Last year in Bieles, Sanne Cant (Belgium) won her first world championship after an enthralling last-lap duel with Marianne Vos (The Netherlands). This season, duels with Katie Compton (United States) have been a common occurrence, with Cant often getting the upper hand with her strong last-lap attacks. In a season with a strong women's field, Cant and Compton distinguished themselves on a regular basis.
On Saturday in the Elite Women's race in Valkenburg, Cant and Compton made sure that the sport's biggest prize would be decided by two women who turned in consistent performances from the first days of September. Cant quickly got to the front during the muddy, chaotic first lap, and Compton rode a solid start to close the gap on her season-long rival.
During the third of four laps, the two traded leads as they battled back and forth on the muddy, technical course. After Compton earned an advantage thanks to a couple of dabs by Cant, it was apparent the race would go to the woman who made the fewest mistakes.
Compton was in control in the bell lap until the first pit, when she had to run to her far side position while Cant was able to quickly swap bikes and ride back to parity.
Then, on a rutted, switchback downhill, Cant made her move. Compton struggled with the section with two to go, and during the last lap, she again had to dismount and run much of the section.
Cant had a gap of about ten seconds and motivation to give it every last ounce of energy she had. With several running sections in the second half of the lap, she had the advantage and exploited it. Compton was unable to close to her rival, and Cant won her second-straight World Championship and the right to wear the rainbow stripes for another year.
"[Compton] also deserved to win," said Cant. "She rode from September through the end of the season, and she's really really strong. I'm happy I can keep this nice jersey."
Compton finished second at Worlds for the fourth time in her storied career.
Sorting Things Out Quickly
With the Worlds course set atop the Cauberg and featuring several climbs and descents — and after mountain bike star Evie Richards won the U23 Women's race — it was fair to assume the mountain bikers would do well in the Elite Women's race. Early on, Eva Lechner (Italy) sought to fulfill that destiny by grabbing the holeshot and getting out to a fast start.
Lechner's start was perhaps a little too fast; she slipped out on an off-camber and slid down to the snow fencing. Luxembourg's Christine Majerus stepped up next and took the lead, looking to build on her career-best fifth at the Nommay World Cup. Behind Majerus, the World Champion Cant lurked while another of the race favorites Compton started her charge to the front.
Cant took the lead midway through the opening stanza and then broke free of Majerus. After the first lap she had a nine-second advantage on the Luxembourgian, while Compton was a close third. After a missed pedal at the start in Hoogerheide marred Compton's race, she was in a good spot after one lap at Valkenburg.
Compton caught Majerus early in the second of four laps and then broke free to take up the chase of Cant. She slowly closed the gap and finally made the catch at the second pit. It was now Cant and Compton at the front, with Majerus and Lucinda Brand (The Netherlands) over 30 seconds back. Saturday's selection would be a two-woman affair.
Cant vs. Compton For the Ages
With two laps to go, it was the two best riders of the 2017/18 season at the front. The World Championships had brought out the world's best for a captivating cyclocross battle.
Shortly after pit one, Cant opened up a lead when a rut guided Compton into the snow fencing at the top of the switchback downhill. She recovered and eventually caught Cant, although it did require her to expend a prize proverbial match.
It was then Cant's turn to make a mistake. She slipped out and had to dab on a corner and then paused at the top of the wall run-up, nearly losing her balance and toppling backward. With the two elite riders throwing everything at each other, it seemed as if the last-lap advantage would go to whoever made the fewest mistakes.
Compton pressed her advantage and took an eight-second lead into the last lap. About twelve and a half minutes on the thick, slow course stood between her and her first world championship.
Compton held the lead until the first pit. The pit had a small rise at the entrance that forced Compton to dismount. Her pit spot was at the end, so she had to run the entire length, while Cant had a spot close to the entrance. Cant's ride versus Compton's run eliminated the American's lead.
Just as she did last year when she caught Marianne Vos (The Netherlands) after her dropped chain, Cant again sprung to life and tried to take control of the race.
The previous lap, Compton struggled on the switchback descent, and during the critical last lap, it again got the best of her. She had to dismount and run the entire section, allowing Cant to open up a sizable gap on the 14-time U.S. champion.
Compton appeared spent while Cant found another gear for the last lap as she had much of the season. Her lead slowly grew and it became apparent that only a crash or mechanical would keep her from a second straight rainbow jersey. There were no mistakes; she rode a flawless last half lap.
After achieving her dream in Bieles, Cant kept it going in Valkenburg in 2018. She was the best woman rider much of the season, and on Saturday, she delivered on the biggest day of the cyclocross year.
"It was really frightening until the end," said Cant about her battle. "If you made a mistake, the gap was small. I was happy when I saw the finish line." She commented on winning for the second straight year, "I don't believe it now. It's really nice. I think I am going to sleep in [the jersey] tonight."
For Compton, it was another second at Worlds. The fourth of her career.
"I know how hard Sanne races," she said. "I know how bad she wants to win. She's really strong at the end of races. She was faster at the end. I just really struggled a bit on the running. I got tired. I did the best I could and second is what I could do today."
Brand escaped from Majerus during the last lap to grab the third spot on the podium.
Kaitie Keough (United States) finished sixth to cap off a successful season.
"It's my best ever result," Keough said. "I couldn't stand at the finish. I gave it my all. It was really tough course, heavy mud and lots of running. It was a day where you are racing the course not other women."
Elle Anderson (United States) finished an impressive eighth. Caroline Mani (France) finished 10th, Katerina Nash (Czech Republic) 12th, Maghalie Rochette (Canada) 22nd, Courtenay McFadden (United States) 26th, Rebecca Fahringer (United States) 28th, Christel Ferrier-Bruneau (Canada) 29th, Mical Dyck (Canada) 31st, Ellen Noble (United States) 32nd, Maria Larkin (Ireland) 39th and Stacey Riedel (Australia) 40th.
Fahringer tried to put the experience into words:
"The most painful day I've ever had on a bike. I couldn't tell when I should be running and when I should be riding. I have a lot of late season fatigue and this was painful."
For more from Valkenburg-Limburg, see our dedicated 2018 World Championships page.
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