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The world champion cyclocross title is back in Dutch hands after 22-year-old Rabo-Liv rider Thalita de Jong surprised her competition and herself when she mastered muddy conditions to come across the line solo.
French rider Caroline Mani, who rides most of her season in the U.S., had a phenomenal ride controlling the front group and was happy to take second. But it was heartbreak for Belgian and European champ Sanne Cant who –after five previous world championship podiums –still could not claim the rainbow stripes and had to do with a bronze medal instead, after only narrowingly nipping fourth-place Dutch woman Sophie de Boer at the line.
The rain came down in buckets in Heusden-Zolder as the junior men, U23 women and Elite women kicked off day one of the UCI Cyclocross World Championships. What had been a fast and dry course the day before had now turned into a slippery, sloppy mess.
With no returning world champions and no lack of race favourites, the race was always going to be a highly competitive one, the varying course conditions only added to the race dynamics.
Hiding under umbrellas at the start, all eyes were on Belgian Sanne Cant who –as the number one ride in the world, a multi-times national champion, European champion and two-time World Cup series winner — went into this race in front of a home crowd as the clear favourite.
Behind Cant, there was an array of podium favourites including British champion Nikki Harris, Italian champion Eva Lechner, Belgian Ellen van Loy and Dutch riders Sophie de Boer and Thalita de Jong.
Starting on a long stretch of pavement of the former FormulaOne racing track, the race was off to a fast start with Belgian Ellen van Loy taking the hole shot.
But it wasn’t long before a lead group of four riders began to take shape and gap the rest of the field. Among them were Caroline Mani, Nikki Harris, Sophie de Boer and Sanne Cant.
For the first two lap, Cant appeared to be conservative, letting the others take the lead and even open a small gap at times. Mani, riding her best world championships yet eagerly took to front and was showing excellent form.
The four leaders were constantly rotating position and all of them were capable of winning. But unbeknownst to them, Thalita de Jong –who had had a poor start– was powering ahead, gaining ground fast and making up ground fast.
“I missed the start as I do with every race,”De Jong said after the race. “But I was hearing along the course that I was making good time. I am a road rider and I am a little bit scared of the muddy corners still. I didn’t want to go too fast.”
But De Jong found her footing and joined the leaders group just ahead of the final lap. She joined, she led, she attacked. And gone she was. Going hard just before the final climbing section of the course, none of the four lead riders were able to respond. Cant tried but couldn’t match De Jong’s sustained power.
Coming up and down the final flyover and around the bend onto the pavement, De Jong had plenty of time to celebrate. Her face showed pure joy and disbelief as she crossed the line solo.
“I didn’t think I could win. It’s a good course for a road rider because of the straight aways. After Hoogerheide I was dreaming of a medal but with the rain and mud, I was a little scared today,” said De Jong.
Mani put in one last big effort to drop her peers and came around the bend alone, screaming “oh my god!” as she crossed the finish line.
“When I saw De Jong coming, I knew it wasn’t good for me. But I have no regret today to be second behind her. She was the strongest today,” said a very happy Mani, who credited a good start for her performance today. Mani has had good results in the U.S. cyclocross scene all season but had been struggling a bit with having a good start.
“It’s been a mental struggle,” said Mani. “My last four or five starts were bad and today, I decided to just go for it.”
De Boer and Cant were left to sprint it out for third. Cant nipped De Boer on the line but there was no celebration for the Belgian champ.
Cant was absolutely devastated and the tears rolled freely as she leaned on her dad’s shoulder for consolation.
“The disappointment is big. I came her to win. I have worked toward this day for a whole year. I have worked so hard and had done everything I could,” said Cant. “But I wasn’t my best today. I wasn’t in control today and I was fighting myself.”
De Jong takes the rainbow jersey back to the Netherlands, where it’s been seven out of the past 10 years, on the back of Marianne Vos. 2015 marked an end to an era when, after six consecutive titles, the rainbow jersey went to French woman Pauline Ferrand-Prevot. After the race Vos –who was present at the race– was pleased to see the rainbow stripes back in the Dutch national team.
For De Jong, the rainbow jersey in cyclocross means she’ll consider doing a larger cyclocross season.
“I guess I’ll be spending more time in the field!” a smiling De Jong stated.
De Jong now gets a few days of celebration before switching her focus back to road. She’ll be making her first race appearance at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad next month.
1 Thalita De Jong (Netherlands)
2 Caroline Mani (France)
3 Sanne Cant (Belgium)
4 Sophie De Boer (Netherlands)
5 Nikki Harris (Great Britain)
6 Sabrina Stultiens (Netherlands)
7 Eva Lechner (Italy)
8 Kaitlin Antonneau (United States Of America)
9 Christine Majerus (Luxembourg)
10 Sanne Van Paassen (Netherlands)