The year 2018 was dubbed the Year of the Woman by many observers.
Although the moniker arose largely thanks to non-cyclocross developments, one could argue 2018 has been the Year of the Woman in cyclocross as well.
The unofficial designation has been a long time coming for women in the sport. Even this decade, women cyclocrossers were treated as second-class citizens by European fans and media, and they struggled for equal pay and equal attention.
Fortunately, that was then and now, things have been moving in a positive direction for women’s ’cross. Belgian and Dutch television networks started broadcasting women’s cyclocross alongside the men’s, and race and series payouts have slowly moved toward equality.
An incredibly talented field of women racers has responded by putting on great show after great show after great show on the course.
And that was two or three years ago. It has only gotten better.
Right now, we are witnessing the next step of the growing talent and opportunity in women’s cyclocross. Thus far during the 2018/19 season, literally any of 15 to 20 women can win a given ’cross race.
And the big picture winners? Pretty much everyone. The women racing have had to up their respective games to stay competitive and fans have been treated to gripping races seemingly every weekend.
Women’s Racing, by the Numbers
Savvy observers—and riders themselves—have long noticed that international women’s cyclocross has been top-notch for years now. However, despite the seeming parity, this year stands out for its anything-can-happen-ness when compared to the past two seasons.
During her 2016/17 comeback to cyclocross, Vos won six of the seven races she entered before Worlds. Prior to Vos’ return, Cant had won 13 races that season. Against that backdrop, Vos’ near win after Cant’s legendary last lap in Bieles was an apt end to that season’s racing.
Last season, Cant had won 14 races entering Worlds, including 7 from December on. Katie Compton also caught fire late, winning at GP Sven Nys and World Cup Nommay. In total, Compton won six international races during the season. Based on the season results, the two dueling into the last lap at Worlds was an outcome that was not entirely unpredictable.
This season, the numbers reflect how wide open the racing in Belgium and the World Cup has been.
The leader in the clubhouse right now is Cant, who has won seven races so far in the 2018/19 campaign. Vos follows with six and Lucinda Brand with five. The Dutch duo of Denise Betsema and Annemarie Worst follow with four and three, respectively.
In total, at least 13 different women have won an international Belgian, Dutch or World Cup race.
It is perhaps the major series that best tell the story of just how open the racing has been this season.
In six DVV Trofee / Sack Zelfbouw Ladies Trophy races, six! different women have won. In the Superprestige series, it’s five. The World Cup, a mere four. For comparison, one man has won a Superprestige race and two have won a DVV Trofee or World Cup race.
The numbers tell the story oh so well.
Stars, New and Familiar
Perhaps one needs to look no further than Tuesday’s winner at the GP Sven Nys for a sign that women’s cyclocross has arrived. Jolanda Neff is one of the best mountain bike racers in the world and has the fame to go with it. Last year, she decided to bring her bright star to the women’s cyclocross party.
Thanks in large part to her poor call-up positions, Neff’s biggest contribution last year was her star power. This year, armed with more UCI points and better call-ups, she is a force to be reckoned with.
Neff turned heads at Namur when she powered forward from a fifth-row start to finish fifth. Then on Tuesday in Baal, she came back and defeated Sanne Cant in the last lap. Cant knows a thing or 10 about winning in the last lap, so impressed, we should be.
Neff’s success at cyclocross was not necessarily hard to predict, but there have been two women who have seemingly come out of nowhere this season. The first was Kim Van De Steene of Belgium. Van de Steene had a monster run in October and November where she won at Superprestige Boom and then conquered the Koppenberg to win the annual November 1 race.
Joining Van De Steene in turning heads has been Denise Betsema. In October, the Marlux – Bingoal team quietly announced it had signed Betsema to a multi-year contract. At World Cup Koksijde, we saw what the team sees in her when she won the iconic race along the North Sea. In total, Betsema has won four races in Belgium and another three in the Swiss EKZ Cross Tour.
Annemarie Worst is not necessarily a new star, but the 2018/19 season has been a breakout year for her at the Elite level. After finishing on only a handful of podiums in her first year as an Elite in 2017/18, Worst doubled down on her commitment to ’cross and is now a threat to win at every race. Worst’s crowning achievement this season was a win at the 2018 European Championships, and she also dueled Vos in the last lap at World Cup Bern.
Speaking of Vos, Vos is back. After an off 2017/18 campaign, Marianne Vos decided to venture into somewhat new territory by starting her cyclocross season in September at World Cup Waterloo. She won that race, and World Cup Bern, and World Cup Zolder. Vos has won a total of six races this season, but she has had a few off-days. With “off-day” of course meaning “finished on the podium.”
The latest mega talent that has been upending the women’s field is Lucinda Brand. Brand has quietly been establishing herself as a ’cross force to be reckoned with. She finished fourth at Worlds in Bieles in 2017 and then reached the podium in Valkenburg in 2018.
Based in part on her adventures at Druivencross in 2017, there was a sense Brand was best-suited for winning on power courses. That changed this year at Namur when Brand won by nearly 30 seconds on the course that supposedly favors “mountain bike-sters.” She followed that race up by dueling Vos into the last lap at Zolder and winning out of a group at Azencross. Whatever the conditions and the course, Brand is a threat to win.
Finally there is Sanne Cant. Last year, Cant went on a roll late in the season, winning 11 of 19 races from November up to Worlds, and she won a total of 19 races for the entire season.
This year, Cant has not been the force she was last year. She has won a total of seven races this year, but she has been turning it on lately, winning four races since the start of December. As we saw at Superprestige Diegem, Cant still has her bell lap magic to call on and is starting to get hot at the right time.
Last season, the duel between Cant and Compton at Worlds was a good bet for how the World Championship would play out. This year if the season thus far is prologue … well, good luck picking how the race one month from now in Bogense will go.
The Drama, Oh the Drama
There is no denying that last-lap drama in cyclocross races produces must-see TV. It is almost as if the duels between Cant and Vos and Cant and Compton at Worlds the last two years were a harbinger of what was to come this year.
If we are looking for a place to start, a good one is the first big race of the season at World Cup Waterloo. Ellen Noble battled Marianne Vos until the last feature of the race before Vos escaped with a win.
A month later at World Cup Bern, Vos’ countrymate Worst took her into the last lap in another exciting race fraught with drama. At Tabor, it was Brand’s turn to get a last-lap win.
Then there is the 2018 Kerstperiode. If you are looking for ’cross drama, the annual holiday races have been *chef’s kiss.*
At Zolder, five women entered the last lap together. Brand covered a Vos attack to take the lead, only to see Vos again win a race in the closing meters with her incredible poise and skill.
Azencross? That was a sprint finish, with Brand unleashing her road-honed power at the right moment to get the win.
Then at Diegem, Cant overcame a slow start thanks to the dreaded off-camber to comeback and use her bell lap magic to outduel Betsema, Worst and Lechner.
At Tuesday GP Sven Nys, it was Neff who was the best in the last lap.
The quality and drama of women’s racing this year has been undeniable. North American fans have certainly taken note, and based on television numbers, so have the Belgians and Dutch.
The opportunities for women and the talent they have brought continue to grow, suggesting the wide-open racing will continue in coming years.
Another 2008-2014 Marianne Vos could certainly emerge, so for now, our vote is to enjoy the exciting and dramatic racing the world’s best are treating us to right now.
Featured image: Andrew Yee