Adam Myerson is a professional cyclist and coach who specializes in criteriums and cyclo-cross. A former collegiate national cyclo-cross champion, he began racing as a junior in 1987, and has been a professional since 2003. He is the founder and president of Cycle-Smart, Inc., President of the New England Cyclocross Series, organizer of the Cycle-Smart International Cyclocross, the oldest UCI event in North America, a former member of the UCI Cyclo-Cross Commission, and a former member of the management committee of the International Association of Cyclo-Cross Organizers (AIOC-Cross).
He will be writing a series of blogs for Cyclingnews that break down the key aspects of top-level cyclo-cross races this season. Check out his latest installment about balancing multiple racing seasons and how Marianne Vos won the World Cup in Zolder.
In modern cyclo-cross, there are fewer and fewer two-season athletes competing at the top level of the sport. The road season is almost year-round now, mountain bike pros mostly dabble in 'cross, and 'cross pros use road or mountain bike racing only to complement 'cross, but not as a focus. Adri van der Poel was probably the last pro to successfully win road classics, Tour stages, the cyclo-cross World Championships, and the Superprestige series. After becoming 'cross world champion, Pascal Richard mostly abandoned the field for the road.
In current times, Francis Mourey continues to balance the two seasons better than any of his peers, particularly as John Gadret becomes increasingly invisible in both. It's remarkable, then, that on the women's side you find athletes like Marianne Vos and Pauline Ferrand-Prévot at the absolute top of the sport not only as two-season athletes, but in three or even four disciplines as well. For Vos, to compete at a World Championship-winning level in road, track, mountain bike and cyclo-cross is absolutely unprecedented. She is not only the best road cyclist in the history of the sport, man or woman, she's also the best cyclist, period. The remarkability of what she does across four sports can't be exaggerated. It's superlative.
It does, of course, come with some compromise. Van der Poel was always criticized by his cyclo-cross peers for only racing 20 events each winter while they raced twice that amount; he would show up fresh for Worlds, and was second five times before finally winning in 1996. Vos is met with much more sympathy and understanding. She races a reduced 'cross schedule, ruling her out for the World Cup or any other series, but making sure to be 100 per cent ready for the National and World Championships, which she's won countless times. As fans, we're grateful to have her for six weeks of the season, instead of six races (in the case of Zdenek Stybar) or not at all (in the case of Lars Boom).
As one might expect, those first few races back on the 'cross bike in late December are not automatic victories for Vos. She may be coming in fit and fresh at a time of the season where her competitors are tiring, but it takes a little bit of racing before the skills are truly sharp and the form deep enough to stay on the gas for 45 minutes. That lack of depth showed at Namur where she faded from the head of the race at the mid-point (though hanging on for a still exceptional second place). Impressively but unsurprisingly, that depth was greatly improved five days later at Zolder.
The course at Zolder certainly suits a rider with Vos' qualities, and since 2008 she's won five times including this edition. In the two years Katie Compton won in 2010 and 2013, Vos was second. It's quite a track record, pun intended. The F1 venue in Heusden-Zolder lends itself to a fast course with a fair amount of pavement and grass, but with very steep and treacherous transitions up and down the hillsides that border one side of the site. For a punchy, speedy, supremely good bike handler like Vos, who can really win anywhere, Zolder happens to match her natural style perfectly.
Of course, there was a field full of women who've been racing weekend in and weekend out who had no plans to simply step aside for Vos' late arrival, and the front row was lined with potential race winners. Sanne Cant, wearing the World Cup leader's jersey, established herself immediately at the start, perhaps in an attempt to re-earn her place there after a disappointing ride at Namur last weekend. It took less than a minute, though, for Ferrand-Prévot to go over the top of her, taking teammate Vos along, the two swapping off at the front straight away. Ferrand-Prévot's descending skills are extraordinary, and anyone who thinks the women's races aren't worth watching would have their minds changed by watching her drift sideways down Zolder's drop-offs.
Like Namur, however, it only took Vos a lap to go away alone with a single chaser, this time Ferrand-Prévot, and another small group behind with the rest of the favorites: Sabrina Stultiens, Eva Lechner, Cant, and slightly further back, Namur winner Katerina Nash, and Compton. As that group solidified, Compton stayed on the back as Lechner drove it; unusual for Compton, who typically likes to move straight through the groups and start her pursuit of the leaders as early as possible. Instead, it was Nash again who took over the chase and split the group, connecting with Ferrand-Prévot but sending Compton off the back and out of the race with continued asthma and breathing difficulties caused by mold allergies.
At the front, Vos was the only rider to clear sections that all the other top women were forced to run. Her accelerations out of the turns, ferocity over the hills, and relentlessness on the flats all look visibly different than the rest of her competitors, similar to how she looked for the first half of the race at Namur. A full-strength Vos can ride like that from start to finish, but with only three laps complete, and Nash up to and past Ferrand-Prévot, 26 seconds down, nothing was certain.
Sure enough, on lap four Nash started to make her charge. This time with Ferrand-Prévot in tow, and only connecting with one lap to go, it looked like a repeat of Namur. As they came on to the pavement and got the bell, Vos was repeatedly looking at her rear tire, though never backing off the pedals. Sure enough, she had a puncture and took a bike as they passed the pits for the penultimate time, leaving her with a small gap to close back to Nash and Ferrand-Prévot. There was no hesitation from her Liv-Giant teammate, however, as she and Nash battled each other for every turn. So much so, that a divebomb and shoulder check on Nash from Ferrand-Prévot as they entered a U-turn sent Nash to the ground, held up Vos, and gave the Frenchwoman what might have been the race-winning gap. It was spectacular racing, the kind that makes you shout out loud at the TV in amazement.
Nash was provoked, however. She righted herself, remounted, and regained Ferrand-Prévot's wheel within half a lap. Hilariously, Ferrand-Prévot gestured for Nash to pull through once she was caught, as if she hadn't just crashed Nash a few turns earlier. Vos, of course, got a free ride back up to Ferrand-Prévot behind Nash, and finally made the expected acceleration ahead of the uphill section where she was the only one to ride. Nash wisely took the lead back, forcing Vos to run, taking her advantage away, and even making a small gap. On the next set of stairs that followed, however, Nash inadvertently stepped on the slippery wood instead of the soft ground, slid across the lip of the plank, and fell again. That caused the two leaders to pause, allowed Ferrand-Prévot to reconnect, and reset the group one more time.
It was definitely going to be that kind of last lap. It wouldn't be an attack that decided things, and most likely not a sprint; it would be about who made a mistake and who didn't, who lost a second here or there, and who didn't. And so it was: Vos flatted and recovered. Nash was crashed by Ferrand-Prévot and recovered. Vos was forced to run a section she'd previously ridden but recovered. Nash tripped again, which allowed Ferrand-Prévot to recover. But finally, ultimately, Nash stalled on a short ride-up while Vos was leading, and it was the final, fatal mistake. Vos absolutely smashed the climb that followed and never let up until she was across the finish line, sprinting from the last corner as if she was leading out the field, while Nash held off Ferrand-Prévot for second.
It was without question the best last lap of the 2014-15 cyclo-cross season, and if you aren't watching the women's races, you missed it.