by Josh Liberles
Bart Wellens comes in for his second win in as many days. © Kenton Berg
ISSAQUAH, WA Katerina Nash (Luna) and Bart Wellens (Telenet-Fidea) opened up gaps in their respective races, taking back-to-back wins on the weekend. If Saturday’s StarCrossed story was the quality of North American cyclocross when tested by the world’s best, perhaps the take away from Sunday’s Rapha-Focus GP was just how good the top Belgians are when the weather adds to the challenges.
Although the course tape remained unchanged from Saturday’s race, a steady rain Sunday morning made for a very different surface. The precipitation reached its peak during the Masters 1/2 race immediately preceding the Elite women’s showdown, then gave way to sunshine for the day’s penultimate event. I had a chance to pre-ride a lap with Sue Butler, who said, “This is the tackiest mud I’ve ever seen!” But the protruding roots made for super-slick hazards, and the dirt to paved transitions claimed more than their share of racers – and skin – throughout the day.
Nash and Dyck Escape Early
Nash and Mical Dyck, step for step through the barriers. ©Janet Hill
Sue Butler (River City Bicycles) was back to her fast-starting ways on Sunday, leading things out to establish her position and stay out of the fray as the women’s field launched into action. The Czech and French flags flew in her wake as Katerina Nash sat comfortably on Butler’s wheel, followed by Caroline Mani (CC Etupes). Mani, too, was anxious to push the pace early to see if she could use her technical prowess to her advantage and get in the day’s decisive break off the front. Mani attacked into the barriers after a lap-and-a-half, and the field was already whittled down to five contenders, with Mical Dyck (Pro City Racing), Nash, Mo Bruno Roy (Bob’s Red Mill) and Butler all together, and Devon Haskell (Rambuski Law) dangling just behind.
Dyck then took things into her own hands and stretched the elite group, eventually causing another split that only Nash could follow. The lanky Canadian continued to drive the pace at the front, and the two-woman break looked like a replay of Saturday. And just like Saturday, Nash was able to carve out a slim margin shortly thereafter, this time as she pushed the pace through the barriers. But Dyck hung tough, and unlike in StarCrossed she’d remain mechanical and crash-free as she pounded on the pedals in pursuit. Although Dyck would never claw the Czech champ and World’s bronze medalist back, she kept the world-class talent at 10 seconds, lap after lap, before eventually conceding the win.
“It definitely felt more like cyclocross today with a little bit of mud and overcast conditions – I enjoyed it a lot,” said Nash. “A couple of corners were more tacky, but a couple were definitely greasier: Just slow down a little bit and be patient on the pavement – that one was a little bit slick. The [first] sand section was almost riding better today then yesterday. For the second section, I kind of enjoyed the little jump off the ramp into the sand, then dismounted right after that.It was a great course, and thanks to all the spectators out there.”
Caroline Mani's strength was in the corners. ©Janet Hill
The two main differences in Dyck’s performance today were the start and the finish. “Yesterday I had two girls miss their call-ups, so I got to squeak into the front line,” said Dyck. “Today I had to start in the second row, so I couldn’t get the holeshot today. I sat in for a lap and people were catching from behind us, so I said, ‘I’m gonna go now!’
Dyck more than held her own in a front group full of World Cup-caliber talent and her second place finish was a breakout performance. “It’s been three races in five days, I haven’t slept well, and Vegas kicked my butt, so I didn’t know what to expect. I felt crappy in my warm-up, so I was surprised I ended up feeling really good today. I don’t know how [Nash] runs so fast in the sand – I’m taller, I should be able to run as fast as she does, but she’d just motor by me and would have more gas coming out of the sand too, but we’d hold pretty even for the rest of the lap.”
The duel between Mani and Butler would unfold in a similar fashion to the StarCrossed proceedings as well, with Mani relying on her cornering skills to separate herself. The French champion opened a gap with a lap-and-a-half left and gave it full gas to try to reel in Dyck, but would have to settle for third.
“I just wanted to do a really fast first lap. I’m usually not very good at the beginning, and have to catch up – so I want to work on improving my starts,” said Mani. “When Katerina attacked, I worked with Sue Butler, then attacked in the corners with a couple of laps left. I put in a really good acceleration and wanted to catch [Mical], but I think I needed one more lap.
“I am a competition girl, since I was six years old, I did motocross and I raced 12 years. I had a really bad accident – that’s why I started to ride bikes. I need to race, and I need competition. If I can race every day, I’m OK with that.”
Butler would wrap up fourth with another strong performance, and Haskell would edge out her chasing group mates Bruno Roy and Pepper Harlton (Juventus) for fifth through seventh, respectively.
“It’s so flat and really steady power output, and you have to really pay attention to what’s happening around you,” said Bruno Roy. “Yesterday I wasn’t really paying as much attention as I should to tactics and coming through the paved start/finish area. Today I had to sit back and let someone else take the lead once in a while, and really push it when I could through the sand. We were all able to switch back and forth well.
“My joke is: the less time I have to spend on the bike, the better result I have, so I really like when it’s muddy and you have to get on and off, and there’s transitions, and transitions in speed as well. In that last lap we had four of us: Kathy Sherwin attached back on, and I didn’t want to sprint with four people – that’s definitely not my strength – so I just gassed it through the sand, running, and was able to gap her. So, one spot improvement from yesterday, and the fact that I wasn’t sprinting on my hoods was a big improvement from last year, so I’m learning!”
