Updated with photo gallery below
After last year's British podium sweep in the Junior Men's 17-18 race at the World Championships, including a second by Dan Tulett, Ben Tulett (Great Britain) was looking to cement his position as the next young British star.
After riding solo off the front during the mid-part of the race, Tulett was caught by a charging Tomas Kopecky (Czech Republic), and the two hit the line for the last lap wheel-to-wheel.
Tulett needed to dig deep to continue the British tradition, and on the wet, muddy day on the Cauberg, Tulett had someone else riding with him.
Last year, shortly before the Bieles World Championships, Tulett's friend and training partner Charlie Craig passed away in his sleep. This season Tulett has ridden an inspired campaign in the memory of Charlie, and in the last lap on Saturday, his friend helped him find an extra gear in the think Valkenburg mud.
Shortly before pit one, Tulett unleashed a massive attack and accelerated away from Kopecky to a solo lead he would not relinquish. Pushing, sliding, skating through the slick corners, Tulett rode a perfect last lap to honor the memory of his friend and bring home the second straight Junior World Championship for a British cyclocross program on the rise.
"Best day of my life so far, one-hundred percent," said Tulett about his day. "Ride for Charlie, that's what did it."
After a tough outing at the U.S. National Championship in Reno, Lane Maher (United States) was looking to put together a complete ride in his second Junior Worlds. Maher rode nearly perfectly, leading during the second lap and crossing the line at the bell in third. He held on in the face of a Dutch-led onslaught to take fifth-place on the afternoon.
Mayhem Early On
As it often does, the European Junior field lacked a dominant force during the 2017/18 season. At various times, Pim Ronhaar (The Netherlands), Loris Rouiller (Switzerland) and Tulett, among others, were the top riders in the field. With a wide-open field and sloppy, muddy conditions, it was not a surprise that the first lap was chaotic.
Rouiller took the early lead in the hopes of getting a clean look at the muddy ruts and slick off-cambers and perhaps avoid some of the carnage in the field. The decision paid off early on when Kopecky and Tulett collided in a corner and Kopecky went sprawling into the snow fence.
Kopecky eventually recovered from the close encounter and went to the front with Rouiller. Behind them, a mass of riders that included Maher, Ben Gomez Villafane (United States) and Scott Funston (United States), formed as the riders tried to stay upright and sort out their affairs on the challenging course.
At the end of the first lap, a large group of six formed at the front — Kopecky, Rouiller, Mees Hendrikx (The Netherlands), Tulett, Ryan Kamp (The Netherlands) and Maher.
A Battle for the Front
Cyclocross commentators often like to talk about "pack-style" racing when there are big groups tactically feeling each other out at the front.
Early in the second of four laps, there was a large group at the front, but it was more of a chaotic mob than a group of young riders figuring out the best tactics. With sole ruts offering the best line in many sections, it was every man for himself trying to find the best way to move forward.
One young man who quickly had the course dialed in was Maher. Maher took a page out of the Euro playbook and ran past several riders on a long uphill slog and then accelerated to the lead when Kopecky and Tulett swapped for fresh bikes at pit one. Maher's lead lasted for a spell before Tulett and Kopecky again took over the lead spot. Early on, the two were demonstrating they had things figured out, but with the conditions, the race was always one slip from a massive shake-up.
After taking the lead spot, Tulett quickly accelerated away from Kopecky. At the midpoint of the race, he had a 15-second lead on a chase group that was now four. As the third lap played out, the chase group started to see some daylight between riders.
Midway through the lap, Kopecky's legs came to life, and he started taking space out of Tulett's lead. He made the catch at the "wall" run-up and once at the top, Tulett was happy to let Kopecky lead the way and do some work. They hit the line together to head out for one more lap with the rainbow stripes on the line. Behind them, Maher sat in solo third, six seconds ahead of Ronhaar and several other orange-clad Dutchmen.
Ride for Charlie
There was no question Kopecky had put in a big dig trying to bring Tulett back. The remaining question was how much he had left in the tank. Early in the bell lap, Kopecky took the lead off the starting tarmac and tried his best to put pressure on Tulett. Tulett, however, stayed right with him.
In a sport that is mentally-demanding, especially with conditions like those on the Cauberg on Saturday, any advantage can make the difference between first and second. After riding for Charlie Craig all season, his departed mate helped provide the edge he needed.
Shortly before pit one, Tulett unleashed a blistering attack and opened up a sprawling gap on Kopecky. The swiftness of the move stood in contrast to a race that had been slow and thick to that point. Tulett now had over ten seconds on the Czech rider and only about two kilometers to go for the rainbow stripes.
Tulett only got stronger during the last lap, while Kopecky started to fade as the toll of his earlier efforts added up. Tulett was not challenged the last half lap and came across the line with a 20+ second win. It was the second straight Junior Worlds win for Great Britain, and a step up for the Tulett family after his brother finished second in 2017.
"I knew I had to keep going full gas," said Tulett about the last lap. "I kept going and kept going. I saw Tomas Kopecky was coming back a bit with one to go, and I sat up a bit. I went again and I think it kind of broke him and I kept on going."
Shortly after Tulett moved on Kopecky, Maher was swamped by a sea of orange. Kamp, Pimhaar and Hendrikx pulled past him and put the young American on the ropes. Kamp proved to be the strongest of the Dutchmen, and he set off to close the gap up to Kopecky. He would eventually get close, but have to settle for third, as Kopecky held on for second.
To his credit, Maher recovered from the onslaught of aggressive Euro racing and started to move back up after dropping back to eighth. He eventually caught some of the Dutch riders and out-sprinted them at the line to take home fifth place.
"After last year, I had a big goal, which was to podium," said Maher about his goal for Valkenburg. "It almost came true today. I came in hoping for a top ten today, and I knew it was possible. I'm very happy with a top five."
He continued, "Keeping a positive attitude and confidence coming in was good. I had a good result here last year, so I think I got good vibes in general from this course and venue and just believing in myself helped a lot."
Rouiller finished back in 16th after his fast start.
After riding in the top ten early on, Scott Funston (United States) took 13th, Tyler Clark (Canada) finished 19th, Sam Noel (United States) 22nd, Conor Martin (Canada) 29th, Calder Wood (United States) 31st, Gomez Villafane 38th, Alex Morton (United States) 43rd and Dylan Kerr (Canada) 44th.
For more from Valkenburg-Limburg, see our dedicated 2018 World Championships page.
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Photo Gallery: Junior Men 2018 World Championships