Heading into the weekend, cyclocross fans had a feeling the Women’s U23 would be a must-see-event. However, even Worlds-caliber pre-race hype could not live up to the full-blown battle that broke out in Bieles on Saturday.
The pre-race favorites were all there – Annemarie Worst (Netherlands), Ellen Noble (United States), Evie Richards (Great Britain) and Laura Verdonschot (Belgium) – and they were battling for every inch of the icy, muddy Luxembourg course. After countless lead changes between the trio it was Ellen Noble and Annemarie Worst, together, heading into the last epic lap.
After two more lead changes, Worst made a World Championship move on one of the sketchy descents.
Cyclocross is a sport of consistency; it does not have the slam dunks and hail marys of other sports, but sometimes it does have those moments of high drama where everyone watching knows something amazing happened.
Annemarie Worst and Ellen Noble are two of the current and future stars of the sport, and Worst’s World Championship move is likely one cyclocross fans will remember for years.
Worst’s World Championship Descent
Early in the bell lap, Noble took the lead from Annemarie Worst and appeared ready to take control of the race, throwing her trademark glasses into the crowd and turning her fierce race face to 11.
Worst briefly pulled ahead past the pits, but Noble quickly countered on the ensuing flyover. Those lead changes were just two of at least a dozen from a group of women who came to Bieles to put on a show to remember.
On the first of two steep, sketchy descents, Noble took the wider left line most riders had been taking throughout the afternoon into the ensuring right hand turn. Worst, however, decided to make a bold move to the inside.
The Dutch rider took the right inside line down the descent and jammed on the brakes at the bottom of the hill to cut the turn short and take control of the riding line. Worst opened up a small gap that was all she needed to take control of the race and win the rainbow jersey as the new Women’s U23 World Champion.
All three of the top women are mountain bikers, and after the race Worst said she was not surprised those skills helped on the descents, “I knew it’s slippery and the track changed a lot. This morning it was really slippery and with the Junior Men’s race going over the track it was really different. I think because of mountain biking I would ride well on the really technical parts of the track. I am most gracious for the steep downhills because I know how I have to ride the steep sections. I am not scared, I think that’s also good.”
An Icy, Muddy Afternoon in Bieles
During the week of Worlds, there was a lot of talk – and video – online about the conditions and technical difficulty of the Bieles course. A blanket of snow turned to ice and one of the off-cambers was so difficult for the pros to ride, it had to be adjusted so the best cyclocross riders in the world could actually ride it.
On Saturday morning, some of the ice melted and turned to mud and the conditions changed yet again. The first half of the course was relatively flat with many slick, technical corners. The second half is where the fun began. There were a series of steep descents, a set of stairs, a (perhaps Jingle Cross-inspired) series of sidehill off-cambers, and two steep, muddy uphills.
Heading into the weekend of racing, fans, and racers as well, had a feeling one or several of these challenging features could be the decisive features in a close race.
Favorites to the Front
The hype-meter for the Women’s U23 race was at 11 this week because several women in the field have been asserting themselves in the World Cups all season. Last weekend at Hoogerheide, Annemarie Worst podiumed in third, Laura Verdonschot (Belgium) finished fifth, and Evie Richards took sixth in the women’s Elite. American Ellen Noble had a tough race on the day, but clinched the overall U23 World Cup jersey.
Worst came into the race with a plan to assert herself early on. Her plan worked until she lost her lead on the switchback off-camber after her wheel slipped out. From there, the four favorites put themselves at the front and settled in for the battle everyone was waiting for.
The second lap of five belonged to defending U23 champion Evie Richards. She drove the pace at the front, but was still unable to break away from the other riders. A crash on the last uphill off-camber by Verdonschot had her fall off the fast pace at the front, and the lead group was down to three with three to go.
The next to drop off the pace would be Richards. Worst re-took the lead during the third lap and then at the end of the third lap, Noble pulled past Richards and took over second. Richards was unable to counter Noble’s strong move, and when the race entered the penultimate lap, the four favorites were down to Worst and Noble.
A Deluxembourg Duel Between Noble and Worst
The last two laps featured six lead changes between Noble and Worst. Six times the women made strong moves to the front to try to take the rainbow jersey.
Worst held the lead heading into the penultimate lap, but Noble quickly seized the initiative and took the lead. Her lead would last to the switchback off-camber, where Worst rode a faster line to re-take the lead.
Not surprisingly, the Dutch rider’s advantage was short-lived. Noble floated up the stairs with ease and caught Worst by surprise to hit the front and have her choice of lines. Noble kept on the gas for the rest of the penultimate lap and held a four-second advantage at the start of the bell lap.
Noble is known for her smile off the course and fierce demeanor while on the bike. As she passed the finish line, she chucked her trademark race goggles aside and stared down the nine minutes standing between her and the rainbow jersey.
However, Noble’s victory would not come easy. Worst closed the four-second gap and charged to the lead through the straight past the pits. Noble again countered at the flyover and took the lead heading into the technical features in the second half of the circuit.
