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Thalita de Jong claimed the women’s world cyclocross championship title for the Netherlands Saturday on a muddy course in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium. Caroline Mani of France nabbed the silver medal, while Belgium’s Sanne Cant settled for the last step on the podium.
After a junior men’s race and an under-23 women’s race both decided by long solo attacks, the women’s elite event was a hotly contested battle well into the final lap, with no one rider successfully detaching herself from the head of affairs until late on in the race.
Despite attempts to open things up, the field completed the first lap still relatively compact. Midway through lap two, a strong quartet managed to open up a bit of separation at the front of the pack. Mani and Cant were in the mix along with the Netherlands’ Sophie de Boer and Britain’s Nikki Harris. De Jong was not, trailing the leaders by several seconds by the time they completed the second lap.
But the 22-year-old Dutch rider started to work her way up to the head of the race and gradually closed down the gap to the foursome at the front throughout the third lap. By the time the leaders rolled across the finish line for the penultimate time, four had become five.
Cant launched a powerful attack at the start of the last lap and did not take her foot off the accelerator for several minutes, but de Jong was able to stay on her wheel. Then, when Cant appeared to flag, de Jong made her own move on a tough uphill stretch, immediately opening up an advantage.
Cant worked hard to try to close down the gap to de Jong, but she could not reel the Dutch rider back in. She then watched Mani sail by to claim second place.
“I caught the front group that [last] lap and I thought I had to take the lead on the heaviest part, with the wind in front of us,” de Jong said. “And then I saw that the others couldn’t pass me anymore, so I pushed, pushed, pushed on my pedals. And I had a gap. So I thought, ‘Go, go, go to the finish line.’ And I didn’t see anyone anymore.”
De Jong, known as much for her road riding as for her cyclocross ability, managed to exceed her low expectations coming into the race.
“I didn’t think I could win,” she said. “I believed I could do a really nice race, it’s a pretty nice course for me. It’s a course for road riders, a lot of straight parts in it. But because of the rain, today and yesterday evening, it’s become more slippery and more technical.
“Today I was a little bit scared, but I thought I’m going to do the race like I do every weekend and we’ll see what’s going to happen.”
De Jong’s ride earns her a year in the rainbow jersey, succeeding 2015 worlds winner Pauline Ferrand-Prevot of France, absent from the race this year due to a knee injury. Sanne Cant, who has dominated the women’s ‘cross circuit thus far this season, had been the favorite to take the title, but she did not quite have the legs Saturday.
“[I attacked] too early, I know that,” Cant said. “But I had to choose between the first or the last place in the group, so I chose the first one. But [de Jong] passed me and she rode away. So she was the strongest.”