The changing of the guard for Australian cyclocross

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The Australian National Cyclocross Championship on Saturday is set to usher in a changing of the guard. The retirement of three-time champion Lisa Jacobs (Rapha Focus), means the women’s jersey will change hands for the first time ever, and odds are the men’s jersey will also be handed over to a new owner as illness has made the preparations tough for defending champion Paul van der Ploeg (Giant).

As cyclocross continues to grow, a new group of players have stepped up to the top ranks of the elite fields this year. As such, the chase for green and gold at Adelaide’s Zombie Park is bound to be hard fought.

Elite women: Goodbye Lisa Jacobs, but hello field depth

Top favourites:  Naomi Williams (Team Willy Locke), Rebecca Locke (Team Willy Locke), Peta Mullens (SRAM Focus) and Melissa Anset (My Mountain).

One constant in the ever-evolving sport of cyclocross in Australia has been Jacobs, who has taken out every national championship since they began in 2013. She has helped show that with some determination the nation does have a hope of producing cyclocross racers that can overcome the difficulties of distance and a fledgling cyclocross environment to make steps toward bridging the gap to an international level of racing. Ever ready to promote the sport, her friendliness, skill and likeability drew people to watch the women’s races and meant she was a cyclocross idol for both the girls and boys coming up through the sport.

Farewell LJ

Given this, when she announced her plans to retire in May it was hard not to think that the already slim women’s field may take a blow that it would be hard to rapidly recover from. It’s not that there weren’t worthy racers out there deserving of the jersey that would prove good ambassadors for the sport, just potentially not enough riders at the pointy end to make it the exciting competitive battle that spectators love to watch and that spurs riders on to keep getting better.

Before the season started Melissa Anset (My Mountain), a former Australian marathon mountain bike champion and last year’s national series winner, was considered a popular logical successor to Jacobs as she stood out in the field, with regular second place finishes to the Australian champion.

But it is not so clear cut anymore, as while Ansett is looking as fit and determined as ever, a big boost in the number of new female racers in the sport across the board has also flowed through to the top level, including Team Willy Locke’s Naomi Williams and Rebecca Locke (more often known as Ren and Bec). They have quickly shown that they will be forces to be reckoned with.

“I was feeling pretty strong at the start of the season and then Bec and Ren came along and trained really hard and set the bar quite high,” Anset told Ella CyclingTips after winning the final race of the Victorian state series last weekend.

“They have got faster and stronger … it’s really going to be tough competition,” said Anset, who is targeting a top five finish, after having come second last year.

CX sand
Willy Locke team mates Ren and Bec tackling the sand

Williams, who used to race for Australia internationally on the road and then went to mountain bike racing, took on the new discipline of cyclocross at the start of this year. She marked herself as the favourite after taking out two rounds of the national series at the challenging Essendon Fields cyclocross course less than a fortnight ago.

Around 20 years of racing has helped Williams work around her status as a cyclocross newcomer, as she’s had plenty of experience in working out how to get herself mentally and physically prepared to deliver the best possible performance on race day.

Mullens, who is renowned for her ability to excel across disciplines, is another experienced rider who threw her hat into the ring with a late entry to the season – and in fact cyclocross racing altogether.  Missing out on an Olympic mountain bike spot meant she was in Australia in the cyclocross season so opened the door to a different opportunity. The current Australian marathon mountain bike champion, last year’s holder of the road race national jersey and a former national champion across just about every mountain bike discipline, made her debut in the national series with a second place to Williams. It was a result she repeated the next day.

Peta Mullens in her first national round race.
Peta Mullens in her first national round race.

Despite the solid entry to the national level of the sport, Mullen’s run in wasn’t ideal as she’d just come off an eleven week race block then ten days of illness that kept her off the bike.

“I’m not really sure if I will dig myself out of the hole in time for next weekend – whether I am on the up or whether I am on the downward spiral – but we will soon find out,” she said.

“It’s touch and go. Although I’d love to go out next weekend and be the successor to Lisa Jacobs, at the same time I don’t want to dig myself into a big hole for the rest of the season,” said Mullens.

To make it even harder, her other target for the coming weeks is to race the Australian marathon mountain bike series, and it’s not hard to see why the preparation for the short intense burst of a cyclocross race doesn’t gel with the five hour or so efforts of a marathon event.

William’s team mate Locke, is also one of the podium favourites. The firefighter jumped into cyclocross at last year’s national championship and managed to secure fifth place, even after suffering a mechanical. Adelaide is a course likely to suit the skills and power of the mountain biker and she’s bound to go in with an extra degree of confidence as she took out the Victorian state championships on Sunday, beating Mullens to the line.

Rebecca Locke
Locke consistently conquering the long, steep muddy climb where her rivals struggled

Locke was quick to point to team mate Williams as a favourite but said no matter who won, with the increasing depth in the field they were going to have to earn it. “It’s not just between the three of us (Williams, Locke and Mullens) either,” said Locke. “There are actually quite a few girls that could take a step up next weekend and have a good one.”

Other contenders include April McDonough (Flanders Nemisis), who will be looking to make up for a missed opportunity last year when she got a mechanical, and South Australian rider Therese Rhodes who took third in 2015.

