Cross Vegas returned for its 10th year — and the debut of the 2016–17 of the Telenet UCI World Cup — on Wednesday night in Las Vegas. The race has grown into one of the most successful and difficult in America, but it is also a party, a boisterous celebration of cyclocross.
The “Wheelers and Dealers” race, for bike industry insiders in town for the massive Interbike trade show, is a Cross Vegas classic. Pure spectacle, a little goofy, and all about fun. Costumes have always featured prominently.
Cross Vegas genuinely seems to have captured the spirit of the classic Belgian races that are the beating heart of cyclocross, then injected them with American spirit and some local color. Among the things you are not so likely to see on the cobbled slopes of the Koppenberg or the sand pit in Zonhoven are fish tacos or a former Belgian champion like Joyce Vanderbeken sitting among the fans and taking in an early race.
Cross Vegas has taken a cue from Belgian races like the Superprestige race in Ronse, building an arena-like atmosphere where fans can sit on the hillside overlooking the course and see nearly the entire race. The enthusiastic hillside crowd only adds to the spectacle. Premium seating goes to the early arrivals.
Sven Nys, a two-time Cross Vegas winner, returned to the race in a new role. Retired after the 2015–16 season, Nys now leads the Telenet – Fidea Lions as a sport director. Nys, who won a world championship in the U.S. in 2013, is now an outspoken proponent of the expansion of big-time cyclocross to North America. The legendary Belgian rider was in high demand in Vegas.
Italian champion Eva Lechner finished second in the inaugural Vegas World Cup in 2015. Her fluorescent glasses were hard to miss under the lights at Desert Breeze Park. Her rather anonymous 16th place finish, unfortunately, was not.
Belgian Ellen Van Loy was the first to hit the sand in a women’s race that ripped off the line and screamed around the thick grass course, strung out single-file. But Van Loy faded as the race developed and eventually finished 17th.
Meanwhile the race developed into a four-way battle between American Katie Compton, Dutchwoman Sophie de Boer, and two Luna Chix teammates, the American-based Czech Katerina Nash and Canadian Catharine Pendrel. The quartet traded attacks until Pendrel cracked, then they raced to the finish in a three-way battle.
It was a night of mixed performances for stalwarts of the American ’cross scene. Elle Anderson, preparing to return to Europe after recovering from a trying year there during the 2013–14 season, was isolated for much of the race and finished 18th. Colorado-based French champion Caroline Mani, the 2016 worlds silver medalist, couldn’t quite match the leaders, but still finished fifth.
Finally it was de Boer who emerged victorious, gapped on the last lap before charging back into the race and taking the sprint from Compton and Nash. De Boer picked up right where she left off: She won the final World Cup last season and kicked off the year’s campaign with another victory.
“I’m not sure, I mean, if [Katie and Katerina] could have done better, I’m sure they would have,” said de Boer. “In the last lap Katerina attacked, and I also tried to attack, but I couldn’t drop them. So they dropped me. And the only thing I thought was that I had to get back. And if I could get back to those two, I have to be the first on the stairs. I don’t know, maybe they were both a little bit tired from battling each other and I could take advantage of it. But I thought I had to be the first one on the stairs and I did. I sprinted, and, yeah!
“I didn’t really expect this today. It’s my first race and it’s very special and wonderful to start the season like this.”
It was a well-earned victory and there was little doubt that the top-three women had left everything on the course. Nash crumpled to the grass, exhausted, just across the finish.
Meanwhile, there was plenty for women who didn’t quite reach the podium as well. The Amy D Foundation rider Rebecca Fahringer finished sixth, earning a big embrace from Dan Dombroski, who runs the foundation. Cross Vegas was a special race for the late Amy Dombroski, who twice finished second in the race.
“I’ve seen the race develop and it’s really amazing,” said Renaat Schotte, one of Belgium’s best known TV commentators, who knows a think or two about big cyclocross races. “It’s more than World Cup level. It’s world championship level. If you look at the way the course is built now, after the total makeover, the women’s race was really perfect propaganda for the sport. To have the decision on the final stretch — we had to wait for the finish line — and the tactical play was really nice.
