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It was brotherly love, or at least appeared to be, on the podium Saturday as Pawel and Kacper Szczepaniak went one-two in the U-23 cyclocross world championships in Tabor.
Neither appeared terribly excited to be hogging the medals or to be on the podium together. Perhaps that’s because they race on rival teams and rarely even train together. Or, more likely, they were exhausted after a grueling seven-lap, 55-minute race that saw the favored Belgians once again left without medals in the opening day of world championship racing. (Click for full results and Graham Watson Gallery)
“I am very happy to be in second place,” Kacper said in monotone English without breaking a smile. “I am very happy my brother won.”
Kacper’s words defied his look of disappointment as older brother Pawel absolutely dominated the race, taking an early lead and holding it all the way to the end to win by 20 seconds, with French rider Arnaud Jouffroy claiming bronze with a strong final-lap surge at 21 seconds back.
The Poles decimated the field, with teammate Marek Konwa also on good form. At lap 2, the three teammates rode together to lead the chasers before Konwa faded late to finish fifth at 55 seconds off the pace.
Pawel took matters into his own hands and left his brother behind with three laps to go to win a gold medal to go along with his bronze from last year’s worlds.
“It was my decision and I was only riding at the front. My brother changed his bikes and I was a little bit faster,” Pawel said. “This is the first time in Polish history we finish first and second on the podium. It’s unbelievable.”
Pre-race favorite and U-23 World Cup winner Tom Meeusen was out-gunned by the Poles and finished a frustrating fourth. Jouffroy poured it on in the final lap, moving up from fifth to third to pass Meeusen and the fading Marek Konwa, who settled for fifth.
Meeusen didn’t want to make excuses, but he said the long racing season caught up with him.
“The Polish riders only have to focus on the world’s and they were stronger today,” Meeusen said. “We are obliged to race since October and we are obliged to perform well in every race. The season took its toll.”
Pawel admitted as much, and even said Meeusen is a better rider.
“Meeusen maybe won 15 races this year. He was the top favorite and I was an outsider,” Szczepaniak said. “He’s better than me, but I won today.”
Belgian frustration, French surge
The bright winter sun that popped out during the junior men’s race soon produced the type of gunk and mud that the cyclocrossers love, at least on sections exposed to the sun. Other portions hidden in shadows remained hard-packed and icy, creating a challenging mix of conditions.
The heavily favored Belgian and Dutch teams hogged the spotlight from the gun, but the surprising Polish team soon asserted itself.
Pawel Szczepaniak chugged clear after coming through the barriers midway through lap 1 and was soon joined by teammate Konwa. By lap 2, Kacper Szczepaniak surged to the front group, meaning the entire Polish team was holding the podium positions after two laps.
Meeusen was chasing methodically, letting French rider Jouffroy sneak ahead in lap 2 at six seconds back.
Pawel – the older of the Szczepaniak brothers – then powered alone to carve a 10-second gap to his teammates and even more critical gap of 16 seconds to Jouffroy and Meeusen.
Meeusen found his legs in lap 4, bunny-hopping the barriers to move ahead of Jouffroy to try to shorten the leash to the ever aggressive Poles.
Pawel Szczepaniak kept turning the screws, however, widening his gap to his teammates to 15 seconds and to the ever desperate Meeusen and Jouffroy to 36 seconds.
The brothers paired up with two laps to go, holding an 18-second gap to their teammate, with Meussen not regaining much for his efforts at 30 seconds back, chasing the podium, not gold, at that point.
Jouffroy came on strong in the final two laps after overcoming a mechanical problem with his pedals that prompted him to switch his bike with three laps to go.
“It was a very fast start and I was marking Meeusen because I knew he was the top favorite,” Jouffroy said. “I had a problem with my pedal and decided there was still enough time that I could switch my bike. This immediately boosted my morale and I was able to ride full force in the final two laps. I am very happy to get the medal.”
The five-man U.S. team did as best as they could in the harrowing conditions.
Zach McDonald led the squad with 28th at 3:40 back, with Daniel Summerhill coming through in 29th at 3:47. Dave Hackworthy was 34th, Jerome Townsend 38th and Luke Keough 44th.
“It was so slippery out there, I was trying to be patient and wait for other people to make mistakes. There was a crash on the last corner and it made me miss that first group,” McDonald said. “It was still icy underneath and super-icy in the shade. Some of the corners were drying up and I was trying to use them to make up some time. I was having a lot of fun, but a little frustrating start. This is my first year, so I am not too bummed, so I have two more years before going into Kentucky.”
Summerhill suffered a horrible crash on the final downhill that left him with a bloodied elbow.
“That was pretty brutal. I went down incredibly hard on the last downhill on the fly-over and lost a few spots in the last lap. I was in the top-30, that is not what anyone wanted us to do, but that’s racing,” Summerhill said. “The worlds is always such a hit-or-miss kind of thing. You think you’re doing everything right, but right off the start, I knew it was going to take a few laps to get my legs clicking underneath me. I started passing people, but it took me awhile to get there.”
Summerhill, who’s been racing in Europe since December, said he’s pleased how the expanded European experience will pay off dividends in the future.
“It’s been a challenging trip, with some of the weather we’ve had. I’m in better spirits than last year. I am a lot happier this year and already looking forward to see how we can do next year,” he said. “It’s been long this month and a half of Europe time. It’s going to be a good night to call it done.”