bend, and the lead-swapping between the two riders began again.
It looked to be coming down to a tight finish, and much of the crowd was rolling over to the line to wait for what they anticipated would be a deciding sprint down the final straight. Then there was a huge groan from those who had a good view of the tight final corners.
Van der Ploeg and Jongewaard became entangled and there was some fairly intense argy bargy. The exciting, aggressive racing and tactical toing-and-froing seen throughout the race turned into something rather less sportsmanlike in the last dash for the line. Who was in the right and wrong? There was discussion and viewing of footage of the incident by those in charge before the presentation, and the race results stood. You can watch the videos and make up your own mind.
Regardless of your personal conclusion, the incident inarguably marred an exciting race that had an enthusiastic and substantial crowd rushing around the course to catch a glimpse of the ever-changing lead. The Cyclocross National Championships were meant to be an event to showcase the growing level of maturity in competition within the fledgling sport in Australia and the fun cross-culture embedded in spectators. And they did, except for that one attention-grabbing incident.
Van der Ploeg reached the finish with a clear margin, throwing his hands in the air, as Jongewaard rolled in thirteen seconds later shaking his head. Millburn clawed back ground in the final laps as the front pair played the tactical game. He came in eight second behind Jongewaard to take out third.
Under 23: A top trio of teammates
— Cycling Victoria (@cyclingvictoria) August 9, 2015
Defending under 23 champion Tom Chapman (Focus) and Aitken quickly established a gap on the rest of the field, setting a blistering pace and making the tough technical features look easy. This category was always bound to be a tough battle between the pair, who stand out not only in the under 23’s but also in the broader field. Aitken currently has a hefty lead in the National Cyclocross Series elite category and his teammate Chapman is running second.
The lead chopped and changed until the second and third lap when Aitken started to stretch out a gap.
“It was quite tough. I was hurting for sure. I only had about ten seconds at most and then I threw the chain off,” said Aitken.
It came off as he was positioning himself to jump up the Zolder step on the third lap, so Aitken had to run to the top of the climb. As Chapman flew past, Aitken had to contain his nerves and focus on getting his chain, which was firmly lodged against the frame, back on.
“He got a gap on me but I managed to close him down,” said Aitken. “It was almost like the race restarted again with only ten minutes to go, so it was a mad dash to the end for both of us.”
Aitken pulled ahead in the last lap and came in to take the win with an 18 second margin. Chapman was second ahead of another teammate, Jack Hogan.
Elite Women: Jacobs Proves Dominant Despite Injury
Anset and Rhodes scorched out to the front at the start of the six lap, 50-minute long race but it only took a couple of corners for positions to swap and Jacobs to jump to the front. The field remained bunched until the telling Zolder step and muddy climb. Anset stayed on the bike and powered up to leap ahead of all her competition bar Jacobs. It was the first Zolder step section done, and the pair had created a gap on the rest of the field. Anset, a former Australian marathon mountain bike champion, was on Jacobs’ tail for the next lap but the gap inched out until it had stretched out to over 30 seconds by the mid-point of the race.
From then it looked clear that the race was Jacobs. Having come in to the Nationals not having raced for over a month, there was some doubt about how her body would hold up after suffering an Achilles injury four weeks ago. The biggest hurdle for her to overcome was expected to be the long muddy climb following the Zolder step, which in wet conditions is near impossible to ride and also tough to run. However, the course had dried out overnight, which meant it was much easier to get grip on the climb than normal, so Jacobs was able to ride all the way up nearly every lap and didn’t have to push her injury with as much running.
“Being able to ride up that hill and not run was a big relief to me, but there was nothing easy about that course,” said Jacobs.
Jacobs kept pushing and extending her lead during the last half of the race. Anset held her clear margin from the rest of the field to take second, her best result at Cyclocross Nationals after taking third in 2013 and fourth last year.
“I need a bit more fitness to keep up with Lisa,” said Anset. “Lisa did well, and she deserves the gold medal and the green and gold stripes. I’m very happy for her and just stoked to get second.”
While the first two spots on the podium were decided rather early, the battle for the bronze medal was fierce for most of the race. Mid-race Rebecca Locke (4Shaw) and Rhodes were swapping positions, but by the last lap Rhodes had established a clear gap to roll in for third. Josie Simpson (Flanders Nemisis) also ramped up the pace to move to fourth, with Locke holding onto fifth. April McDonough (IRide), who was expected to be one of the podium contenders, was out of the race early with a mechanical.