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When Sanne Cant woke up in a Luxembourg hotel on the morning of January 29, 2017, the events of the previous day were a blur.
The race had been the last time she’d been alone with her thoughts. Everything that followed was a whirlwind of obligations — media, ceremony, photos, more media and dinner with sponsors. Then, finally, drinks out on the town where they had ran into Marianne Vos and the rest of the Dutch selection and together they had celebrated their gold and silver World Championship medals.
Had it all just been a dream?
Enjoying a moment of quiet when she woke, Cant still wasn’t sure. But, looking down, she saw the rainbow bands across her chest. She’d worn the jersey to bed, knowing that in the morning she wouldn’t believe her dream had come true otherwise.
It wouldn’t truly sink in until her new team kit arrived and she got to pin on race number one. She was, is, the world champion, the number one cyclocross racer in the world.
She’d been ranked and favoured as number one several times before, of course. She had won just about every cyclocross honour there is to win and had finished on the world championship podium three previous times. But that rainbow jersey had escaped her time and time again. But in 2017, after an absolute nail biter of a battle with seven-time world champion Marianne Vos, Cant earned her rainbows. And for the entire season, those colours have singled her out as the champion she is.
A year in rainbows
Talking to her now, almost a year since that “most beautiful day of her life,” Cant says wearing the rainbow jersey is as special today as it was on day one.
“After wining the World Championships, I first wanted to show that I was worthy of the jersey, and tried to win as much as possible,” Cant told Ella CyclingTips.
“It’s extremely nice to ride around in that jersey and the crowds in Belgium are getting increasingly more exuberant during women’s cross. That gives me a lot of motivation and a sort of kick to continue winning in that jersey. Somehow that never gets old.”
And honour the jersey she did. She netted an impressive 15 UCI wins, which included the European Championships for a third year in a row, her ninth consecutive Belgian national title and several world cup races which led to yet another World Cup overall series victory.
Still, as we’re nearing the 2018 UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Valkenburg, The Netherlands, Cant said a new realisation is starting to sink in — that of the possibility that those beautiful rainbows could change shoulders by the end of the week.
Of course, she’ll be lining up as a top favourite but the stress, Cant said, is gone.
“I ride with a lot less stress now. I have a feeling that I have now reached everything in my career that I wanted to reach and so there’s nothing I have to do anymore and that gives me a very relaxed feeling,” she said.
Cant had dreamt of winning the World Championships since she was just six years old. And for 20 years, her entire life had this one singular focus. Now that she’s fulfilled her dream, the stress is gone but the motivation and drive to continue to win, is not.
“I haven’t had the ‘oh what am I going to do now’ feeling. It’s still fun for me. It’s not like I’m finishing a minute ahead of everyone. It continues to be an exciting battle,” she said.
More so, perhaps, than it’s ever been.
“I have been getting a lot of feedback from people saying that women’s cross at the moment is more exciting and more fun to watch than the men’s,” Cant mentioned.
While on paper it may seem that Cant is reeling in the victories, women’s cyclocross is operating at a very high level. Those who have been following along for these past few seasons will know that the competition is getting faster, fitter and broader. Gone are the days that a single rider like Marianne Vos, Hanka Kupfernagel or Daphny van den Brand dominated the sport with one solo after another. Every race, it seems, has at least 10 potential winners.
“The top of the sport is really growing and keeps widening,” Cant said “It’s good because this means that you stay focused and that the desire and motivation to train remains high. You know the [race win] isn’t going to be handed to you and that you have to really fight for it.”
Cant noted hat the level of cyclocross in the US, too, has risen significantly.
“Yes Compton rides well but I was startled by the level at which Kaitie Keough is riding this year too. The level [of cyclocross] in America is rising alongside that of European cross,” she said. “And that’s a very good thing.”
When asked if anything has changed for her personally since becoming world champion, Cant said the media treats her significantly better.
In previous years, she was brutally criticised for her less-than-enthused media appearances on the days that she didn’t win, her disappointment visible as she sulked.
