It was supposed to be a battle of the world champions – the defending world cyclo-cross champion Hanka Kupfernagel from Germany and the reigning world mountain-bike champion from the U.S., Alison Dunlap. Instead, it was a former rainbow jersey winner from France who bided her time, made her move at the right moment and scored the win in the world women’s cyclo-cross championship in Zolder, Belgium on Sunday morning.
In the end, Kupfernagel and Dunlap had to settle for second and fourth as 1998 world women’s mountain-bike champion Laurence Leboucher soloed in for the win, nearly a minute ahead of her nearest competitor.
Leboucher was among the early leaders on a world’s course that demands a good start. The French mountain-bike racer, joined Kupfernagel and the Netherland’s Daphny Van den Brand at the front of the 33-rider field within meters of the start on Zolder’s motor speedway. The three were the first up the steep, sandy climb that began immediately after the course turned off the 200 meters of pavement at the beginning of the 3km course.
Caught back in traffic, Dunlap fought her way through the crowd on the narrow climb and quickly closed in on the lead trio, which was being driven by a hard-charging Kupfernagel.
Starting order in the women’s event at the cyclo-cross world’s is determined on the performance of an entire team at the previous year’s event. As the only world champion in the short history of UCI-sanctioned women’s world’s, Kupfernagel started on the first row, as did the Dutch and French squads. And while Americans had turned in two top-ten finishes at the world’s event in 2001, the UCI requirement that a team have at least three entries for those results to count, meant that Dunlap and the other three members of the American team would start at the back of the field this year.
“I knew Hanka would be going hard from the start,” Dunlap said. “and on this course the start counts for a lot.”
It was typical Kupfernagel, charging from the start and staying up front for the first two laps, occasionally looking over her shoulder and at times encouraging her companions to join in the effort. Behind, Dunlap stayed within a few seconds of the leaders, rejoining and then losing time on the sandy sections of the hills.
By the end of the second lap, Leboucher, Van den Brand and Kupfernagel held a slight 10-second lead over the American. Starting her third lap, Kupfernagel again powered into the climbs, with Leboucher and Van den Brand in tow. But Leboucher seemed to sense that the German was tiring and moved to the front and gave a slight acceleration on a short but quite steep climb. Her timing was perfect. Indeed, better than she could have expected as Kupfernagel struggled with her balance, then slipped and fell just as the French mountain-biker was moving away.
Van den Brand scampered past as the German worked to regain her momentum. Dunlap rejoined and the three began chasing the fast-moving French rider.
Over the course of the next two laps, Leboucher maintained a steady rhythm, adding to her advantage – 28 seconds at the end of three laps, 51 at the end of four. It was clearly now a race for second place and the three chasers knew it. They began eyeing each other in preparation for a sprint down the finish straight of the speedway.
As the three near the pavement for the last time – a minute after Leboucher had already raised her arms in victory – Kupfernagel tapped her brakes and Van den Brand and Dunlap slid past.
“We hit the pavement and I found myself in the worst position possible, right at the front,” Dunlap said later. “Hanka attacked, Daphny went with her and I didn’t get on quick enough.”
Ahead it was a photo-finish between Kupfernagel and the Dutch rider, with the German edging across the line just a tire width ahead of Van den Brand, followed by Dunlap.
Forty seconds later, American Ann Grande led the steady stream of mostly solo finishers, taking fifth at 1:41.
“It’s a little disappointing,” American Carmen Dalusio, who took tenth, said later. “I think each of us thought were strong enough to make the podium. So maybe as individuals we’re disappointed but as team we rode well.”
Indeed, the four Americans won the team competition, with three top-ten finishes and Gina Hall’s 13th-place finish. And this year, there were enough women entered to make those results count. They start from the front row next year.
1. Laurence Leboucher (F), 15.240km in 39:06 (23.386kph); 2. Hanka Kupfernagel (G), at 1:04; Daphny Van den Brand (Nl); 4. Alison Dunlap (USA), both s.t.; 5. Ann Grande (USA), at 1:41; 6. Anja Nobus (B), at 2:00; 7. Reza Horme-Ravenstijn (Nl); 8. Birgit Hollman (G), all s.t. 9. Hilde Quintens (B), at 2:05; 10. Carmen D’Alusion (USA), at 2:12; 11. Corine Dorland (Nl), at 2:41; 12. Maria Paola Turcutto (I), at 2:45; 13. Gina Hall (USA), at 2:57; 14. Debby Mansveld (Nl), at 3:13; 15. Corinne Sempe (F), at 3:35.