Tábor, Czech Republic – The Szczepaniak brothers, Pawel and Kacper, rode away with gold and silver in the Under-23 World Championship as their Polish U23 team stamped its mark on a dramatic race for the rainbow jersey, taking three of the top five slots. The two emerged at the front of the race during the second of seven laps, part of an early break that also included compatriot Marek Konwa. The Polish block at the front managed to control the dynamics of the race and, more importantly, were able to bottle up Belgian powerhouse Tom Meeusen, who dominated the international U23 ranks this season. While the three-man Polish break held together for most of the race, French racer Arnaud Jouffoy was able to connect with the front of the race, winding up third, but nearly stealing second from the younger of the two Szczepaniak brothers.
Under sunny skies with temperatures near freezing, the snowy course began to thaw a bit and, combined with a sandy treatment that race organizers applied to help improve traction, turned slick and sloppy. As the race made its way from the road into the first turns in the slushy, sandy sludge that covered the course, traffic allowed the leaders to open a gap. Up front was Konwa, followed closely by Pawel Szczepaniak and, further back, Meeusen, Jouffroy, Belgium’s Jim Aernouts and a handful of others.
Meanwhile, the race stretched out behind them as riders slowed to make their way around some of the tight, dangerous corners in the early part of the lap. While many grabbed posts and barriers for balance and to sling themselves around the turns, the leaders rode clear, quickly gaining a significant gap over riders just a few places back.
Although Meeusen was a hit with the huge number of Belgian fans who made the eastward journey to watch the race, bunny hopping the barriers that forced most racers off their bikes just after the first trip through the pits, the young Belgian, who has been heralded as the next Sven Nys, clearly looked off his game. Meeusen dangled, climbing as high as third, but later falling back into fifth. Meeusen made a late charge for the final step of the podium, but France’s Jouffroy countered with one of the fastest laps of the second half of the race, forcing Meeusen into a battle for fourth with Konwa.
But the real fight today was between the brothers Szczepaniak, who came together at the front of the race with three laps to go. However, any thoughts of brotherly love were swept aside when Pawel, the older of the two, attacked as Kacper changed bikes. From there, Pawel simply cruised to victory while a dispirited Kacper slowed, allowing Jouffroy, who trailed by 40 seconds at one point, back into the race. Jouffroy, who first caught Meeusen before continuing on his own, stormed towards the finish and almost stole the silver medal from the Kacper, who rolled across at a more leisurely pace.
The Americans in today’s race, meanwhile, rode to solid, if not stellar finishes. David Hackworthy led the team early, before a crash during the third lap allowed Danny Summerhill and Zach McDonald to come around him. The trio, followed by Jerome Townsend a few seconds back, stayed closely grouped, though not close enough to work together. Summerhill eventually took the lead, opening a bit of a gap over his teammates before a late fall allowed McDonald to come around him and claim top American honors with 28th. Summerhill finished a few seconds behind him in 29th, with Hackworthy and Townsend in 34th and 38th. Luke Keough was 44th.
After the race, winner Pauwel Szczepaniak told reporters that the dominating Polish tactics were not part of any plan. “It was my decision,” he said. “I was always on the front and, with two or three rounds to go, I rode with my brother. But he changed his bike and I went faster.”
He added that the one-two finish was huge for his home country. “This is the first time in history to have two guys from Poland on the podium. It’s unbelievable.”
His brother Kacper, however, was less effusive in his comments. “I am happy with second place,” he said. “I am happy my brother won.” But his brief, positive comment did not conceal a bitter note of disappointment at missing his chance to wear the rainbow stripes.
Top American Zach McDonald told Cyclocross Magazine that his race was a blur. “I just tried to battle through the whole thing,” he said. “People everywhere were flying around.”
For McDonald, a steady, if not exactly slow, approach worked best. ”I took a few risks in some corners that looked like the ice had melted a little bit and that paid off,” he told us. ”I was able to rely on one corner every lap to close ten or fifteen bike lengths on the group in front of me. I didn’t push super hard, I just tried to stay calm and not blow everything. I was trying to be tactical instead of rush.”
Summerhill told us that he was feeling positive after a really tough race. “It was a bicycle race,” he said. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to open my legs up a bit better over the past month and a half in Europe, and today was no different. It wasn’t clicking in the first half of the race, but once I got my legs under me I could really hit the throttle.”
The U23 national champion said that he was very happy with his season, and felt good, if not great, with his race. “It was a decent race and nice weather, and now I’m definitely excited to get on that road bike,” he said.
David Hackworthy, who led the Americans in the first laps, said he started slowly but that it paid off. “I pretty much pushed my way through everybody through the switchback corners where it was all congested and everybody was off their bikes,” he told us. “I definitely had a great start and worked myself way up on the first lap.”
Hackworthy also told us he was pleased with the race and his season as a whole. “I’ve been going since September,” he said. “So I’m glad I could come on at the end of the season here.”
If the Americans were looking back at a season of success and encouraging results in international competition, Meeusen was looking at a missed opportunity. “I felt quite relaxed before,” he told reporters at the finish line. “But those three from Poland shot like a lightning bolt from the starting blocks. I wanted a gap, but they blew me away completely.”
Meeusen was clearly frustrated by the result after 12 wins this season in Europe. “Of course, I have to stand a whole season,” he said. “Those guys peak twice a year: at the European Championships and at the World Championships. I’m leaving Tábor with a hangover.”