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Golden opportunity: Women’s ‘cross worlds there for the taking

The 2015 cyclocross world championships in Tabor may offer a rare opportunity to dethrone reigning women's champ Marianne Vos

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TABOR, Czech Republic (VN) — For the first time in many seasons, defending cyclocross world champion Marianne Vos looks vulnerable. Some might have predicted that Vos’ frenetic pace, winning nearly every race in sight, more or less year-round, would eventually lead to injury. And now, ahead of the biggest race of the season, the women’s championship could be up for grabs.

When Vos finished 12th on Sunday in Hoogerheide, it was just the third time since 2009 that she missed the podium. Vos, a seven-time world champion, was inarguably the favorite for the women’s race on Saturday. But she races one of the most demanding schedules of any woman in the world and told reporters that the race in Hoogerheide exacerbated a hamstring problem that has nagged her for months.

Vos won the Dutch championship earlier this month, but did so on one of the heaviest, muddiest courses cyclocross has seen in years. On Sunday, she said, she was still paying the price for that effort. Instead, Italy’s Eva Lechner, who herself earned a silver medal at the world championships in 2014, attacked mid-race and rode to an impressive solo win. The effort earns her a mention as one of four clear contenders to dethrone Vos.

Not far behind was California-based Czech rider Katerina Nash, who, until last weekend, was the only woman to beat Vos this season — a feat she accomplished twice during Belgium’s busy Kerstperiode (Christmastime) racing period, at races in Namur and Loenhout. Nash, a former Olympic cross-country skier, won a bronze medal at the 2011 worlds in Sankt-Wendel, Germany.

On Sunday, Nash told VeloNews she was optimistic, but had no expectations for her first world championship race in her home country since cyclocross last visited Tabor in 2010 — a race in which she finished just off the podium.

“I’m just trying to focus on having a good ride and I personally just want to cross the finish line and be happy,” Nash said. “Sometimes it’s fifth place. You just don’t know, so much goes into the preparation, and I really value the process, not just the outcome. … I did race in Tabor before, and it was quite an experience. So I’m looking forward to next week.”

Hot on their heels on Sunday were Belgian national champion and first-time World Cup winner Sanne Cant, along with French champion Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, the latter a world champion on the road this year. Both women are in the middle of breakout years. Cant, a worlds medalist in 2012 in Koksijde, Belgium, announced her arrival at the very top of the sport with a remarkable stretch in November and December during which she won 12 of 15 races she entered and only finished off the podium once, abandoning a race in Spa-Francorchamps due to injury.

Ferrand-Prévot, who calls Vos both her biggest rival and best teacher, posted her best results ever during the 2014-15 campaign, including two late-season World Cup podium finishes.

Other women to watch with an outside shot for a place on the podium include Belgium’s Ellen Van Loy, Great Britain’s Helen Wyman and Nikki Harris, France’s Lucie Chainel-Lefevre, and the Netherlands’ Sabrina Stultiens and Sophie de Boer.

Still, despite the depth of the women’s field and whatever Vos’ condition may be, counting her out would be a mistake and she will still be the woman to beat on Saturday.

For the Americans, medal hopes have long rested on the shoulders of Katie Compton. But Compton has been dogged by problems her entire career, and her worlds results — three silver medals and one bronze in eight starts — in particular reflect this. Early in her career Compton struggled with mysterious leg pain, pain that forced her out of the championship race here in Tabor in 2010. More recently she has battled asthma and allergies. On Sunday in Hoogerheide she finished 21st, a deeply disappointing result, although one that was good enough to keep her on the podium in the overall series standings. After the race she told VeloNews she was approaching the world championships without any major aspirations.

“I don’t have any expectations for next week. We’ll see how it goes,” Compton said.

In her place, medal hopes fall to several other women, all of whom are capable of big rides in international competition. At the top of the list are likely Kaitie Antonneau, 23, and Rachel Lloyd, 40, who took silver and bronze in the national championship race in Austin, Texas, a few weeks ago.

Lloyd, who was a leading American hopeful for many years before putting her racing career on hold to start a family, returned to elite competition — resurgent — last year. Lloyd said on Sunday she had battled illness in recent weeks, but that the rest her illness required left her feeling relatively fresh coming into the season’s homestretch. Antonneau, who has become one of America’s most reliable riders on the international stage, has been on top form in recent weeks.

They are joined by Meredith Miller, Elle Anderson, and Crystal Anthony, all of whom are veterans of Europe’s ferocious cyclocross racing, and all of whom are likely capable of posting top-10 results on the Tabor track.