Raphaël Gagné of the Red Truck-Garneau-Easton Cyclocross Team became the first Canadian cyclocross champion from Québec Province in at least 18 years on Saturday. The win came after an intense tactical competition between his team and Geoff Kabush’s SCOTT-3 ROX outfit, which saw five-time champion Kabush repeat last year’s second-place result.
With the sun drying out the remains of the previous day’s rain, riders in the Shimano Canadian Cyclocross Championships p/b Volvo traversed a mostly tacky course. Damp sand pits proved less decisive than in 2014. The 3.2-kilometer Winnipeg circuit was similar to the one used last year, although several tweaks created a tougher challenge overall. Riders tackled varied surfaces of gravel, dirt, cobblestones, wood, pavement, grass, and sand.
Red Truck’s Michael van den Ham shot out of the pack first, but Gagné took the holeshot after the men quickly exited the pavement into the grassy section.
“I led until halfway down the pavement and then Raph [Gagné] came by,” van den Ham later said. “We knew on this course you need to be at the front early or it’s just too tight or you’ll get caught at the back of a group.”
Unlike last year when several riders slid out there in lap 1, the field negotiated the green off-camber corners smoothly and then sped along some fast track. When they emerged from a dip down to the river, Kabush was leading, followed by Gagné, 2014 champion Mike Garrigan (Van Dessel-Shimano-Velocolour), van den Ham, and Kabush’s teammates Derek Zandstra and Cameron Jette.
Next the field hit the sand pits, which designers lengthened this year. After charging a stone staircase, racers dropped back down to the river and then climbed a steep run-up that led into stairs on one side of a new fly-over feature. That funneled into grassy curves which led back onto the paved start/finish lane.
Nearly all of the pre-race favorites soon formed a lead group, which contained Gagné with van den ham, Garrigan, Kabush with Zandstra and Jette, Aaron Schooler (Focus CX Team), Evan McNeely (Norco Factory Team), and Mark McConnell (Hot Sauce Cycling).
As the race entered the second half of eight laps and fatigue began to set in, McConnell and Jette fell back, as did Garrigan. McNeely later lost contact as well and then the leaders numbered five. Local rider van den Ham set the pace at the front with a bit of help from Kabush while Gagné, who had tried an attack earlier, sat in behind.
With two laps to go Gagné made a push off the front. He gained a gap of several seconds while Kabush took up the chase. But a slip on the off-camber grass cost Kabush a bit of time he couldn’t make up and Gagné won with a five-second margin. After Kabush crossed the line, Schooler took third.
Van den Ham finished fourth.
“I would have loved to take that third spot on the podium but I just had nothing left for the sprint, absolutely nothing,” Van den Ham said. “The race went down exactly as we planned it. Our plan was to send a guy off the front and sit in, then send a guy off the front and sit in. I’m really happy for Raph, he rode a great race.”
Saying he was “pretty stoked” about earning a maple leaf jersey for Québec, Gagné attributed his first cyclocross national title to precise bike handling but mainly to the support of teammate van den Ham.
“It’s definitely a team win today thanks to van den Ham,” Gagné said. “We both attacked a few times and we both took some pulls and counter-attacked. It’s one of the only races in my career where team tactics was involved. That’s pretty awesome and it sets the tempo for 2015/16.”
Regarding the battle with SCOTT-3 Rox, Gagné added, “They rode strong, and played their cards as well. They were trying tactics as well. I felt like Mike [van den Ham] and I were pretty strong in the sand pit and technically as well. Definitely we had the watts.”
Coming into the race with a clear goal for one the SCOTT-3 Rox riders to win, Kabush was disappointed.
“An unfortunate slip with just a lap and a half to go kind of got me, and with Derek [Zandstra off the group], that was just bad timing … and déjà vu, I came up a bit short again. I’m definitely disappointed. But that’s racing and I’ll try again, hopefully.”
Disera brothers win U23, junior men’s races
In the men’s under-23 race, Winnipeg’s Danick Vandale (Russ Hays-Accent Inns) and Peter Disera (Norco Factory Team) dropped the rest of the field after the first lap. The 20-year-old Disera, a third-year student at the University of Guelph near Toronto, beat Vandale in a sprint to the line.
“I’ve been in exams all week and I didn’t get to ride much this week, so the first half of the race I didn’t have that extra snap and then during the second half [Vandale] started to fade a little bit and I started feeling better. I wasn’t expecting it to be that tight of a sprint and I wasn’t expecting to go in first wheel,” Disera said. “[Vandale] came a wheel length up beside me, then I just gave a little bit extra knowing that I wanted that jersey.”
The U23 champion’s brother, Quinton Disera (CSAJCC-Norco & LG), won the men’s junior race with a margin of 33 seconds. Gunnar Holmgren from Ontario Province finished second. Last year’s champion, Winnipeg’s Ollie Evans (Russ Hays), slid out on lap 2, chased hard to move up, and finished third.
“It was super hard,” Quinton Disera later said. “My strategy was to go as hard as I could off the start and try to get a gap and make others work to get up to me. I really played the technical sections to my advantage.”
About the brothers’ back-to-back wins, Quinton Disera said, “It’s a really crazy amount of emotion. It’s like tons of happiness and it just feels like a super successful weekend already, even though we have tomorrow’s [racing]. Dwelling on today is really sweet.”
Canada’s championships are held in the fall due to the country’s early winter; this year’s winners will own their titles for 2016.