“I think it has characteristics from certain French races, they also take the slopes up and down. But I’d say the course here has more fantasy than those forgotten French World Cups. This one is more vivid. It’s spicy. I love the sand dune — it’s a sand dune because it’s uphill, they have to run it.”
The women’s race was a celebration of the sport, arguably one of the best battles the World Cup has seen in some time. Behind de Boer, Nash finished second and Compton third. It was the return, in some respects, of two legends: Compton back on form after a trying season last year, Nash back on the ’cross bike after a fine Olympic performance that kept her away from this sport for much of last season.
Meanwhile, the men were lining up. It was a big race for American Jeremy Powers, who finished sixth at Cross Vegas last year, one of the best-ever World Cup performances by an American man. And, of course, it was a big race for world champion Wout Van Aert, seeking to extend his CrossVegas win streak begun last season.
American Stephen Hyde was the first man to reach the sand, leading a furious chase through the churning dust. The clouds billowed under the bright lights, and the fans who crowded the hillside overlooking the race were treated to a second duel. The race ignited when Wout Van Aert bobbled on the stairs and fell.
“I was for one moment not concentrated as I should have been, and I hit the first step with my feet,” explained Van Aert later. “And then I fell on my wrist. It was a quite stupid crash and actually painful also. But afterwards I made it very quick back into the front of the race.” (Van Aert later went to the hospital and was diagnosed with a broken toe.)
With Van Aert distanced, Michael Vanthourenhout attacked, sprinting to a quick 15-second gap over Laurens Sweeck and the rest of the chase.
“It was not a plan, but Wout made a mistake, and I went. But with six laps left, it was a little bit too early,” he said. “[After that] it was more tactical. I was always in second or third place, and Wout did a very good effort just as I made a little mistake, and he was away.”
The huge surge at the front blew the peloton apart. Dutch rider David van der Poel was one of the victims, fading precipitously to 48th place, pulled from the race with two laps to go.
His younger brother, former world champion Mathieu van der Poel, was one of several conspicuous absences on the start list along with countryman Lars van der Haar. Both riders skipped the trip to the U.S. to rehab injuries. Their absence did not dampen the enthusiasm of the fans, nor did it appear to diminish the vigorous competition.
Meanwhile, European racers were treated to some of the more esoteric traditions of American cyclocross, dollar and beer hand-ups among them. More accustomed to seeing fans tossing beers than waving dollar bills from the sidelines, maybe some were flummoxed. At least one hand-up apparently went badly wrong, leaving a handful of bills strewn on the course as racers flew past
It was Van Aert, of course, who surged away in the final laps, riding to what has become a classic Van Aert solo victory, while countrymen Laurens Sweeck and Vanthourenhout battled behind. The sprint for second may have done more damage than Van Aert’s attack. It belonged to Vanthourenhout, who promptly collapsed on the ground, smiling, apparently satisfied with his night’s effort.
There was something to celebrate for others as well. Quinten Hermans, still officially an under-23 rider, earned an impressive sixth place and celebrated afterwards with his former team director, Hans Van Kasteren, who sold the Telenet – Fidea team to Sven Nys last winter but made the trip to Cross Vegas anyway.
“It was a good race. It was really fast. I liked it,” said Hermans afterward. “It was just really hard with Wout and Laurens and Michael. There were three really strong riders on the podium. It felt like they were controlling the race and it was really hard to pedal in front. It was really hard to be in front of the group, and I was just trying to keep following.”
And, in the end, there was plenty of celebration to go around. Two new Cross Vegas victors, and a successful 10th anniversary celebration for a race that director Brook Watts has built from a curiosity into the biggest and, arguably, most important race in America. Back in the spotlight, American cyclocross shone brightly.
The celebration was short. Riders, teams, and supporters would make an early start on Thursday morning, hurrying to Iowa City and the second American World Cup. The calendar says September, but here comes Jingle Cross.