by Christine Vardaros
While the race for the Elite Men’s Belgian jersey will most likely be a blowout with Wout van Aert taking the win, there is a real show expected to be put on by the women’s Elite field. The pre-race favorite may again be 4-time Belgian Champion Sanne Cant [Enertherm-BKCP], but coming much closer to her level this time around is Ellen van Loy [Telenet-Fidea].
Of the 26 races Cant’s entered this season, she’s won 16 times – including Koksijde and Milton Keynes World Cups and landed on the podium an additional 5 times. She may have had even more victories if it weren’t for succumbing to the stomach flu just after Namur World Cup held December 21st.
As for her health status, Cant assures Cyclocross Magazine that she is on target for a fine showing on the big day. “For the moment it’s going much better,” explains Cant. Proof of this was her fine 2nd place behind Katerina Nash [Luna] in GP Sven Nys Baal held January 1st. Cant skipped Leuven three days later to save herself for Nats.
Nipping at Cant’s heels is Van Loy. Van Loy was 2nd last year at Nats but is hoping to step up to the top of the podium this time around. This season she’s had 18 podiums, including 2 wins. “It is and remains a championship where factors like stress, luck or even bad luck play big roles in the outcome. I’m keeping my life as normal as possible up to the big day [to minimize stress] so we’ll see who is first across the finish line,” explains Van Loy. Adding, “I haven’t been saving myself the last weeks in special preparation for the race but even so, if I don’t land on the podium it will be a really big disappointment.”
While the race for the top two will most likely be a duel between Cant and Van Loy, the last spot on the podium is relatively wide open. The most likely candidates are Van Loy’s teammates Loes Sels and Jolien Verschueren, along with Githa Michels [Versluys Pro MTB Team].
If Sels hadn’t broken her kneecap at BPost Bank Trofee Ronse a week after finishing 2nd at the Belgian season opener of Neerpelt, followed by a stomach flu in December shortly after her return to racing, she would have been the clear favorite for the final podium spot. Her 4th place in Leuven a week ago proves that she is coming back to the top. The problem for her is that Verschueren passed her towards the end of the race in Leuven to take 3rd.
If the course is a technical one where it comes to who can remain upright on her bike, the scale tips in favor, though, of Sels as Verschueren is new to the sport and still has much work to do on her bike handling skills.
If Michels nabs that last spot on the podium, it would be simply amazing considering she has spent this week in the hilly Ardennes region of Belgium training hard for her upcoming mountain bike season. As mountain biking is her top love, she uses cyclocross mainly for interval training in the offseason.
And if these gals falter for any reason, there are another three ready to take their places. They are Kleur Op Maat teammates Karen Verhestraeten and Katrien Thijs, along with Laura Verdonschot. Verhestraeten started the season off strongly but faded due to parasites. After a recent round of antibiotics she is on her way to recovery, albeit maybe a tiny bit late for a top placing at Nats. Her teammate Thijs hopes to be in with the fight just after the five top favorite gals. Considering she’s taken her game up a level this year, she cannot be counted out to make miracles happen. As for Verdonschot, this will be her first elite Belgian Nats so, as opposed to other years where she was pre-race favorite to win the Junior title, there is no pressure on her which can work in her favor.
As of Friday, the excavator machines are hard at work on the Erpe-Mere course to make the thick mud rideable and to minimize the impromptu lakes created in places due to the heavy rains that continue through to two days before the event. With conditions like these, the strongest will surely rise to the top. If Cant cannot defend her title, though, she will still have her European Champion title to fall back on. Then the question remaining to be answered is if STEVENS Bikes, her new bike sponsor as of April, will equip her with a European blue paint job or go for something more outrageous like her teammate Mathieu van der Poel who rides around with a camouflage sniper machine.