After three successive podium finishes at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships, 31-year-old Lucinda Brand (Netherlands) finally managed to finish on the top spot on a cold and windy Saturday afternoon in Belgium.
Her hard work to shine culminated with a splendid performance on the demanding coastal course in Ostend. Brand crossed the line solo for the rainbow jersey after a hard-fought battle with compatriots Annemarie Worst and Denise Betsema.
“This means a lot to me. It’s really special and it’s not sinking in just yet. It’s been a narrow miss on a few occasions and now it’s a narrow win,” Brand said during the post-race flash interview.
It will be a Worlds victory to remember, let alone for this one being the ‘coronavirus-edition’ of the cyclo-cross championships. The three Dutch women on the podium were wearing their mouth caps and weren’t offered their medals, or the rainbow jersey for Brand, by UCI President David Lappartient, but picked up the medals themselves. Due to Belgium being in the midst of their effort to hold off a third Covid-19 wave, the race was contested without the typical big crowds and the exuberant atmosphere that comes with it.
“I’m glad that we had the chance to race and offer the fans at home something to enjoy. Hopefully we can get back to the normal ambiance as soon as possible,” Brand note.
Rotterdam-based Brand turned pro in 2009 and focused on the road in the first part of her cycling career. It earned her two national titles on the road in 2013 and 2015. She captured no less than six team time trial medals at road Worlds, including gold in 2017 and 2019.
In 2016, Brand started racing cyclo-cross. Despite limited technical abilities, she captured a silver medal at the European championships in Pontchâteau, France. She continued to pave on the bumpy road towards success in the muddy meadows.
A fourth place in Bieles 2017 was the start of an incredible series of top-notch performances at the ‘cross World Championships. She was third on home soil in Valkenburg, runner-up in Bogense, Denmark in 2019, again third last year in Dübendorf, Switzerland. This time around she’s the world champion.
“I still can’t believe it. Maybe tomorrow,” Brand said when being interviewed in the ad hoc Sporza studio at the course in Ostend. Also present was Sven Nys, the cyclo-cross legend who has been a guide for Brand since she joined his cyclo-cross team, now called Telenet-Baloise Lions, in 2019.
“We’ve been working together for so long, especially the last few months. This was the ultimate goal. I felt like a Belgian, being here for so long and limiting the travel. The efforts are paying off,” Brand said.
Sand sprint and inside move
Brand started the race on the front row, featuring as one of the multiple favourites. The foul weather - strong wind, icy rain - made for an extremely tough challenge, next to the countless sand sections and the huge bridge, with 20 per cent gradient, that connected the hippodrome with the beach.
Defending champion Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado slipped away in the first corner and took triple World Champion Sanne Cant (Belgium) along with her. The duo never got back into contention for the medals.
Betsema surged away in the opening lap and put Brand under pressure. She made some mistakes and Betsema extended her lead to more than 10 seconds.
“Denise had a great start and opened up a big gap. I wasn’t always in the most ideal position. I’ve been there before though so I knew how to deal with it,” said Brand. “Before the race, and especially after seeing the Men U23 race, I knew that I should not give up because it would be a long, hard race. It was really tough on the beach, especially at the point where you were sinking deeper into the sand, and obviously also with the wind."
Halfway through the race, Brand and Worst bridged back up to Betsema. “I was really surprised at how well Annemarie was going. We helped each other to get back to Denise. If I can go with someone else, then I can do something more. If she could do it, then I could do it too,” Brand had said to herself.
“The last lap ended up being really close. I knew that I could bank on my power. I still had a sand sprint in my legs.”
The three Dutch women hit the final lap together, repeating last year’s thrilling scenario, although Betsema replaced Alvarado in that front group. Betsema blew up her engine in the final seaside passage, where Brand put the hammer down.
“Last week was one of my worst races, technically, but today I was in the flow and daring to slide in the corners,” Brand said, who has won 12 events in 24 starts this season, and only finished off the podium once, in the X2O Trofee Series event in Flandriencross last weekend.
The final part of the course today featured a twisting passage on the slippery grass of the Ostend hippodrome. After a long straight-forward section, Worst surprised when she overtook Brand and led the race going into the final corners on Saturday.
“She was going really hard there. I expected her to come but not that fast,” Brand said. In the next uphill turn, Brand took a different line and dived underneath Worst.
“We constantly rode different lines and crossed each other, exactly at that final point. I cut into the inside and touched her on the elbow or something. It was the weakest point to touch each other and sadly enough she crashed which is never fun. I preferred to have a different scenario but I can’t turn back the clock,” Brand explained.
“In the final metres the weight was off my shoulders. It finally worked out. I felt proud.”
When asked about her future goals with her road team Trek-Segafredo and a possible goodbye to cyclo-cross, Brand played down those expectations.
“This is too much fun to move on to something else. There’s enough goals and enough room for improvement. This is not the end,” Brand said. “On the road, Paris-Roubaix is the major goal but now it’s time to enjoy this victory. After so many years of hard work, it finally worked out and that’s a good reason to enjoy.”
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