Overall World Cup winner Lucinda Brand (Baloise Trek Lions) has been one of the dominant riders of the somewhat abbreviated 2020-2021 cyclo-cross season and, with the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships a couple of days away, she is focussed fully on taking out her first rainbow jersey in the discipline.
The 31-year-old told Wielerflits that winning the Worlds title would be "a crowning glory of a fantastic season".
Brand has come close to the title in previous years, taking third and second behind Sanne Cant (Belgium) in 2018 and 2019, respectively, and again third behind fellow Dutch rider Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado last year.
This season, Brand has chalked up 11 wins and twice as many podium placings, leading the Superprestige and X2O Trophy in addition to winning the World Cup. The consistency of her season puts her in the elite group of top favourites along with the defending champion Alvarado, compatriots Denise Betsema and Annemarie Worst, and a handful of wildcards including Marianne Vos and US champion Clara Honsinger.
Relishing the extra excitement that comes with the pressure of being a favourite, Brand said that even if she doesn't win in Ostend on Saturday, she can still be satisfied with her season.
"If it doesn't work, I would be selling myself short by claiming that my season was not a success. I have 11 victories and - just as importantly - have developed nicely. Then it would be unwise to beat myself up over one race. But of course I'm going full for the win in Ostend."
Brand, who races on the road with Trek-Segafredo, dabbled in cyclo-cross as a junior but then focussed on the road and did not make a serious push in 'cross until 2016. She's made steady inroads, going from single-digit victory counts to this year's tally of 11. In the past, sand might have been her weakness but her technical skills have come a long way thanks to having Sven Nys and her teammates to train with.
The training has been "quite intensive", Brand said, adding that advice from Nys and hours of practice to perfect implementing his tips has paid off.
The adage of 'let the bike steer itself' through the sand, she said, isn't exactly the answer. "That always sounds so easy, doesn't it? Letting the bike find its way… I literally tried it once: let that handlebar really take its course. I stood completely still halfway through the sand strip. Just to say, there is some nuance in that story. You have to guide your steering wheel a bit."
Brand put her improved sand technique on display at the Zilvermeercross in Mol, one of the few sandy races of the season, where she prevailed over sand-specialist Betsema in a hard-fought race. She lost by the same margin to Betsema in the other sandy race, the Scheldecross.
But Brand doesn't think Mol is the reference for the Worlds in Ostend. "Ceylin [del Carmen Alvarado] was not there and the sand of Ostend is not the sand of Mol. I have never ridden through sand anywhere that feels exactly the same as anywhere else," she said, adding that she can't underestimate any of the competitors.
"Ceylin has certainly taken another step since her last training camp. Denise is always good in the sand. Annemarie [Worst] is difficult to estimate. In recent weeks she didn't seem to be able to keep up the pace for the entire match, but at the World Championships you only have to be fresh for one day.
"Sanne [Cant] showed in the last races that she has a good start in the legs. She did slump a bit after that, but she's a championship racer... It wouldn't be smart to underestimate your competitors at a World Championship."
The Dutch team is incredibly strong but Brand said they will all do their own race.
"National coach Gerben de Knegt will undoubtedly tell us that he does not care who wins, as long as it is an orange jersey. Yes, we race our own races. If there is a non-Dutch jersey nearby, you have to use your head. It is therefore important to ensure that there is only orange in the front. Then we can ride our race as we normally do."
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