Cyclocross Worlds preview: Why Kaitlin Antonneau is the best U.S. hope for an elite medal

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America’s hopes for an elite women’s podium spot at the World Cyclocross Championships have long rested with veteran contender Katie Compton, but following a recent step-up in performance, the time may be right to instead start looking more closely at 24-year-old Kaitlin Antonneau.

When the women’s field lines up for the start on Saturday in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium, it will mark the first time since 2000, when the UCI sanctioned the women’s event with World Championship status, that a former world champion has not been in the field.

Without a former world champion, all eyes will instead look to the riders who have medaled in previous years, and to those who have most consistently performed at the 2015-2016 World Cup.

Under that set of criteria, Sanne Cant, the Belgian national champion (and European champion) is the clear favorite for victory. She took the silver medal last year, behind Pauline Ferrand-Prévot and in front of Marianne Vos; this season Cant took the World Cup title for a second consecutive year, winning three of seven events.

Cant is the number-one ranked rider in the world, and will be racing on home soil. Anything less than victory will be a bitter disappointment, as it was in 2015, when she was out-sprinted at the line by the French champion.

Behind Cant, however, is a wide-open field of women vying for the podium. Among them are British champion Nikki Harris (Boels-Dolmans), Italian champion Eva Lechner (Luna), and Dutch rider Sophie de Boer (Kalas-NNOF), all of whom won World Cup events this season. Others include Great Britain’s Helen Wyman (Kona) and Belgium’s Ellen van Loy (Telenet-Fidea).

With three silver medals at the World Championships, and 22 World Cup victories to her name, Compton (Trek Factory Racing) would be presumed to be a podium favorite. After a summer to forget, she’s had a few solid results this season, finishing second to Cant at Zolder, on December 26, and winning a 12th national title on January 10 against an extremely fit and determined Georgia Gould (Luna).

However, in the weeks since that national championship, Compton has struggled. She finished 33rd at the sixth round of the World Cup, in Lignières-en-Berry, France, on January 17, and again outside of the top 10 in Hoogerheide, last weekend, placing 12th.

Compton cited illness for her disappointing result in France, and said that a sub-par day in Hoogerheide was compounded by a bad start.

“I was sick in France and shouldn’t have started,” Compton said. “I just felt awful from all the travel that week. I had a bad start in Hoogerheide, and didn’t feel well, either. Too much stress, and just tired.”

Asked how she felt about her chances in Zolder, Compton was pragmatic. Worlds is an event that has given her endless frustration — she’s had flawless days, only to be beaten by Vos, and she’s had terrible days, finishing outside of the top 10.

“I don’t know,” Compton replied, when asked if she should be considered a medal contender in Zolder. “If I have good legs, then yes. But I won’t know until Saturday. It’s such a crapshoot right now.”

The elite women's podium. From left: Georgia Gould, Katie Compton, and Kaitlin Antonneau.
The elite women’s podium. From left: Georgia Gould, Katie Compton, and Kaitlin Antonneau. Gould earned a spot on the U.S. national team at the World Championships, but declined.

The “Other” Kaitie

Instead, the brightest hope for a United States elite medal, in either elite race, might just rest on the petite shoulders of Kaitlin Antonneau, the 5-foot-2 rider who has quietly enjoyed her finest season to date.

Though she’s never reached the podium of a World Championship, Antonneau has reached the podium of a World Cup, finishing second to Lechner at the Valkenburg stop, on October 18. She backed that up with a fifth-place finish at Lignières-en-Berry. Antonneau finished the season ranked 10th in the World Cup standings, and ninth on the UCI rankings.

Antonneau, who hails from Racine, Wisconsin, describes that second-place result at Valkenburg as her “best day of bike racing, ever.”

“It was so cool, just so fun,” she said. “I will remember that day for the rest of my life. I dreamed about that. I remember, on the day before the race, during the pre-ride, I had ridden by the podium, and I stopped and looked at it. I never really do that, but I did, and the next day, I looked at it again, and I thought it would be cool to get to stand up there, after the race. And I did.”

Antonneau has also had tough days at the international level this season, finishing 18th at Zolder, on December 26, and 14th at Hoogerheide, last weekend.

“At the World Cups, I’ve learned this season that the biggest factor for those top-five finishes is that everything went perfect that day,” Antonneau said. “I was mentally tough, I had the fitness, I had good legs, I was technically good, and I was just mentally very on. If just one of those things is lacking, it’s hard to put together a good ride at the World Cup level. Hoogerheide was super hard, just a tractor-pull around the whole thing. I did my best, but I wasn’t as good as some of the others.”

Antonneau’s best result at worlds came in 2013, when she finished 10th in Louisville, Kentucky; she was just 21 at the time. It’s a placing she’d like to improve upon at a World Championship on European soil.

“The past two years, in Hoogerheide in 2014 and Tabor last year, I was 13th. I really want to break that ‘13th’ spell,” Antonneau said. “At the beginning of the season, I told myself that one of my goals was to get back into the top 10 at worlds. I’d like to say that I have finished inside the top 10 at a European world championships. I think if I can have a good race, and the fitness is there, I have proven I can be up there.”

Compton coached Antonneau for several years, until the two became legitimate competitors. (Antonneau finished second to Compton at the 2015 national championships, and was third this year.)

“She’s getting faster each season, and is really progressing well,” Compton said. “She’s getting stronger, and technically better, with each year and has the most potential of the Americans to get on the podium at more World Cups and World Championships.”

And though Antonneau finished third at the U.S. nationals, she said the race represented an important milestone in her development as a rider.

“One thing I walked away with, that was the first nationals where I went to the start line thinking ‘I have a real chance to win this.’ At all the other four or five elite nationals that I’ve done, I lined up racing to get second, just because Katie has been so dominant. I knew Georgia and Katie were the ones to watch, but for me, believing that you have a real chance to win — that’s already a victory of sorts.”

And it’s that visualization that has helped carry Antonneau so far, at such a young age. Whether or not she will stand on the podium on Saturday is impossible to predict; it’s a long shot, but not out of reach. Either way, she would be well advised to stop and take a long look at the World Championship podium during her pre-ride. Even if she doesn’t reach it in Zolder, it’s seemingly only a matter of time until it happens.

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