by Christine Vardaros
In Belgium, the homeland of cyclocross, slipping into that coveted Belgian-striped jersey while standing on the highest step of the podium is a feeling like no other. All eyes on you and nobody else. And in every Belgian race for the following twelve months, it is your universe and you are the star.
The most exciting battle in the women’s championships event, since its inception in 2001, is about to kick off this Sunday. While 23-year old Sanne Cant [Enertherm-BKCP] may be heading into the event as frontrunner, having finished all events but two this season as the first Belgian racer, she will have a couple of gals nipping at her heels all the way to the line in the form of Telenet-Fidea teammates Ellen van Loy and Loes Sels.
If Cant pulls off the win, it will be her fifth in a row. “It’s a really special feeling to stand on the podium while they put the Belgian jersey on me. The people know me only with the jersey as it’s been years now, so it would naturally feel weird if I can no longer wear it.”
Cant has really jumped to the top of international competition this season, with nine wins and nine additional podium placings, which include two World Cups. She is currently ranked third both in the UCI and World Cup rankings—proof that she has finally become an all-around rider, able to handle all types of courses.
With a solid palmares, Cant is confident going into the battle. “At the moment I’m not nervous about defending my jersey, but I think that on Sunday the healthy dose of pressure will hit.” Having just finished a round of antibiotics to treat flu-like symptoms, Cant assured Cyclocross Magazine that she will be 100 percent by race day.
Her biggest challenger is Telenet-Fidea racer Ellen van Loy, who is touted to be the only gal at the startline who has the chops to snag the jersey from Cant. Van Loy has finished just behind Cant in a few major events and even bested her a couple of times, including the World Cup in Valkenburg.
Van Loy is ranked three spots below Cant, sitting in sixth both in the UCI and World Cup rankings. She stamped her name into the books for the first time when she finished ninth in last year’s Louisville World Championships; since that turning point, she has kept her focus moving forward. “The chance to win the jersey is not out of my reach. I’m riding at a higher level compared to last year and can better hold my own on various types of courses,” explains Van Loy.
She added, “Right now I feel good, health and fitness-wise. I am also pleased with how I came out the other end of the hard Christmas period of racing. I feel healthy and can solidly finish my necessary workouts. I am also happy to be back into my normal routine after so many Christmas period races where I couldn’t go to work.” Van Loy works irregular full time hours as an educator for people with mental disabilities aged 45 to 55.
Considering the challenges that Van Loy has had to face in the first half of the season when she unexpectedly lost her father and had all her bikes and wheels stolen from her garage, she is holding up fine so far. “I’ll probably be nervous before the race, but that’s normal. The pressure this time around is slightly raised [with my new Telenet-Fidea Team combined with my elevated fitness]. Hopefully soon into the race I find a good rhythm and can finish it off the way I see it played out in my head. But if on Sunday they put the Belgian jersey on my shoulders, then my emotions will take over I think; there’s a good chance that it would all be too overwhelming. I will, of course, be very happy and proud if I won the race; that you’ll definitely be able to see by looking at me!”
A gal who is not far behind Cant and Van Loy in the results is Loes Sels, Van Loy’s teammate. After winning two Belgian Cyclocross Championships back in 2007 and 2008, Sels retired to have a couple of kids. “I really don’t know what to expect but to actually win will be very difficult. My summer preparation wasn’t really existent as I wasn’t really planning to race ’cross after having the kids. Our Josien just turned two years old and our Feline is almost 1 year. And I work every day from 8 to 4:30 so getting in a lot of training is not so easy. Needless to say, I’m personally very pleased that I’ve already reached a good level,” says Sels.
She added, “But in a championship, anything can happen! In most of the usual races I line up in the 4th row and then after only one round I am already significantly behind the leaders.” In this event, Sels will be elbow to elbow with Cant and Van Loy on the front row. “I’m very happy that I now have the chance to ride with Telenet-Fidea, as it’s really a dream come true and it would be a very nice way to thank them by getting on the podium at this race as well as score a World Championship selection.”
The dark horse of the women’s race is mountain biker Githa Michels of Team KMC. She is often not the fastest off the start line, but when lined up on the front row alongside the favorites, she is surely not one to be counted out. She is a steady top 10 rider in the UCI events and finished an impressive 15th at the Namen World Cup.
None of the gals have yet to pre-ride the course to see if it may favor them in one way or another, but they all agree that bike equipment, plain old luck and of course weather conditions can play a role in the outcome. If it is very technical, Cant and Van Loy may put an early lead on the rest of the field, including Sels who is a former professional road racer. And if tactics determine the victor between Cant and Van Loy, it could go either way as Cant has buckets of experience but Van Loy has proven herself to be a quick study. And finally, in a sprint, the advantage would go to Cant. But based on the mud they expect for this weekend, chances are high that the race will split up rather early. Like Cant says, “On a hard course, it will surely be obvious who the strongest is.”
As for the junior event, 17-year-old Lotto-Belisol rider Laura Verdonschot is the clear favorite. A newcomer to the ’cross scene, Verdonschot has already placed top 15 in the Koksijde World Cup against the Elites.