Lauren Zoerner (Alpha Bicycle - Groove Subaru) headed to Louisville looking to win her second Junior Women 15-16 title of 2018. Repeating, however, would not be easy.
Lizzy Gunsalus (Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld) was looking to bounce back from a tough race in Reno, and Cassidy Hickey (Prestige Imports/Porsche/Audi Racing), who finished second in Reno, was hoping to move up one spot and grab a national championship.
The stakes set up a great race in the mud at Joe Creason Park.
Early on, Gunsalus rode like an athlete looking to re-take her spot at the top of her age group. Gunsalus roared out to a quick start and led the field through the off-camber and down the chicane descent. Not surprisingly, Hickey and Zoerner led the chase, about five seconds back.
Gunsalus led at the bottom of the final climb and led the charge up toward Pit 2 on foot. Hickey chased right behind her, while Zoerner and Kaia Schmid (New England Devo p/b Cadence Wealth Management) headed up the incline on foot about 20 seconds behind.
Once at the top, Hickey pulled ahead on the power straights and carried a two-second lead into the bell lap. Zoerner followed, 18 seconds behind the leader.
In the first part of the last lap, Gunsalus re-took the lead and led down the descent by a few seconds. At the bottom of the first part of the descent disaster struck for Gunsalus.
She slid out and hit the ground hard. Hickey was unable to get around and fell to the ground as well.
Hickey recovered relatively quickly, while Gunsalus was much slower to get moving again. In the meantime, Zoerner closed the gap and took the lead. Hickey attached to her wheel and the two headed up to the off-camber together. Zoerner took over the lead at the stairs.
Behind the two leaders, Schmid moved into solo third position.
"I think it was really nerve-wracking, it kind of knocked the wind out of me when I slid out behind Lizzy," Hickey said. "I had to get back up around her. I lost a lot of my speed, that’s when Lauren kind of closed the gap."
Once she took the lead, Zoerner took over the race. She opened up a gap through the chicane descent and then carried a 10-second advantage into the final climb. As she powered through the last half lap, Zoerner had some help.
"My sister was right there on the course telling me that I could do it," she said.
Zoerner slopped her way onto the finishing straight and finally got a moment to enjoy her second-straight national championship.
"I was just so happy that I could do it," she said. "I haven’t made a comeback like that this year, I don’t think. I was just happy that I could it even though my legs were crying."
And the muddy, hilly course? "All the hard! I don’t think that this course could have been any harder."
Hickey crossed shortly behind Zoerner to take second. Schmid came next to round out the podium.
For more from the Junior Women 15-16 race, see the interviews, photos and results below.
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Lauren Zoerner: Winner Interview
Cassidy Hickey: Second-place Interview