At first, it was a familiar sight: seven-time former world champion Marianne Vos in orange leading the elite women’s field at yet another World Cyclocross Championships. But neither the highly technical course and conditions nor her competition was going to let her run off with an eighth win.
As a result, fans were treated to a true nail biter of a race filled with action, heart-break and edge-of-your-seat excitement till the final seconds.
In the end, the much anticipated battle between the Dutch and the Belgians played out in Sanne Cant’s favour, becoming the first Belgian woman to win a UCI Cyclocross World Championships.
“I made history today,” said Cant post race. “It was a very hard final. I can’t believe that the jersey is mine for a whole year. I have dreamt of it since I was six years old. That’s 20 years ago. I really can’t believe I beat Marianne Vos. She’s a seven-time world champion, she is a legend. It’s the most beautiful day of my life.”
How it played out:
In the morning, riders took practice lap after practice lap trying to figure just what tyres to use and which lines to ride, or rather which lines to avoid. An already highly technical course, the grounds in Bieles were made even more treacherous due to freezing conditions. A layer of mud was now coating the solidly frozen ground underneath, making every turn and off-camber a tricky business.
Those with sound technical skills were going into the race as favourites, and the anticipated battle of the day would see Vos’ experience and power square off against Cant’s superior handling skills and fresh legs, as she’d chosen to skip the Fiuggi world cup race in favour of some final race prep for Bieles.
Vos, a seven-time world cyclocross champion who had only returned to cross in the middle of December after having been absent from the startlist for nearly two years due to injury. But, as though she’d been making up for lost time, Vos was back in winning form by her second race, continuing on to win the last three world cup events back to back to back.
Cant, the most dominating woman in cross these past two years. Ranked number one in the world, Cant has won everything there is to win in cyclocross except for the rainbow stripes. She’d come close and had been on the podium three times before. Would today finally be her day?
The start of the race was a cautious in speed yet chaotic in execution . Riders were crashing, others were pushing and shoving around the tight corners, and it took about a lap before the field spread out and riders found a rhythm.
Hometown hero Christine Majerus was clearly motivated to make the Luxembourgian fans proud and impressed in the first lap, taking turns at the front.
But it wasn’t long before we saw the familiar site of Vos on the front, leading the race and setting the pace.
Sprinting out of every corner, Vos got herself a small gap and finished the first lap solo but Sanne Cant caught up, taking on the battle that had been anticipated: The Dutch against the Belgians.
Dutchwoman Lucinda Brand joined them as well as Czech rider Katerina Nash, another race favourite, was never far behind either.
And on this highly technical course, there weren’t a lot of power sections, which meant that Vos wasn’t able to employ her usual dominating style of racing in which she attacks and takes off.
Instead, Cant stayed in her wheel.
But then, Brand fell. And then Nash. And then Cant.
Still upright, Vos took off, her advantage growing quickly to around 10 seconds, and with one lap to go, it seemed like she was on her way to yet another title.
But this is cross, and anything can happen. One mistake and the race would be back on.
Cant was lingering 8 seconds behind, clearly having lost her rhythm but not giving up yet. She was on her way to a fourth world championships podium but the colour of the medal was still undecided.
And then it happened.
Bad luck struck for Vos as her chain fell off and she lost her advantage while wrestling the chain back on.
“After my fall in the second to last lap, my shoe came undone and I didn’t think I could [win] anymore. But then I suddenly saw Marianne standing there and I thought, ‘it’s now or never’,” relived Cant.
Back together, head to head, Vos and Cant took turns fighting for every centimetre of advantage. But the key moment came on the most treacherous feature on the course –the off-camber, icy descent that claimed so many riders throughout the race.
Vos went first, descending cleanly. Cant followed. Cant then took her chance, passing Vos so she’d be the first up the final run-up and around the final corner unto the finishing stretch pavement.
Vos unable to match Cant, had to make do with a silver medal.
“I am disappointed,” Vos admitted. “But it was a beautiful race. It was a good duel.”
Nash and Brand battled it out for third, which saw Nash win her second bronze medal.
The Championships continue:
Sunday, January 29
U23 men: 11 a.m. local time (7 a.m. EST, 11 p.m. AEDT)
Elite Men: 3 p.m. local time (9 a.m. EST, 1 a.m. AEDT Monday)
All of the races will be live streamed on the UCI Channel but they are geo-restricted. Be sure to check your local broadcast listings, and for those of you with VPNs installed, check out steephill.tv for links.
If you’re unable to watch the livestream, check out the official Twitter account @uci_cx and @bieles2017 or use the hashtag #CXWorlds and #Bieles2017.