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Australia is holding its third National Cyclocross Championships in Melbourne this weekend. The mud-loving cycling discipline has only recently taken hold in the country, but its popularity is rapidly expanding and the competition throughout the fields is heating up. However, in the women’s elite field one rider stands head and shoulders above her competitors. Lisa Jacobs is the only female national cyclocross champion Australia has ever had, but the task of retaining the jersey for a third year running has became much more difficult since injury struck.
A couple of months ago it would have been hard to find anyone with even a shadow of a doubt that Lisa Jacobs would continue her reign as Australia’s only national cyclocross champion. Jacobs may not have been the favourite when she won at the first Australian National Cyclocross Championships in 2013, but since then the work she has put into developing her cyclocross skills and fitness has taken her to a whole new level.
The intensity of the Rapha-Focus rider’s efforts to try and secure a top 20 finish in the 2016 World Cyclocross Championships have seen her move from a strong competitor in Australia, to a dominant force that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the field.
Rather than constantly riding lap after lap off the front by herself in the women’s field, she has taken to racing with the men at club races to get an experience closer to the level she would be up against at international women’s cyclocross events. It has been a welcome extra level of competition to help her build on what had already been an extremely successful start to 2015.
Early in the year she spent time racing in Belgium and took out sixth in a field of heavy-hitters at the Boels Classic Internationale Cyclocross Heerlen in the Netherlands. Back home in Australia, Jacobs had taken an emphatic lead in the Australian National Cyclocross Series, taking out the first four rounds with ease. Then, last month, two days before the Canberra rounds of the national series, her ideal run ended.
“I was doing some barrier practice. I was doing some run-throughs and skip-throughs and I did a different movement and got an Achilles injury,” Jacobs told Ella CyclingTips. “Four weeks out from Nationals is a pretty stressful time to get injured.”
She hasn’t raced since.
Since the injury, Jacobs has been working hard towards making it to the start line of the Australian Cyclocross Championships with intensive physio and rehabilitation work.
Fortunately, she has still been able to ride, but it is the obstacles during the race that will cause her the greatest difficulty.
Often, there isn’t a lot of running in Australian races, but the course put together for the national title by Fields of Joy is an exception. There is a long muddy uphill slog that forces all the female racers off the bike every lap, and only the odd rider in the elite male field can sometimes grind their way slowly up the climb.
It is this climb that is going to prove the greatest obstacle to the injured Jacobs and it is a feature the rider herself pushed to have incorporated as it replicates the hill on the 2016 World Championship course in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium.
“I know it is going to be an incredibly tough day,” said Jacobs. “My run in hasn’t been ideal but whatever happens I know that I have tried my best to prepare. Whoever wins on that course is going to be a worthy winner, because that course finds everyone out.”
The other riders competing for the green and gold stripes of the national jersey include some who have won Australian championships before, just in other disciplines. Two of the leading contenders are former Australian mountain bike marathon champion Melissa Anset and former Australian road champion Oenone Wood.
Anset has regularly placed second to Jacobs and took out one of the national series rounds in Canberra, when Jacobs was absent with injury. Mountain biker Terri Rhodes, who will also be vying for the title, took out the other Canberra round.
Then there is April McDonough, who rounded out the podium at last year’s Australian championship and Josie Simpson who is currently running second in the national series, behind Anset, as she has consistently delivered top 5 results.
Building a cross culture and a top 20 rider
A handful of cyclocross devotees awakened an interest in the sport in Australia a few years ago, and in the last couple of years, it has really gained momentum, to the point that there is now a winter calendar packed with racing.
A lot of work has gone into building the fields, but also an inclusive culture surrounding cyclocross which embraces a sense of fun for spectators and riders alike. Many race organisers have held development days to get more people into the sport while also highlighting kids races and building exciting, spectator-friendly courses.
In an effort to continue this growth, this year’s Cyclocross National Championships will feature a teams race, which requires the four-person relay team to include at least one junior and one female rider.
At the elite level, Australia sent its first team to the Cyclocross World Championships in 2014, and the ambitions are now moving beyond just taking part.
Jacobs, a former road cyclist, currently looks to be Australia’s best chance for a high finish. In 2014 she made a last-minute decision to take part in the World Championships. Even with little time for preparation, she finished 39th and was on the lead lap. Jacobs, a full-time lawyer, missed the 2015 event due to work commitments and instead chose to devote her energy to an all-out effort to target a place in the top 20 in 2016.
“We had some pretty firm plans for the start of the World Cup season, which we are now going to have to revise, depending on how Nationals go and how my injuries pulls up afterwards,” said Jacobs.
The first World Cup round is CrossVegas in mid-September.
“If my injury means missing the start of the World Cup season to get my body sorted so that I can have a really good run into the World Championships, then there is time,” Jacobs commented. “At least this hasn’t happened two months out from Worlds because then it would be really problematic.”