An Album of Technical Greatest Hits
The latter half of the course featured a greatest hits of technical features that were made significantly more challenging by the icy, muddy conditions. There were two steep downhills like the ones at Zolder and Fiuggi., a sidehill, switchback off-camber like the iconic Mt. Krumpit at Jingle Cross, a steep set of stairs like the ones at Hoogerheide, and two steep uphills like the ones at Namur.
During the race’s first four laps, the technical sections were where small gaps opened up among a front group that was rarely further than five seconds from first to third. As Noble and Worst dueled into the second half of the last lap, there was a feeling one of the greatest hits would be getting some fresh airplay.
The decisive feature proved to be one of the steep downhills.
On the first descent, Noble went left to navigate the muddy, rutted downhill and take her established wide line around the right hand turn. Worst opted for the road less traveled on the inside of th in an effort that became her World Championship move.
After screaming down the right side of the descent, Worst jammed her brakes and rode the shorter inside route onto the riding line. Noble briefly dabbed her foot, and Worst opened up a small two-second gap she would not relinquish.
From that point, Worst rode a flawless finish and Noble was unable to counter Worst’s move.
Worst said patience and perseverance allowed her to win, “It was such a difficult course. It was so slippery. And you have to stay so focused. In the first lap I tried to ride away from the girls, but that didn’t happen. I tried again and again and the last lap I could finally ride away from the other girls.”
Noble finished second, 10 seconds behind Worst, and Evie Richards took third as the only other rider within a minute of the winner. Verdonschot finished fourth, and Dutchwoman Manon Bakker rounded out the top five.
Noble said she is thrilled with her second-place finish, “It feels amazing. I’m so happy, even more so than my placing, to just have ridden such a great race. So exciting for me, I feel like I had kind of a breakthrough ride for me today.”
She said the key to her success was being smart about her lines and riding a clean race. “I think that was the hard part today, trying to decide whether or not to change your lines as the course changed,” she explained.
While keeping the same line choice arguably opened the door for Worst’s gutsy pass, it also kept her riding consistently, cleanly and on her way to the medals. “All it did was make the main lines more rideable and those lines remained safe all the way through, so I mainly kept on the lines I had been riding. Maybe it cost me a second here and there, but it was really safe. That was the biggest thing for me, I never made a mistake, and that’s why I was able to stay super consistent. Because I never crashed and I never even really bobbled. I think that’s how I was able to stay kind of dangling off the lead two, but I was right there when Evie [Richards] kind of made a mistake.”
Noble concluded, “I was able to keep the pressure on and just never ever give up.”
Last year’s champion Richards said she enjoyed wearing the rainbow jersey and is looking forward to vying for it in 2018. “I think to start the season I felt a lot of pressure wearing the rainbow jersey but of course it felt absolutely amazing to wear it. I think going into this race, although I wasn’t wearing it I still felt that pressure. I didn’t win, although I felt I did a good job of fighting to keep it. It’s unfortunate, but I’ll come back fighting next year.”
Americans with Strong Rides
Emma White (United States) joined Noble in the top ten with an 8th place finish. Hannah Arensman (United States) turned in a strong ride in 21st as well.
Emma Swartz (United States) finished 37th, and Ashley Zoerner (United States) took 41st.
Canadian Ruby West had a strong showing in 26th.
Full results below.
See our post-race interview with Ellen Noble here:
Stay up-to-date with all our 2017 Cyclocross World Championships coverage including a growing list of post-race interviews on our Worlds page here, and watch and rewatch the amazing U23 women’s race on replay here.
2017 Cyclocross World Championships - U23 Women - Bieles, Luxemourg
|2||NOBLE Ellen||USA||UNITED STATES OF AMERICA||+00:10|
|3||RICHARDS Evie||GBR||GREAT BRITAIN||+00:26|
|6||NOSKOVA Nikola||CZE||CZECH REPUBLIC||+01:44|
|7||DEL CARMEN ALVARADO Ceylin||NED||NETHERLANDS||+02:17|
|8||WHITE Emma||USA||UNITED STATES OF AMERICA||+02:37|
|10||VAN DER HEIJDEN Inge||NED||NETHERLANDS||+02:57|
|11||JAMES Ffion||GBR||GREAT BRITAIN||+03:02|
|16||CZECZINKAROVA Jana||CZE||CZECH REPUBLIC||+03:58|
|21||ARENSMAN Hannah||USA||UNITED STATES OF AMERICA||+05:21|
|22||GONZALEZ BLANCO Alicia||ESP||SPAIN||+05:23|
|30||VANICKOVA Tereza||CZE||CZECH REPUBLIC||+06:35|
|31||MELLOR Amira||GBR||GREAT BRITAIN||+06:38|
|34||REES Edie Antonia||LUX||LUXEMBOURG||+07:01|
|36||KUKULOVA Martina||CZE||CZECH REPUBLIC||+07:57|
|37||SWARTZ Emma||USA||UNITED STATES OF AMERICA||+08:08|
|38||TERUEL RIBES Alba||ESP||SPAIN||+08:13|
|40||VAN ANROOIJ Lindy||NED||NETHERLANDS||-1LAP|
|41||ZOERNER Ashley||USA||UNITED STATES OF AMERICA||-2LAP|