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Photo Essay: Cyclocross World Cup 2016 – Hoogerheide

Photo Essay: Cyclocross World Cup – Hoogerheide

Words and photos by Dan Seaton

HOOGERHEIDE, Netherlands (VN) — Until a few weeks ago, a mild, dry winter kept European cyclocross in a perpetual early season groove, delivering high speed, hard-packed, sun-soaked races well into January. And although there’s plenty to recommend about fall-like weather in western Europe, cyclocross without mud, week after week, just doesn’t quite seem like cyclocross.

So perhaps it’s fitting that the weather finally delivered — and delivered spectacularly — just in time for the finale of the cyclocross World Cup in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, on Sunday, just a week ahead of the world championships, a short drive across the border to the south in Zolder, Belgium.

Thanks to a major redevelopment of the southern end of Hoogerheide, including the removal of the massive overpass that hosted the finish straightaway at the many World Cups and the 2014 world championships, the town delivered a spectacular race. Early morning rain eventually gave way to low clouds that swallowed steeples and treetops, but not before turning much of the course into thick mud, and the sandy stretches through the still-ongoing construction into a heavy, sucking, sticky mixture that more than one rider compared to quicksand.

In the juniors’ race, the day’s first, two English speakers — Britain’s Thomas Pidcock and the United States’ Gage Hecht — spent much of the race chasing the two remaining steps on the podium after the Netherlands’ Jens Dekker went clear early in the race.

Hecht couldn’t catch Pidcock, and would eventually finish fourth — sprinting amid a group that reeled him in during the race’s waning moments — a sign of positive progress for a young man who is, arguably, America’s best chance for a medal next weekend. After a slow start, a 21st place finish in Koksijde, Hecht’s results have been on a steady climb: sixth in Namur and fifth in Zolder in December, and now a fourth on Sunday.

“I was feeling really good today,” said Hecht. “This is one of my best races this year. I’m super stoked about it. I’m excited for worlds, we’ll see what happens.”

Still, Hecht will have his work cut out for him if he hopes to dethrone the European champion Dekker, who claimed a wire-to-wire victory by a huge margin and netted the World Cup overall title in the process.

Meanwhile, in the under-23 men’s race, Hecht’s countryman Logan Owen, finished eighth after a strong come-from-behind effort in his race.

“I was much stronger than I was at nationals, I’m just constantly getting better after just being sick multiple times in a row,” Owen said. “I’m just kind of using this as training, I didn’t really have any expectations coming into it. I rode a good race and a smooth race, a couple of issues with handling and stuff, but form’s coming back. I just need to do a couple of sharp efforts before worlds and I think I’ve got a pretty good shot of getting on the podium.”

That under-23 race also belonged to a European champion, Belgian Quinten Hermans, who rode easily away from countryman and rival Eli Iserbyt, in second, and a big bunch of Belgians who will be eager to shine in a home-country championships next week.

World Cup events usually offer a brief pause at midday, a chance for fans to refuel and the machinery that runs the biggest cyclocross series on the planet to turn freely, closing the account on the morning’s races and preparing for the women and the men.

There is plenty to do. There is paperwork — for anti-doping and prize payouts and start grid calculations — and, on a day like Sunday, there is plenty of cleaning. Belgian ’cross racers may be big stars at home, but it’s still largely family business. Mothers, fathers, siblings all pitch in around the team mobile homes to keep riders warm and clean and dry and ready to race.

But quickly, it’s time for the women to take the line. The Netherlands’s Sophie De Boer went right to the front of the women’s race, easily riding away from her own countrywoman, Dutch champion Thalita De Jong, and British champion Nikki Harris. Farther back, Belgian Sanne Cant, the overall World Cup leader, struggled to find a rhythm, slipping backward into fifth place.

“I didn’t have a good feeling today,” said Cant. “It was really, really hard, but it’s totally different from last week and next week. So I don’t think today said anything. This was the hardest race I ever rode in [Hoogerheide].”

Meanwhile, with the first ever under-23 category for women on the schedule at next weekend’s world championships, the women’s event in Hoogerheide featured a real race within a race, with a substantial number of young women from around the world taking the line. American Ellen Noble was one of them, smiling as she ran through the mud to a 37th-place finish.

But two national champions who have previously dominated World Cup competition struggled on Sunday. Italian champion Eva Lechner, who led the series overall earlier this year, could muster only an eighth-place finish. Her American counterpart, Katie Compton, ran into trouble right from the start, battling from 44th to 12th place.

“Today I was quite tired,” said Lechner. “I just came back from a training camp yesterday evening in the Canary islands for two weeks. So I was a bit tired because I was working hard, preparing for next week. So I was risking a bit to not do that good a race today.”

“It was pretty awful,” said Compton. “I missed my pedal and then my other foot popped out. So I think I put both feet on the ground, and there was so much traffic at the start, there were tons of people, so you can’t go anyway. I had to wait, and I think I probably lost at least a minute in the first lap, and the course is so hard that it’s not like you can go fast anywhere. You just have to keep slogging through.”