Elite men: A recovering “walking zombie”, an in-form past winner and a couple of fresh faces

Top favourites: Chris Jongewaard (Flanders Nemisis), Chris Aitken (Focus Attaquer), Garry Millburn (Speedvagen MAAP) and Paul van der Ploeg (Giant).

CX - Chris Jongewaard
Chris Jongewaard, way out in front again

Chris Jongewaard came close to making it two years in a row in green and gold at last year’s national championship but after tight racing right to the very end and a controversial tussle between Jongewaard and van der Ploeg he had to hand over the jersey to the former world champion in the mountain bike eliminator.  This year, though, he has clearly worked hard and prioritised building the form that puts him in the best possible position to take back the green and gold stripes.

Jongewaard has not only won every national level race this year, but at times has done it with such strength that he had time to spare. His lead was so big at one of the last national rounds nearly two weeks ago that he took on the slower but crowd pleasing challenge of riding, rather than running an obstacle, named Lisa Jacobs Ladder.

Van der Ploeg, who is usually the one not shy to throw in a cheer-inducing trick, had to frustratingly stand on the sidelines that weekend, as a July road race in China left him with some unwelcome side effects.

“I’ve been pretty much a walking zombie since getting the infection and virus in China,” said van der Ploeg.

He got back on the bike last weekend, blew a few of the cobwebs away Saturday and on Sunday took out the Victorian cyclocross championships in a tight battle that turned into a bit of a generational spar, with Paul Redenbach (Flanders Nemisis) and Allan Iacuone (Rapha Focus), Australia’s first cyclocross champion and also 1994 Australian road champion, pushing him right to the finish line. A win in the green and gold stripes at a state level was a welcome sign of recovery for van der Ploeg, but one that’s likely to have come too late.

“I’m under no illusions, there are some super fast boys in CX at the moment, so its probably going to be the last race in the stripes for at least twelve months,” van der Ploeg told CyclingTips after the race. “But its been an honour to have them.”

Although, it’s a course that suits van der Ploeg and he is a fierce competitor, so you should never be too quick to judge him out of contention.

P1080540
Blowing away the post illness cobwebs at the Victorian state cyclocross series

Last year Chris Aitken and Focus Attaquer team mate Tom Chapman delivered an exciting spectacle in the fight for the Under 23 title, with Aitken coming out in front, but now Aitken has moved up to elite and he looks well and truly ready to go out in pursuit of the green and gold in this category as well. He has gathered more international experience in the past year and, if his form at the national rounds at Victoria’s Essendon Fields almost two weeks ago is any indication, will be ready to pounce if Jongewaard shows any weakness.

CX - Chris Aitken
Chris Aitken on the chase at a Fields of Joy national round

Team mate Shaun Lewis could also challenge for the podium, as he came a strong second to Jongewaard at last weekend’s South Australian championship.

Garry Millburn (Speedvagen MAAP) is a rider that’s never far from the pointy end of the race on his custom made steel framed Speedvagen. He came a clear third in the National Championship last year, being the only other contender that looked like they would even have a chance of catching the leading pair. Millburn, known for his meticulous preparation and keen eye for an efficient line, has also taken third in every round of the national series this year, except for the most recent one where he had to cope with a tubular flying off.

Chances are, he’ll be checking and rechecking his set up for this weekend.

One surprise name on the start list well worth keeping an eye on is Cameron Ivory. He hasn’t been on the cyclocross circuit for some time, but has been busy racing the mountain bike World Cup series this year and also took out second in the Subaru Australian MTB National Championships XCO category in 2016. Still, he is not a complete stranger to the sport as back in 2013 when the first Australian cyclocross championship was held he was the under 23 winner, also finishing third overall.

The course: Zombie Park

The national championships race, hosted by Port Adelaide Cycling Club, will be held right near the centre of Adelaide on Saturday, in parklands known as Zombie Park. Not surprisingly, they are right near a cemetery. There will be various categories of racing throughout the day, with the elite women’s race starting at 1:45pm (2:15pm AEST) and the men’s at 2:40pm (3:10pm AEST).

The course may not match the ups and downs of last year’s championship venue at Essendon Fields, but it is one of the hillier Adelaide cyclocross options. It includes muddy climbs, grassy patches, gravel, barrier sections and rocks. The variation in terrain is likely to make it a tough course on equipment, so there’s probably an even better than normal chance that mechanicals could influence the result.

There’ll also be a bit of home town advantage for South Australia’s Jongewaard, Lewis and Rhodes who raced at the same venue last month. Back then they faced rain, hail and extremely wet conditions to add an extra degree of difficulty, and while those conditions aren’t likely to be replicated on the weekend, thunderstorms prior to the event and the potential for a sprinkling of rain on the day should help provide a good dose of that essential cross ingredient – mud.

How to follow

There is no doubt the best way to watch the race is to get down to the venue and throw yourself into the spirit of cross by doing a bit of heckling. Though, for those not lucky enough to be in Adelaide there sadly isn’t live coverage, but the best option is to keep an eye on twitter. Check out #CXnats and Australian Cyclocross Magazine, @auscxmag, as they often tweet race updates.

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