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Cant seeks elusive victory at cyclocross worlds

Belgium Sanne Cant is a seven-time national cyclocross champion, but a world title is missing from her resume.

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ZOLDER, Belgium (VN) — Sanne Cant has been waiting a long, long time for this.

She is arguably the greatest Belgian woman cyclocross rider ever and comes from a country obsessed with the sport. She has been national champion since 2010, an unbroken streak of seven wins. She has won the World Cup twice, the European championships twice, and has earned two medals at worlds.

A year ago in Tabor, Czech Republic, Cant took French champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot right down to the final meters of the race, missing out on a championship in heartbreaking fashion — especially after putting together the strongest season of her career.

But in spite of all her success, she has spent a career at the margins of the spotlight, just behind Marianne Vos, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot, Katie Compton, Daphny van den Brand, and Hanka Kupfernagle. Looking for the podiums and medals on the edges, waiting to exploit a weakness and vault, briefly, to success against older, more established competition.

That has changed this year. Cant, who wrapped up her second World Cup title last week in Hoogerheide, Netherlands, is the clear favorite for Saturday’s elite women’s world championship race here on the old Formula One track in Zolder, thanks to both her season-long dominance and her commanding win in a World Cup race on the same course just a month ago.

“It’s the first year I’m the favorite,” Cant told VeloNews Thursday night. “I’m happy with it. At this moment, I don’t feel any pressure. [All the support from the fans] makes me feel good.”

If she wins on Saturday, it will be the culmination of an all-consuming, decade-long quest, one whose roots go back to her early childhood.

“There is not much life beyond the bike for me,” she said. “I try just to focus. Sometimes I go for a coffee or something, but I don’t have any hobbies. This is it.

“I started when I was 6, in Holland. And I drove every year. This is my 10th world championships. I feel really old!”

But Cant’s success, the long arc of her life that took her from youth races for fun to being one of the world’s best cyclocrossers, has not come in a vacuum. Sucked into cycling alongside her cousins and brothers, cyclocross became a family effort.

“My parents are always there,” she explained. “If I ask something, they do everything. We are with three kids, and we all ride cyclocross. So it’s not easy, but they are just amazing.”

It’s not so unusual in Belgium, that family commitment to cycling. Cant herself still lives at home, although she will move out on her own later this year at age 25. She is frequently seen cheering for her brother, Kevin, a repeat national champion in the elite non-professional category, alongside the same course where she herself raced only moments before. Family support, she says, is a big part of of the formula that has earned her so much success.

Now she is met with arguably the biggest test of her decade-long career. She will race, in front of a highly partisan home crowd, as the favorite in a world championship. Without long-time champion Marianne Vos, who is still returning to cyclocross after a series of injuries last year, and reigning champion Ferrand-Prevot, who also is focused on returning to form after an injury, all eyes will be on Cant.

If she wins, it will be vindication for last year’s achingly close loss, a memory whose recall is still clearly and visibly painful for her.

“It was — I was so close, I can —” she trailed off, then collected herself. “After the podium it was really hard. I raced the whole year, I think I had a really good year, and I had to lose to someone in a sprint! It was not easy. But I made it a motivation. I hope it will give me some strength this year.”

Cant took some flak for comments in the post-race press conference in Tabor, telling reporters how hard it was for riders who make their living at cyclocross to match riders, like Ferrand-Prevot, who focus on other disciplines and can come to the championships fresh, having only a few, late season races in their legs. She walked back those comments later on, telling reporters she believed Ferrand-Prevot was a worthy champion. But it’s clear she took the lessons of last season — a season she started with impressive form that she struggled to maintain through the winter — to heart.

“[Early this season] I tried to win, but with less condition than last year,” she said of the slow build to form she has followed this year. “And I think I’m now at my best. I trained really hard. I don’t think I can train any more than this. I hope it was good enough. I have to wait to see now.”

Will it be enough? That’s a question whose answer depends not only on her own preparation, but the preparation of a half-dozen other women as well. Cant flags American Katie Compton and Italian Eva Lechner as top rivals, though rivals whose condition is hard to gauge right now. She taps Dutch champion Thalita de Jong, who also has a burgeoning career racing on the road, as a wildcard, capable of a very good race on the fast Zolder track.

But whether her preparation will be enough is also a question that depends on a thousand external factors: the track, the terrible weather forecast, and whether she can handle the pressure when things get busy and nervous and loud.

The truth, however, is that it doesn’t matter so much whether she wins or not — at least, not to anyone but her. Cant’s legacy is secure; she’s already the queen of Belgian cyclocross, in spite of the missing jewel in her crown. There is more to her and her career now than race wins.

“A few years ago I was asking myself why I’m doing this,” she said. “I think that’s normal. And now I just want one thing, to make [women’s cyclocross] popular in Belgium. And hope the younger riders will try to follow me. And I think we’re on a good way. We can grow, but I think this year, with the TV [race coverage], it’s already good.”

Still, she’ll savor victory, if it shines its light on her. And if she should win on Saturday?

“I think I won’t sleep that night,” she says. “We’ll have a big party.”