Kathy Sherwin (Stan’s NoTubes) finished up her long day of yo-yoing on and off the chase group with a solid eighth place, followed by Alice Pennington (Team S&M) in ninth and in Jenni Gaertner (Raleigh) in 10th.
Wellens and Peeters Tag Team in Lake Sammamish Park
Wellens and Peeters were together for a half lap. ©Janet Hill
Ryan Trebon (LTS-Felt) looked ready to resume his aggressive, attack-filled ride of StarCrossed when he rifled off the start line to lead the men’s field off of the pavement and into the woods, and the furious pace quickly broke the race into groups through the course’s grassy twists, the accordion into the rideable sand section, and the long run on Lake Sammamish’s beach. By the end of the first lap, Rob Peeters (Telenet-Fidea) had already launched an attack of his own to further shake things up, and he held the slimmest of margins over the chase group led by Todd Wells (Specialized). Queued up on Wells’ wheel were Jonathan Page (Planet Bike), Bart Wellens (Telenet-Fidea), Chris Sheppard (Rocky Mountain), Ben Berden (Ops Ale-Stoemper) and Fabio Ursi (CS Escerito). Notably absent from the front group was Trebon, who dangled just behind and never seemed to quite find his rhythm.
“I had a few meters’ gap coming out of the sand, and Bart blocked the way a little to help create a gap,” said Peeters.
Peeters continued his solo escapade, slowly eking out seconds over the chasers and using his cornering prowess to his advantage. He came through the end of lap 2 with his forearms on the bars, time-trial style, with a four second lead, and the Belgian plodded away, stretching that slim advantage to seven seconds by the next lap. Despite the somewhat technical, turn-filled course, there were plenty of opportunities for drafting, and the dangerous Wellens waited in the wings while the rest were forced to do the work chasing his teammate.
“The two first laps my legs weren’t so good, but I was drafting and Rob was off on the attack – so for me it was easy in the beginning,” said Wellens. “Trebon, Page and Todd were out there doing the work. But I had a good feeling, so I went alone and attacked.”
Midway through the race, with Peeters still clinging to his lead, Wellens made his move in the sand, where he clearly had the edge over the other chasers and there was no danger of a challenger following his draft across to his teammate. Wells hung tough in pursuit, with Sheppard, Page and Berden all digging deep to reel in the American champion. But by the time the two Belgians got together at the front of the race, the win was up the road.
“I asked Rob if he wanted to win, but he said he was tired. I gave full gas because it’s very good training for Europe,” said Wellens. “Rob dropped off immediately in the sand, so it was five laps to go alone. The feeling was even better than yesterday. Some corners were very slippery and I was nervous since I didn’t have the right tires, but I borrowed from a US guy a Dugast [Rhino] for in the front, and that was good.”
“When Bart came up to me, he was going a little bit too fast. I made some mistakes the next time through the beach, and that’s where I lost the race,” said Peeters. “I had a few bad moments – I couldn’t ride the whole sand section, and it felt really hard coming out of the beach. But I still had a gap, and kept my pace up. So it was just to try and hang on to second place.
“In the beginning I had regular tires, but then the rain began and I waited too long to pit to switch bikes and tires. It was too late – I slipped many times with the Grifos, they weren’t thick enough to hold in the corners, and I switched to Rhinos for the last two or three laps. Then I could better hold the speed.”
In the waning laps, the rain started to fall in earnest, and Page ratcheted up his efforts to match, sprinting out of the saddle on every corner to catch the fading Peeters. He’d close to within five seconds, but would remain entrenched in third, taking his second podium spot in two days. Wells was the next across, followed by Berden in fifth. “Peeters went through the sand first on the first lap,” said Page. “The rest of us didn’t make it through cleanly, and the Fidea boys played team tactics really well. Wellens rode across, then Wells rode very well together with me. We all were at our limit, I just had more at the end.”
Berden was very upbeat about his weekend’s performance, including his finish just behind Page and ahead of Peeters on Saturday. When asked how often he was in the mix with top World-Cuppers when racing in Europe in recent seasons, he said: “Never. Here I’ve gotten the call-up, and the position is so important at the start. There are going to be some surprised faces when I go back to Europe with UCI points after my time in America and get a good position.”
Chris Sheppard held on for sixth, backing up his strong StarCrossed performance against some of the world’s best with what he told Cyclocross Magazine was the ride of his life. “To have the opportunity to race against such great champions is pretty cool. I’ve never had a front start position: generally I register last minute and come from behind. I have a job [as a massage therapist] and a lovely wife and kid, so to come out here and still be a little competitive – that’s what I’m after, it’s fun,” said Sheppard. “There was a big huge nuclear explosion with a lap-and-a-half to go, and it was my legs. I attacked for three-quarters of a lap: you gotta try. I’m 38, and I don’t get that opportunity very often, so it was fun to try. I got 50 feet, then I exploded.”
We also noted a water bottle cage on Sheppard’s seat tube. “I’m old, I need sugar. It was Old Tyme country lemonade today, and I drank the whole thing,” said Sheppard. “Yesterday I blew up with 10 minutes to go, and today it was with five minutes to go – so I’m getting better.”
Zach McDonald (Rapha-Focus), who excels in inclement conditions, and Tristan Schouten (Cyclocrossracing.com) rode close to the front group for several laps early on before mechanical issues left them with insurmountable gaps. McDonald would finish in eight nevertheless, behind Ursi, with Troy Wells (Clif Bar) in ninth and Aaron Schooler (H&R Block) turning in another impressive ride to round out the top 10.
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