Kaitlin Antonneau’s second-place finish Sunday at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup in Valkenburg – her first-ever podium finish at that level – surprised a few people, maybe even herself.
Antonneau benefited from a front-row start – another World Cup first for the 23-year-old rider from Wisconsin – and stuck with the lead-10 riders on the course after a tricky, technical start and a quick recovery from an early bobble.
Finding herself in a chase group behind leader and eventual winner Eva Lechner, Nikki Harris and Pavla Havlikova, the Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com rider distanced herself late in the race from Sanne Cant, Sanne Van Paassen and Amanda Miller to ride into the fourth position with just a couple of laps remaining.
“I rode with them for about three laps, and then going into two-to-go, I guess, I was just going faster and riding better technically, so I took off and was riding my own race. I wasn’t really thinking about what place I was in or anything,” Antonneau recalled to Cyclingnews on Monday from the USA Cycling European base in Limburg, Netherlands.
With a few more efforts and quick lines, she found herself gaining on the rider in front of her.
“Eventually I got up to Pavla [Havlikova] and then rode away from her,” Antonneau said. “Going into the last lap I could see Nikki [Harris]. I thought, ‘OK, this is good.’ I passed her and then she passed me back in that technical off-camber section.
“Then she made a mistake there again,” Antonneau said of the fall that knocked Harris out of contention and put Antonneau into silver. “I was taking really good lines there through the high rut and then going down, so I was riding really well through that.”
Antonneau held her position throughout the remainder of the final lap and cruised across the finish line solo, 10 seconds behind the winner and 21 seconds ahead of Havlikova. She admitted later that although reaching the podium of a World Cup race has been a dream, she didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. For anyone who wonders where the young American on the podium came from, however, she has a pointed answer.
“Someone said to me yesterday, ‘Where did that come from?’ and I actually said, ‘Well what do you mean where does this come from? I’ve been trying, over here racing for the past five years. Last year I stayed over here for seven weeks. It didn’t come out of nowhere, you know.’”
The Marion University graduate has been following an upward trajectory through cyclo-cross and road racing since high school. She is a two-time US under-23 time trial champion and won the U23 road race champion in 2013. Her results in cyclo-cross, which she says is her favorite discipline, have continued to build off her silver medal last year to Compton in the US championships.
Antonneau has come out like a tornado so far this year, winning the C1 races at both Ellison Park in New York and the Trek CX Cup in Wisconsin. But it’s all been aimed at Europe and world-class racing.
“I want to be successful with cyclo-cross over here, and with what I’ve been given I’ve made the most of those opportunities,” she said. “I’m trying. I’m trying to learn as much as I can over here and race as much as I can over here. So it’s super rewarding and feels really good. I know I have a long way to go, but it feels good to see that it’s paying off.”
The hard work and focus have made her the only US elite woman other than Compton to reach a World Cup podium. It’s a breakthrough ride for Antonneau, who says she’s been told repeatedly by those close to her not to be too surprised.
“I don’t want that to sound bad, but they say, ‘I’m not surprised, because you are taking the steps you need to get there,'" she said. “But I do feel like it was a breakthrough ride because it was world-level stage in a World Cup on a really hard, technical challenging course. It was a legit cyclo-cross race.”
The result also proved to Antonneau that a new mindset she’s been trying to adopt – that anything can happen in sport if you’re prepared and don’t limit yourself – is really taking hold.
“I just got second in a World Cup,” she said. “Anything is possible in sport if you’re willing to do the work. That’s probably the biggest thing I took away from yesterday, and also a lot of technique stuff and other things that I could tell about myself riding in that race yesterday that is different from last year and years prior.
"But I think that mental thing for me is probably the biggest thing to take away with me,” she said. “I’ve never really had that mindset, so it’s kind of cool.”
Antonneau will take her new mindset to a C2 race in Belgium before returning to the States later this week.
Big targets on the 2015-16 schedule include the Pan Am Championships in a couple of weeks, then the remaining races in the World Cup – a series in which she currently stands third overall – the US national championships and the World Championships.
Antonneau brushes aside the inevitable question about whether this is the year she can unseat Compton from her 11-year run in the elite women's stars and stripes jersey, saying only that "nationals is still a ways” away but every rider hopes to do well there. She is less coy, however, about her ambitions to continue riding among the best in the world.
“I mean, yeah, honestly I don’t really now if it’s hit me yet, but I want to continue to ride in that chase group like I was yesterday,” she said. “It was a learning experience. It was new to me and it was fun, and I want to do it again.”