by Christine Vardaros
What does it take to lift women’s cyclocross to the next level? According to three-time cyclocross World Champion Erwin Vervecken, “If you can get a Belgian to compete with the top girls to win big races then it would change a lot. If she would win five races a year then people would be more interested in women because they know someone who lives close. Then people will come very early for women’s races.”
At only 24 years of age, Sanne Cant (Enertherm – BKCP) not only stepped up to the challenge but nailed it with style. Halfway into her season, she already racked up 16 UCI victories out of the 22 times she took the start. Her wins include the sandy Koksijde World Cup, the first ever UK World Cup held in Milton Keynes at the end of November, and the infamous Superprestige Gavere. Most of her victories were against many of the World’s top riders such as Katie Compton, Nikki Harris, Helen Wyman and Sophie De Boer.
Her Winning Ways Should Come as No Suprise
Those who have been watching the women’s cyclocross scene over the last decade would certainly have borne witness to Cant’s steady growth. Nine years ago, at the age of 15, when she was finally allowed to race at the big stage, she immediately landed on the podium at Belgium’s Lebbeke Cyclocross event. The following year, her first in the junior category, she easily snagged victory at the Belgian Junior National Championships and scored two elite podium placings including former GVA Trofee Krawatencross in her hometown of Lille. By the end of her stint as a junior, she had nicely infiltrated herself into the top of the Elite ranks.
Once elite, Cant continued to make a name for herself by placing second at the Belgian Championships, in a controversial race where she lost by only a few seconds to Joyce Vanderbeken.
By 2012, at age 22, Cant was up to six wins in a season, an additional 15 podiums including her impressive third at World Championships held in Koksijde, Belgium. As it was a full sand cross, her specialty, she definitely was at an advantage. A year later, she had increased her wins to 12 in a season, including the Belgian Championships which she’d dominated ever since that controversial race a few years previous.
Her Current Status
Currently Cant leads the World Cup Series, is third in the BPost Bank Trofee Series, and sits second on the UCI Rankings which puts her on the level of the cyclocross greats such as Katie Compton, Hanka Kupfernagel and Marianne Vos. In fact, in theory, Cant is currently leading the UCI rankings as it has not been updated since December 5th where Compton has 2060 over Cant’s 2030 points.) “I didn’t expect it. Honestly I am really happy about it,” exclaims Cant. Adding, “I’ve done nothing really special. Maybe it’s that I’m that little older, a little stronger. Over the summer I worked on my weak point – power, and it appears that it worked out okay.”
Racing Smart to Avoid Burning Out
So much glory can come with a price though, if Cant is not careful. Cant explains, “Now that I raced already 22 times this season, I have to use my weapon (of racing experience) against the other gals who haven’t raced as many times. Therefore I have to race smarter and as conservative as possible so as not to waste too much energy. Otherwise within a month I’m completely empty and that’s not the idea.” Adding, “As Belgian Champion, I feel like I can’t simply not start in races. I have to just do them all. I don’t have to but I feel it’s the right thing to do. I don’t feel right saying to an organization, yeah, I don’t feel like riding today so I don’t come to your race. I find that disrespectful so I try to race every event.”
When asked if the Belgian jersey gives her that feeling of obligation, Cant says, “It’s not pressure but if a race organizer makes the effort not only to hold a women’s race but to work on getting women to the start, then I want to make the effort to come.”
What will Change with the European Jersey…
Eventually donning the European jersey she won in November will not alter her resolve to race all events, she promises. But first she has to receive it to show it off. “I really look forward to racing in the European jersey as I find it also very beautiful. But I don’t have it yet. It’s been ordered just after the race but has not yet arrived.”
Responding to her recent success is the highly coveted media attention. End of November, Het Nieuwsblad published a full page spread on Cant. The theme was “Wat Als” (what if), a takeoff from the famous Belgian TV comedy show where the skits are based on “what if” scenarios. For this specific article, the theme was, “What if cyclocrosser Sanne Cant were a top male rider”. Cant further explains, “They called me to come by and do a “Wat Als” article over me. To me it sounded like a very good idea. The article made it very clear – maybe for the first time- the difference between the men and women in cyclocross.” Everything from start and prize money, salaries, media coverage and opportunities were discussed.
Now that the media has turned more of its attention to the women’s field, Cant is already feeling the impact. “I really have the impression that there is now more atmosphere and interest during the races. In Overijse, for instance, when I tried to ride away from Pauline Ferrand-Prévot, it was just like the guy’s race and that was in fact very cool. In the last weeks it feels like more and more spectators are now actively cheering and not only just watching. I think that women’s cross is going is in the right direction.”
Staying home while others play under Spanish sun
While many of her competitors took off to train under the warm Spanish sun, Cant has no such plans for the moment. For someone who races every weekend, there simply is not enough time available. “If it’s for 14 days then its good but Monday leave and Thursday come back…I think that’s dumb. Then you can better stay home. It’s good as it is. Maybe, though, in January I’ll change my mind.[smiles]”
When asked about races down the road like Belgian and World Championships, Cant admits that she takes her season one week at a time. All her focus is on the next race to come so she can give the best of herself on that day. But regarding Belgian Champs, she offers a few thoughts. “Whether or not the course is a good one for me depends on the weather… If it’s dry or wet. I think it will be a heavy race either way. It’s should be logical that I win, but it’s not always easy to do.” Nipping at her heels will be the likes of Telenet-Fidea teammates Ellen van Loy and Loes Sels as well as Githa Michiels [KMC] and Karen Verhestraeten [Kleur op Maat.] As for World Championships, Cant adds, “That is even farther away.”
The only “battle of the racers” left for Cant is against the almighty Marianne Vos [Rabo-Liv] who will make her return debut at Namur World Cup in Belgium to be held December 21st. If the upcoming races are muddy and technical, Cant certainly has a chance to take on “the fox” of cross. But if there are some high speed ones, Cant has mastered the art of holding wheels. I also have a very strong feeling Compton will be coming on strong for the second half of the season, so Cant will be anything but bored.