Indeed, in a deep field, there was little margin for error. American Meredith Miller settled for 26th place in what she said will be her last World Cup race. Germany’s Mara Schwager took some encouragement as she passed the pit, fighting for a result well into the 60s.

But the race belonged to one woman, Sophie De Boer, who roared around the course on her own, 30 seconds ahead of her nearest competitor, to take a huge win, her first-ever World Cup victory, by far her biggest result of the season if not her career.

“I felt really strong today, and immediately after the first lap I had a gap,” she said. “I was really happy about that, I could race my own race, try not to make many mistakes. And I had a lot of people on the sideline who were screaming, ‘This is the gap!’ so I knew the gap wasn’t getting smaller and I could do my own race. I felt really great today.”

Victory — and jubilant hugs from friends — was enough to bring her to joyful tears. She was not the only one who said the race had been an emotional one.

“It was such a crazy experience,” said American Elle Anderson, who finished 16th. “It just felt like so much energy. It was a little bit — I felt worlds two years ago coming back. I rode my first world championships here. My parents came all the way from the U.S. to watch me, and I feel like this venue has a little bit of mystique for me. So I just kind of feel like my mind went blank and I just soaked in all the energy.”

Meanwhile, on the men’s starting line, there were plenty of smiles too. Belgium’s Laurens Sweeck joked with friends behind him in the starting grid, while even on a camera crew, there was time to pull out a phone for a quick close-up shot of the reigning world champion on his final start line in his current rainbow stripes.

Then they were off. More than 70 men took the start, a big field even for the World Cup finale. Laurens Sweeck led the bunch as they climbed the first, arching climb, but world champion — and hometown favorite — Mathieu van der Poel quickly took charge. By the time the riders climbed the stairs the end of the first lap he was all alone. As van der Poel has done more than once this season, he made it look easy.

“Maybe it looked easy, but it was very hard,” he would say later. “Like I said before the race, I think it was one of the toughest of the season. It was really hard to get through the mud today.”

Meanwhile, behind him, four men, all Belgian — Wout Van Aert, Kevin Pauwels, Laurens Sweeck, and Tom Meeusen — tried to reel in the escaped van der Poel. But they made little progress, with Van Aert going clear later, while Kevin Pauwels, who would finish third, tried desperately to hang on.

American Jeremy Powers, farther back, was trying to battle back from a disappointing start.

“It wasn’t great at the start,” he said. “I just got pinched. Van der Poel — I didn’t want to mess with him because you knew he was going to dictate the race — but he bumped me pretty good and I just really let off, because I knew if I had forced it we would have crashed. I lost a lot of momentum because I had to hit the brakes … Definitely it was not a great race by any stretch, but a very hard race, super challenging … I can take away some positive things, but it was a hard race.”

And the battle that everyone expected, the world championships sneak preview, between Wout Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, never materialized.

“On a course like this I should finish much closer to him than I did today, but that wasn’t the case,” said Van Aert. “It’s very clear, it’s not just me, but all the others as well. We were all distanced quite far today. If that will be the same next week? That’s a different story. I trained on the specific course of Zolder this week I hope it pays off next weekend.”

And just as the fog descended ever closer to the course, van der Poel pulled inexorably away, leaving everyone else to struggle for scraps. Belgium’s Tom Meeusen was one of those others. Despite a good start and plenty of encouragement from Belgian fans who made the very short trip across the border, Meeusen could not reach the podium, managing a respectable, but ultimately unsatisfying, fifth-place finish.

It was Van der Poel’s show. But did he take anything away from an overwhelming win, any encouragement for next week’s championship race, a race he said is the only goal in a season cut miserably short by a knee injury?

“I don’t know if it really means something, because the course next week is entirely different,” he said. “But for me the condition is really good and that’s what counts, because I’m really looking at myself.”

Others will not even have the opportunity to test themselves.

Belgian Toon Aerts, who has had a stellar late season, arrived on the finish line in tears, sixth place, but with no place on his country’s world championship squad.

American Stephen Hyde, on the other hand, will. Hyde finished 33rd on Sunday, and, wiping away not tears but mud — after what he said was the muddiest race he had ever done — said he thought the Zolder worlds course would favor an even better result for him.

“These guys always seem to come so fast for worlds, so I’d just like to maintain my position really,” he said. “I made the front group there [in the World Cup stop in December] but then I flatted. I was hoping for a top-15 there, so hopefully I’ll be able to do that this time.”

And then it was over, the final race of a World Cup that started at CrossVegas four months ago. One final podium — Wout Van Aert’s chance to celebrate a major career milestone with his first World Cup title — as the light drained from the clouds that blanketed the course by the end of the day.

One big deep breath for the world of cyclocross, a few more chances to spin the legs, and then it’s the big one. They’re expecting 80,000 people in Zolder on Sunday, maybe the biggest crowd ever to attend a cyclocross race.

Everything’s ready — or it had better be, because time is short. Next week they’re handing out five rainbow jerseys. Who’s going to wear one home?