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GAVERE, Belgium (VN) – While most locals were probably not finished with breakfast, Dutchwoman Sanne Van Paassen was busy winning another of the crown jewels of Belgian cyclocross, the famously difficult — for its hills and mud —fourth round of the Superprestige series in Asper-Gavere.
And although an unusually dry and pleasant autumn staved off an epically muddy race for at least another week, the best women in cyclocross nonetheless wrestled their bikes across a slick and technical track, setting up a contest that lived up to the reputation of this wooded, hillside race.
Nearly from the gun the slick conditions made themselves felt, as an early pileup involving nearly the entire field sprung Van Paassen, countrywoman Sophie De Boer and her tiny Telenet-Fidea teammate Pavla Havlikova. The three quickly gapped Brit Nikki Harris, who sat at the front of a strung-out chase group that made slow progress in catching the leaders over the next lap and a half.
By the end of the second lap, however, the lead bunch slowed just enough to allow Harris and Van Paassen’s teammate Sabrina Stultiens to close the gap. The additions made a five-woman race at the front that British champion Helen Wyman, hindered by a crash, vied vigorously, and unsuccessfully, to bring to six.
With three laps to go in the 40-minute race, however, Van Paassen and De Boer surged, and only Harris was able to match. Harris spent much of the remaining laps dangling just meters behind the two leaders, neither of whom could put the other away.
Meanwhile, further back, Stultiens and Havlikova faded, while Wyman slowly closed her gap to the pair. American Amy Dombroski and Sanne Cant spent several laps working together to close the gap to Wyman, but for all parties it was simply too late. Wyman would eventually miss out on the final spot in the top five to Havlikova by just six seconds, and Cant would overpower Dombroski in the last two laps to claim seventh.
And none would come close to the front three. Though Van Paassen crashed, taking de Boer with her, Harris couldn’t capitalize on the mistake, and it was clear as the leaders rounded the final 180-degree turn into the finishing straight that the contest was between De Boer and Van Paassen. And Van Paassen was, for the fifth time this year, the strongest, holding off De Boer on the line by less than a wheel.
After the race, De Boer, for whom even a second-place finish represented her best result of the season by far, wondered if technical problems cost her the first win of the year.
“Sanne took me down and my shifter was a bit damaged,” she said afterwards. “I couldn’t get my chain onto the big ring until too late.”
Nonetheless, the 21-year-old was pleased with the runner-up effort, and told reporters that her racing was improving every week.
“Last week I pulled too much,” she explained, “so today I tried to pace myself better. Sanne always tried to drop me on the climb, but I simply managed to stay with her each time.”
Van Paassen, meanwhile, said that this win, despite Gavere’s reputation as an important and difficult race, was second to her victory on the truly legendary Koppenberg.
“It was different than past year,” she said. “With more mud it’s more fun. Honestly, winning here is not the same feeling as the Koppenberg. This isn’t quite a real cyclocross classic.”
Van Paassen said the race was further diminished by the organization’s treatment of women, who were only offered contracts to start at the last minute and were forced to race early in the morning, ahead of both juniors and U23 racers.
“They put the women behind everybody, and only gave us contracts two days ahead of time,” she told reporters.
Though the UCI now mandates that major races must include a women’s contest, it is clear that Van Paassen was not alone in feeling marginalized. Americans Dombroski and Christine Vardaros agreed.
“I’m happy with how things went for myself,” said Dombroski, who finished eighth. “But I had to wake up at 6:30 this morning, and it just bums me out. It’s great that (UCI) C1 races have to have a women’s race now, but at the same time, it’s kind of demoralizing to have to start at 10:45 when there are no fans whatsoever.”
Vardaros, who rode one of her best races of the year, finishing fourteenth, said she had campaigned for better treatment with limited success.
“I talked to the race organizer, I’ve talked to everybody,” she told VeloNews.com. “A lot of people are saying that we’ve taken one step forward, but two steps back. What needs to be done is that the Superprestige organizers need to be bombarded with phone calls, emails, and suggestions. And I think the UCI needs to take a stand.”
Superprestige racing continues next Sunday in Gieten in the Netherlands, where the women will once again race early, despite the long transfer from Saturday’s World Cup in Koksijde. The series does not record overall standings for women.