Traditionally, the cyclo-cross World Cup stops in Belgium on Boxing Day for a day of racing, and for a few years, the former F1 car racing circuit in Zolder has been the chosen setting. This year, Americans experienced mixed results - the best came from Zach McDonald (Rapha-Focus), who boosted his confidence with a podium result.
Yesterday, American riders on site had celebrated Christmas far away from home, but all were up for a race one day later in Zolder. In contrast to previous years, there were no World Cup races for the younger categories although they still got to compete. "Some countries complain that Belgium has too many World Cup rounds, and that it isn't obvious to be away from home around Christmas," said Geoff Proctor, the man heading up the USA Cycling 'cross delegation in Belgium.
Despite the lower ranking of the junior and under 23 races, Proctor told McDonald to race the non-World Cup race in the under 23 men's category instead of the World Cup elite men's category, where he could gain UCI points. It turned out to be a good choice as McDonald captured his first podium result of the year in a Belgian cyclo-cross race. McDonald finished third behind Belgians Wietse Bosmans (BKCP-Powerplus) and Tim Merlier (Sunweb-Revor).
"This is great," McDonald said while cooling down at the team bus with the podium flowers still in his hands. "I've done it before, so it's a matter of getting things good again to do it again," McDonald said. He was referring to the 2009 World Cup round in Roubaix in which he finished third behind winner Tijmen Eising and Bosmans.
"I think that back then Bosmans was on the podium, too," McDonald said. The 20-year-old will ride three more races in Belgium before heading back to the USA to race the national championships. "I guess you can say that I'm the top favorite there with Cody Kaiser as biggest challenger. I haven't been fortunate at the nationals in the past. Last year, I collided with a spectator," McDonald said.
In the women's race in Zolder, Katie Compton (Planetbike) was absent as she had already headed home last week to prepare for nationals. In her absence, it was youthful Kaitlin Antonneau (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) who was the top American finisher in 16th position. "That's not great but it's the first time I raced here. I didn't start well but in the next two laps, I started getting better. First, I was going well on the descents but in the end, I crashed twice," Antonneau said at the finish line in Zolder.
One week earlier the 19-year-old rider had captured a fantastic 10th place at the World Cup in Namur. Amy Dombroski (Crankbrothers-The Race Club) finished 25th. After her top-10 position in Diegem on Friday, Mareen Bruno Roy (Bob's Red Mill - Seven Cycles) could only follow up with a 28th position in Zolder, one spot ahead of Christine Vardaros (Baboco).
In the elite men's category, there wasn't much for the Americans to cheer about. Jonathan Page (Planetbike) was the top American finisher in Zolder in 25th at almost two minutes off Pauwels. Before the race, his mechanic Franky Van Haesebrouck had expected a good result but that didn't happen.
"I didn't start badly, but it bunched up during that first lap; there was slow traffic," said Page. On this long start-finish section, I was always riding alone in the wind. It didn't go my way," Page said. The former runner-up at the cyclo-cross world championships in 2007 realized that he has to do better after a lackluster season. The national championships are high on his wish list. "I'm running out of time. Today wasn't great but ok. I'm frustrated because it wasn't completely in my control."
Just like at the previous World Cup round in Namur, fellow American Timothy Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) finished well outside the top-30. After spending the week in Switzerland, Jonhson hoped to capture a top result in Belgium. "All was good in the start until we entered the grass. There were a series of crashes and one pushed me into the pit; I lost 20 spots by sitting in the pit. From there, I kept passing people. I raced a lot with Ian Field and Christian [Heule]. I kept jumping people and right after jumping a whole group I caught a barrier with my handlebars. You hope for more in these races," Johnson said.
The Americans will contest their cyclo-cross national championships in Madison, Wisconsin, on January 4-8.