KOKSIJDE, Belgium (VN) — Though Marianne Vos wrapped up another world championship Sunday, it is the young Belgian Sanne Cant whose name was ringing out across the steep dunes. By the time the real race — the race for the second and third steps on the podium — even started, Vos was long gone, dropping Daphny van den Brand on their second trip across the challenging Herygers Dune and never looking back.
The result was hardly unexpected — but neither was it assured. Vos has won all except one of her races this season, but the second place came on this very course and came at the hands of van den Brand. So when the two went clear early in the race it briefly looked like the drama would be in the race for first. But by the end of the first lap, Vos had a ten-second gap that was growing with every turn of the pedals.
“I knew that if I didn’t do anything stupid — I could make some small mistakes — but if I didn’t have any big mistakes or a flat tire that it would be enough,” said Vos about her early lead in an interview after the race. “But I did have to keep my concentration after that first lap. It’s such a hard course, that after one lap I was already suffering. And that’s the difference in the sand here, it’s just hard. I had some confidence, but I knew it was going to be a really hard 40 minutes.”
While Vos was churning through the sand on her way to a record fifth world title, van den Brand was trying desperately to hang on to a rapidly shrinking lead over a chance group that included Czech Katerina Nash, Dutchwomen Sanne van Paassen and Sophie de Boer, and crowd favorite Cant.
And behind the chase group, the great American hope, Katie Compton was storming back from a disastrous early lap. Compton missed her pedal on the first lap and then crashed into a course barrier a few turns into the race. Though in the middle of the first lap she was mired close to 20th place, Compton posted two blazing laps — the fastest of the day by any woman — and connected with the race for the podium during the third of the race’s five laps.
This made it a four-way race for the two remaining medals. Nash had faded as Compton rebounded, leaving van den Brand, Cant, and van Paassen in the chase group. As the group shifted and shuffled through the next several laps, Compton — apparently unable to recover from the effort it took to get back in the race — began to lose ground again, and, as the group started the second lap, Cant and van den Brand began to pull away.
With the prospect of a native daughter on the podium — especially one so young and unexpected — the crowds along the course went crazy, reacting with alternating gasps and cheers with every change of the lead. But even as the Cant and van den Brand made the final trip through the Herygers dune, side by side in the sand, it still wasn’t clear that either could win the race for silver, because Compton and van Paassen were both drawing near again.
Then, on the final stretch of sand, Cant made a neat little move to go ahead of van den Brand, and as the pair descended just ahead of the two pursuers, Compton bobbled badly and fell. Cant and van den Brand tore down the final grassy stretches of the race, Cant sitting just ahead.
It was not quite enough; the pair rounded the final corner and launched the final sprint and van den Brand, bent over and deep in the drops, came around Cant on the right, leaving the Belgian to gesture in resignation to her defeat, her expression simultaneously frustrated and thrilled, having exceeded even her own expectations to claim her first every world championships medal.
Behind them van Paassen rolled comfortably over the line in fourth ahead of Compton, who was clearly heartbroken to have missed yet another chance for a world title.
Vos, of course, had had time to comfortably celebrate another year in the rainbow stripes, nearly 40 seconds up the road from the race for second.
Gallery: 2012 women’s cyclocross world championships
“I’m really not at all disappointed,” said van den Brand, who will retire this year with a total of seven medals in the world championships. “Marianne was super today and I didn’t have a great start. Trying to catch back up to the early leaders took a lot of energy. I felt confident in the sand stretches, and tried to catch back up, but this was the best I could do.”
The Dutch rider said that she was, however, completely confident of her silver medal as she and Cant approached the final turn of the race.
“Sanne came ahead of me on the last descent, which was actually good because she had to lead in the last section of grass, so I thought she probably had some fatigued legs there. And then I saw she had her hands on top of the bars,” said van den Brand in the post race press conference.
Then, turning to the rising Belgian star, she offered a piece of advice built on more than a decade of experience. “Sanne, keep your hands in the drops,” she said.
Cant, despite settling for bronze, clearly knew she had lit up the crowds and accomplished something special.
“I’m really happy,” she said later. “I was glad to be able to ride my own race. Once I saw Daphny ahead of me I just tried to catch up, but then we had a lot of people on our wheels and just tried to drop one per lap. I knew that if I could be first or second on the final dune I would have a chance. I really hope this gives a boost to women’s cycling in Belgium.”
Though each of the women who finished on the podium had something to celebrate — a world title, a final worlds medal, an unexpected result — for some the race was a big disappointment. And Katie Compton, who came to Koksijde a heavy favorite for the podium, was first among them.
“You have to have a good start here, and I didn’t do that again,” she said, referring to a series of first-lap missteps that have hampered her races, at least in Europe, over the past several months. “It was really hard being in traffic, it was hard to ride some of it when you were stuck behind people. But the sand is just hard, and I guess today I didn’t have it. I don’t know what happened, it was just not a good day.”
Behind her, none of the Americans quite lived up to expectations, but several said they were satisfied with their results in an especially difficult race.
Meredith Miller, who finished 20th, just behind US teammate Nicole Duke in 19th, said that, arriving this week having never seen the course, she wouldn’t walk away disappointed.
“When I got here on Thursday it was the first time I ever saw the course in person,” said Miller. I had seen videos and heard the talk about it, so it wasn’t like I was overwhelmed, but it confirmed what everybody had said, that the sand was hard. Sure I wish I had finished better than 20th, but I think, given what I had to do this week, it was ok.”
20-year-old Kaitie Antonneau had to settle for 26th, and said some mistakes hampered her chances, but nonetheless was pleased to improve on her result in last year’s world championships.
“I’m a little disappointed,” she said after crossing the finish line, “but the positive thing is that I did better than last year. I tried my best. I really can’t be disappointed with my season even if today didn’t go as well as I hoped it would.”
Amy Dombroski, who finished between Miller and Antonneau in 23rd after a season spent in Europe, shared similar sentiments.
“I’m happy with my race, considering that a few weeks ago I didn’t even know if I’d be racing here,” she said, referring to a long battle with illness that ruined the end of December and January for her. “I think I was riding really well, I just didn’t have a lot of power in my legs, and that’s something I can improve on next year.”