Words and photos by Molly Hurford
It’s an near-inarguable fact that the women were the highlight of the cyclocross World Championships in Bieles this past January. The action happened on Saturday with the U23 Women’s and the Elite Women’s races. The drama, the podium spreads, the crowds, the venue covered in snow, mud and ice, and, of course, the beer tent… It all led to an emotional spectacle that made every other race of the year seem almost trivial by comparison. I would challenge anyone, no matter how jaded, to attend and not be completely hoarse from screaming by the end. And for me, traveling to Europe for most of the World Cups, following and reporting on cyclocross for most of my adult life, racing for a chunk of it, being mistaken for Sanne Cant on a few occasions (it’s our angry eyebrows) and spending a season with U23 star Ellen Noble… Well, I shed a tear. Or two. (Let’s be honest, I ran through a few handkerchiefs that weekend.)
Sanne Cant’s face across the finish line.
After years and years of trying (remember that face?), Sanne Cant finally became a well-deserving, cyclocross-obsessed world champ. For quite a while now, racers who didn’t specialize in cyclocross have held the rainbow jersey. Marianne Vos (2014 champ) loves ’cross, but she’s also a roadie. Same for Pauline Ferrand-Prévot (2015), and for Thalita De Jong (2016). Not Sanne. Sanne is all cyclocross, all the time. She lives and breathes it. We saw her in Iowa for the Jingle Cross World Cup earlier this year, being trailed by her father, who kept proudly announcing who she was, and who he was. It’s not that she deserved to win just because she wanted it so much: she is the world champion that cyclocross deserves, one who will be at every World Cup, one who embodies the deep-seated love of the sport that simply cannot be denied. To see her finally able to don the stripes befitting a world champ was one of the best moments in cycling that I’ve seen. Watching from the finishing straight, I was sandwiched in with some of the U23 American girls who had just raced, along with one racer’s mother. I tried to play it cool—I go to these races all the time, I’m a seasoned pro—until Sanne came through, looked back, and realized the gold medal was hers, and her face broke. Not in a smile, but in an absolutely barbaric victory cry that seemed to echo across the venue. I realized, seconds later, that I was jumping up and down, screaming, and crying all at the same time, and felt as exhausted as I would have had I raced a lap.
American Ellen Noble taking second in U23 Women.
This was no surprise for me. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone, really: Ellen took the World Cup Overall win in U23 this season, and was fifth overall for the elite women. Yet somehow, podium predictors managed to miss her. In a bid to not make her more nervous, we didn’t share our predictions that she should, and likely would, make it to one of those top steps. But when the race started, it was clear from the first lap that Ellen was riding like a girl on fire. She sailed through technical sections, powered up straightaways. The only nerve-racking fear was that she couldn’t hold this super-powered pace for the full 40 minutes. She did. She slipped and slid into second, opening a huge gap to third place and former champ Evie Richards. And when she crossed the line, the smile on her face was so big that I was worried, in the cold air, that she was going to crack her lips. Waiting in the finisher area, I was the one who caught her and her bike and got to feel the full force of the happiness that possesses someone who just felt all of her season’s dreams come true. Her mom and grandmother, across the fencing, enveloped her in a massive hug. We raced to get her podium-ready. It was a mad-dash, confusing set of moments, and then we were walking towards the school where they were testing all the podium finishers, and we had silence in the hallway that seemed way too empty for what had just happened.
Shake-ups in the women’s field.
She might be used to winning, but Marianne Vos stayed classy AF in second place after a late race mechanical botched her chance for another championship jersey to add to her trophy room. Marianne is important for the sport of cyclocross: one of the world’s most winning women came back to the mud as soon as she was able. This season was about redemption and recovery for her, and seeing her make a return to the podium, at Worlds in second, but on the top step in many of the World Cups earlier in the season, means good things for the sport. Behind her, Katerina Nash showing that she’s nowhere near done with her career as a freaking fast racer, and behind her… teammate Maghalie Rochette finishing in fifth were perhaps the most unexpected and magical moments of the weekend. The technically skilled and fierce racer from Quebec fought heat exhaustion and sickness earlier in the season, but she was clearly just waiting for the cooler weather to truly excel.
Crowds going berserk.
Historically, the video feeds of the women’s races have felt a bit lackluster. That’s not because the racing hasn’t been top-notch, and arguably, often more exciting than the men’s—it’s because the crowds have often been disappointing in both volume and, well, volume. People are sparse and cheering isn’t as loud. But not in Bieles, where the roar of the crowd—especially near the beer tents—was practically deafening. At one point, when Sanne moved into the lead, I was picked up by a tall, burly, cheering Belgian with full face paint and a flag. This didn’t seem to alarm anyone around me, and to be honest, I was pretty swept away in the sentiment myself, so I just took advantage of the moment of height (something I often lack) to scope the course a bit better. To be part of a crowd so passionate that people were forgetting themselves—tears were shed, beers were spilled—was infinitely better than watching the race on a pirated video feed.
Luxembourger Suzie Godart’s last race.
At 54 years old, most people are counting the years until retirement. Suzie Godart has been putting it off, though, racing in the Elite Women’s field for her country of Luxembourg. She wanted her country to host Worlds before she hung up her bike, and this was her final race. As she looped around the course, running sections other racers were handily riding, the roar of the crowd followed her. She was the first rider to get pulled with a few laps to go, and despite below-freezing temperatures, Suzie stayed at the tiny tent where riders were pulled off the course by officials, huddled in a small blanket with a huge grin lighting up her face as she congratulated each and every rider who came in. Most stayed to say a few words or accept a hug from her. Some looked defeated before she spoke to them, but left with a smile. After Sanne came through with her arms up, finally taking that first victory, after the crowds had dissipated, heading home for the day, after the course marshals started to pack it in, Suzie was still there, surrounded by family, friends and fans there to help her bid farewell to a career that has spanned decades. She didn’t look sad—nor should she have. Twenty years of racing is something any rider should be proud of, and to end on such a high note—racing a muddy, technical World Championships on home turf—is the best career finish a racer can ask for.