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“This may have been the hardest race of my career,” a mud-spattered Sanne Cant commented after she crossed the finish line in Valkenburg, The Netherlands on February 3rd.
The Belgian defended her world championship title in a brutally muddy duel with four-time medalist Katie Compton (USA).
In an equally exciting battle for bronze, Dutch rider Lucinda Brand bested Luxembourgian Christine Majerus.
The championship weekend’s most anticipated event more closely resembled a mud run than a bike race, as the already tricky course was bogged down with heavy, tire-deep muck. In a battle against the elements, it was a question of who could keep their bike upright the longest and who was the fittest. Slips and crashes were abundant and the pit crew had their work cut out for them as well.
It was a pure sufferfest of a day.
The race started with dual-discipline Italian rider, Eva Lechner, going into the left-hand turn first and taking the lead coming down the steep descent. Those with lower starting numbers found themselves in a bit of a hold-up and were forced off their bikes just metres into the race, setting the tone for the rest of the hour.
Luxembourgian Christine Majerus had a great start and joined Lechner in the front with Belgians Sanne Cant and Ellen van Loy on their wheels.
Van Loy wouldn’t be there very long however. She, like so many of the riders, struggled to keep her bike upright, finding herself in the mud time and time again.
“You have to do something to get yourself on TV on a day like this,” she would joke with Belgian media after the race was done. And so while she slowly moved backwards, the rest of the field was still clawing their way forward, one rider at a time.
Half a lap into the race, riders were already swapping bikes, and the field had completely scattered around the course.
Lechner, Majerus and Cant led at the front while other race favourites like French comeback star Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, American Katie Compton and seven-time former world champion Marianne Vos were nowhere to be seen.
After getting caught in a wheel-deep groove, Lechner relinquished her lead to Majerus, and Cant moved upward.
One lap completed, Majerus and Cant led the race with a steadily building 30-second gap, but riders like Katie Compton and Lucinda Brand were moving through the field quickly.
The whole course was a brutal obstacle. From running to scooting — and at times dragging — their bikes along, riders muscled their way through the course anyway which way that allowed them to keep going forward.
“We were close to cramping the whole time and the course was changing every lap,” Cant said in a post-race interview. Which is why she took to the front by the second lap, hoping to choose her own lines as much as possible.
She quickly earned a gap but paced herself, looking calm and collected even as Compton was making up ground. Majerus was still in the mix for podium but Brand, looking for that medal she narrowly missed last year, rode with a mission.
When Compton successfully made contact with Cant with two laps to go, the duel we had all hoped for ensued.
The duo had earned themselves a comfortable gap of at least 30 seconds over the bronze medal contenders, while the remainder of the field was well out of competition as riders like Vos, Wyman and Ferrand-Prévot trailed over a minute and a half behind.
The camera would forget about them as we followed the tale of two duels. All champions of their respective countries, Cant and Compton took on the battle for the rainbows while Brand and Majerus fought for bronze.
Cant and Compton are both extremely experienced riders who for nearly five consecutive month compete weekend and weekend after weekend. As the defending world champion and most dominant rider in women’s ‘cross, Cant went into the race as top favourite. But 39-year-old Compton, already a three-time silver medalist, was coming off her best season in recent memory and had previously won the World Cup race on this course. Spending a full season in Europe this year, the American champion became the first non-European to win the prestigious DVV Troffee series and said she felt better than she had in years, never mind her age. Could this finally be her year?
And so it was Cant and Compton, constantly rotating at the front. One second Compton would slip, allowing Cant to take the lead, but then Compton would turn on that diesel power of hers to bridge the gap, never letting Cant get too much space.
Both were riding and running at their absolute limit. Shoulders were starting the creep up and legs no longer wanted to move. And when Cant took too long to recover after a fumble going into the bell lap, it seemed that perhaps Compton would take the win.
But Cant came out of the pit with a clean bike and renewed spirit. She bridged the eight-second gap to Compton and neck-and-neck, they entered the finale.
Behind them meanwhile, Majerus still wasn’t giving up and put a little ground on Brand. But then, Brand, too, found a last bit of energy and rode back up to the Luxembourgian. Every effort of the previous laps weighed heavily in the legs of the Boels-Dolmans rider and when flash of orange came by her, she simply could not respond.
With only a quarter lap and two more run-ups to go, Cant put in a dig on Compton. “Now or never” she must have thought, grinding the mud-covered gears with pain and exhaustion written all over her face.
As Cant ran up the muur, Compton’s legs said “no more”. Compton was barely moving while Cant had gone clear with a 16-second gap.
Up and over into the flat finishing straight, Cant had time to celebrate. Whereas we had seen tears in the past, now there was only a smile.
From a podium at the World Cup opener back in September to a win at the Hoogerheide finale at the end of January, Cant had honoured the rainbow stripes all season long. Netting her 16th UCI win today in Valkenburg, Cant proved that she is absolutely deserving of that jersey and will surely do it proud again throughout 2018. Though Compton, a runner-up once again, would have worn that jersey well also.
“I’m happy Katie is second. She also deserved this jersey.” commented Cant post-race.
“This was the most difficult race I have had in my career. One little mistake and it would have been over. This is an incredible moment for me and I’m super happy to have this jersey again.”
In the end, Brand took the bronze medal and Majerus, despite her determined race, had to make do with fourth. Germany’s Elisabet Brandau rounded out the top five.
1. Sanne Cant (Belgium)
2. Katie Compton (USA)
3. Lucinda Brand (Netherlands)
4. Christine Majerus (Luxembourg)
5. Elisabet Brandau (Germany)
6. Kaitie Keough (USA)
7. Eva Lechner (Italy)
8. Elle Anderson (USA)
9. Marlene Petit (France)
10. Caroline Mani (France)
Photogallery of the weekend’s events to come at the beginning of the week.