Americans see something familiar in Czech Republic
“It’s Kansas … only with hills.”
On close inspection, Dale Knapp’s description of the world cyclo-cross championship course in Tábor in the Czech Republic is fairly accurate: The world’s course, huddled beneath a collection of Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks, is quite reminiscent of the U.S. national championship loop in Overland Park, Kansas. And, if weather predictions hold true, there may be a few more reminders of that weekend back in December.
Knapp and the rest of the U.S. contingent are based at Tábor’s Goldbrick Hotel, just a mile from the course and, for the most part, the team members say they’re ready for this weekend’s action.
“I feel pretty good,” Knapp said. “Wetzikon (Switzerland) last week was a good introduction. Sure, it would have been nice to be here all season, but….”
The mid-sized city of Tábor is quickly filling up with riders and support staff from all over — most have been here all season, contesting the World Cup series across Europe. Yup, having a “World Cup” based only in Europe is kind of like having a “World Series” for a sport in just one country, but hey, this is the home of ‘cross.
On Thursday afternoon, riders were picking their way around the twisting 2.8km loop on the northern edge of Tabor, trying to find the right lines and scoping out the competition.
Knapp’s assessment seems pretty close. The starting area is made up of a brief stretch of pavement that will demand an aggressive start. The Americans, of course, will face an immediate disadvantage because they get to line up in the back, based on World Cup points earned by Americans this season. Not many.
Up front, the top contenders, including World Cup winner Richard Groenendaal, Belgians Sven Nijs, Bart Wellens, Erwin Vervecken and Mario De Clerq, will be battling for a good spot going into that first corner before things narrow out. With Dutchman Groenendaal facing a solid wall of Belgians, one might expect him to be at a disadvantage. But there’s enough bad blood on the Belgian side to ensure they probably won’t be working as a single unit. Recall, for example, two years ago in Poprad, Slovakia, when De Clerq charged off the front, denying his own teammate Vervecken the chance at a rainbow jersey. Vervecken still seems to hold a grudge.
But it won’t necessarily be a cakewalk for Groenendaal, either. In addition to the Belgians, there are other strong contenders hoping for something of an upset. You can’t count out 1997 world champion Daniele Pontoni and the hometown crowd will be bellowing for a full Czech squad, headed by Radomir Simunek.
The entire Danish team — also known as Henrik Djernes — said he is here to ride what is probably his last world cyclo-cross championship. Who knows? The three-time world cross-country mountain-bike champ — who also finished third at the ‘cross world’s in 1998 — may have a strong performance left as he ponders retirement.
The American squad and a support staff, a significant portion of which is made up of volunteers, arrived in Europe on the 26th of January and made their way to what has been a tradition world’s warm-up, the Swiss ‘cross race in Wetzikon. Recall that American Matt Kelly made his presence known in 1999 by winning at Wetzikon, a week before going to Poprad and taking the world junior title.
No wins this time, but with only a couple of days to shake of jetlag the Americans performed quite respectably. U.S. ‘cross coach Clark Natwick said he was especially surprised and pleased with the performances of Under-23 riders Alan Obye and Josh Anthony, both of whom had just recently moved up from the junior ranks.
“With each of them having three years left in the U23 category I think they will be fast in a year or two,” Natwick said. “This was their first race as a U23. They finished in the 20’s after 50 minutes of hard racing.”
Less surprising was Ann Grande’s strong sixth-place finish in the women’s race. The SuperCup series winner finished a minute behind reigning world champion Hanka Kupfernagel of Germany. Her teammate Rachel Lloyd also earned a top-ten spot, finishing ninth at 2:08.
“I think we can realistically aim for a spot on the podium,” Lloyd told VeloNews on Thursday. “Ann and I both feel pretty good.”
Men’s SuperCup winner Marc Gullickson said he likes the course in Tábor and said he already feels familiar with its lines, because “it really is a lot like Kansas City.”
The one big difference, as Knapp pointed out is that there are a few more hills here. About a kilometer into the loop, the course dives into a wooded glen and takes the riders through a twisting set of trails and run-ups. Emerging from that, the course forces riders up and over an artificial hill constructed near the start finish area.
Finally, weather may again be a factor. On Thursday afternoon, as riders were closing up their practice rides, a snow storm moved into the area, dropping temperatures into the 20s and covering the course with a thin blanket of snow.
With temperatures dancing around the freezing mark, it could well be that riders will be facing a frozen and slippery course or, if things warm up, a mud bog. Given the recent success of the VeloNews Accuweather forecast, we’ll leave the predictions to the experts. They say it should be getting colder with a good chance of snow.
Check back for race coverage throughout the weekend. The women’s race is scheduled to begin at 11:00 a.m. (local time) on Saturday, followed by the Under-23 men’s race at 2:00 p.m. On Sunday, the day kicks off with the junior men’s event at 11:00 and is capped off by the men’s elite event at 2:00. We’ll try to have results and race stories up throughout the weekend.