“There has been a lot more media attention, which has been very positive. They’re much nicer now. They treat me differently or maybe I have changed. That too, is possible,” she said with a laugh.
“I do try to present myself friendlier. I think I have perhaps become more mature in that.”
That, and she has little to frown about these days.
Defending at Worlds
Going into the World Championships this weekend, Cant knows increased media attention and fierce competition await her as she aims to defend her title.
After last year’s spectacle, the anticipation surrounding the women’s race is high. The Valkenburg course is historically, a hard one and the list of potential winners is long.
“I’m not quite sure what to expect just yet,” said Cant. “We’ll have to wait till the day itself. Only then will I know the course, the conditions, the weather and who’s lining up.”
The latter especially has been a much-discussed topic and the Hoogerheide World Cup race last weekend —the last big event before the World Championships — didn’t do anything to put those questions to rest.
Dutch rider Lucinda Brand abandoned the race mid-way due to illness and then Pauline Ferrand-Prevot and Jolanda Neff — who had both been favourites for Worlds — got tangled up in a nasty crash. Neff ended up with a broken elbow and collarbone and will miss Worlds. Ferrand-Prevot meanwhile is bruised but not broken, but her race-readiness for Worlds remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Vos’ form has been questionable all season and Katerina Nash, too, hasn’t been as consistent as she’s been in recent years. This has made a lot of room for strong underdogs like the Americans Keough and Compton and British youngster Evie Richards, who surprised everyone by winning the Namur World Cup race.
“It’s hard to predict how it’s going to play out, but it will be a real fight, I think,” said Cant, who listed Prevot, Nash, Eva Lechner and “the two Americans” as her top competition.
A future on the road?
Once someone has won everything there is to win, it seems natural that they seek challenges elsewhere.
There are a lot of riders who combine disciplines, but despite being a former mountain bike national champion, Cant said that she’s got no aspirations there.
“The technical level is so much higher than it was before. It’s not attainable for me,” she said. “Although I will be asking my sponsors for a new mountain bike this summer to play around in the woods. I do miss that.”
The track, Cant had said in our previous interview, only bored her and the road — while useful for gaining fitness — never interested her much either.
Yet, that seems to have changed. Last summer’s dabbling may have sparked a new interest.
Riding with the Belgian national team, Cant netted top-20 finishes as Gooik-Geraardsbergen-Gooik and the BeNeLadies Tour. She also finish fourth in the Belgian National Road Race Championships, but it was the European Championships in August that made Cant change her tune.
“Last year was the first time that I was given the chance to ride the European Championships and that was actually a very pleasant experience,” she admitted.
“I really enjoyed myself. There was a challenge in racing at that higher level and I hope I get to do it again this summer.”
Cant found that she was able to hold her own, and even allowed herself to dream a little.
“If there’s ever a women’s Paris Roubaix, then I would very much like the chance to compete,” she said. “But that doesn’t currently exist so I’ll have to keep those ambitions under wraps.”
In terms of cyclocross, Cant said she’ll be spending the summer working on her technical skills.
As the women’s field is getting faster and stronger, it’s also been getting more technical. Riders like American Ellen Noble have been catching headlines this season for bunnyhopping barriers and riding up stairs, something that was previously very rare in women’s cycling.
“I tried playing around with [bunnyhopping] skills a little bit this past summer and I am planning on trying to find someone who’s technically advanced to teach me those things this coming summer,” Cant said.
“I do want to have that skillset although I remain of the opinion that often it’s faster to run. The race is still about who gets through the course the fastest not the prettiest.”
When suggested that her Corendon teammate Mathieu van der Poel may be able to teach her some tricks, she revealed that he indeed had offered and she will surely take him up on the offer come summer time.
“It’ll be a few years before I can match Matthieu’s tricks though,” Cant said. So perhaps we won’t see Cant do tail whips and things anytime soon.
But one thing you are bound to be able to see Cant do, is give it everything she has to try to defend her title in Valkenburg. The women’s elite race at the UCI Cyclocross World Championships takes place February 3 at 15:00 CET. UCI will stream the races live on YouTube. (Unfortunately, these are geo-restricted).