Marianne Vos (Rabo-Liv) got off to a good start in her cyclo-cross comeback at Scheldecross on Saturday afternoon. Not hampered by a back-row start position in the fifth round of the IJsboerke Ladies Trophy, seven-time cyclo-cross World champion Vos quickly featured in the front of the race in Antwerp, Belgium.
Halfway through the race, which was fast despite a generous helping of sand sections, the 29 year-old Dutch rider started to fade back. Nevertheless, Vos managed to hold onto fourth place, just under a minute of winner Sanne Cant (IKO Enertherm-Beobank).
Vos won Scheldecross back in January 2007. Nearly ten years later, it's her first cyclo-cross race since the 2015 UCI World Championships in Tábor, Czech Republic, where she finished third. As Vos didn't finish a UCI cyclo-cross race for more than a year she holds no points in the UCI cyclo-cross ranking. That ranking is used to decide start positions so Vos was a back-row starter in Antwerp.
After racing for forty minutes, Vos had clearly given everything she had along the banks of the Schelde in Antwerp. "I'm satisfied but I feel really tired now," Vos said, shortly after the race during the flash interview with Sporza.
The start turned out to be easy to overcome. In no time she rode into third place, just behind leader Sophie de Boer (Kalas-NNOF) and current World champion and Vos' teammate Thalita de Jong (Rabo-Liv). The latter quickly found out how hard the sand-riding is and had to let go of De Boer. One lap later, De Boer was 15 seconds ahead of Vos, De Jong, Katerina Nash (Clif Pro Team) and Belgian champion Sanne Cant.
"Straight away I was able to move towards the front of the race," Vos said. Eventual winner Sanne Cant was struggling with her start and quickly noticed Vos in the front.
"My opening lap was disastrous and my start was awkward. I ended up being pinballed at the back of the top-10 while Marianne was already up front," Cant said. During the second lap Vos even took the initiative, forcing her team-mate De Jong to get dropped.
Before long it became clear that Vos had burnt her matches too quickly as she got into trouble herself halfway through the third of six laps. "Halfway through the race I struggled big time and was no longer able to keep up. I wasn't able to keep up with the pace from Sanne Cant in her chase of Sophie," Vos said.
Teammate De Jong didn't appreciate the move from Vos although she was pleased to see her back at the highest level. "After the start I heard the MC shouting that she got away well. She accelerated early on which caused me to drop. Then she got dropped herself. The next few times she'll play it smarter," De Jong said.
Once Vos got dropped she was in no man's land. In front, De Boer was trying to hold off a comeback from Cant, in vain. Nash was alone in third place, well ahead of Vos. Behind Vos, De Jong was trying to improve her sand-riding skills. "It was all spread out. In the final lap I came back a little closer on Nash but maybe she was holding back a little. Thalita came back a little on me too," Vos said.
At the finish, Vos was fourth at 59 seconds from Cant and De Boer. Nash finished 14 seconds ahead of her, claiming the final podium spot. De Jong finished nine seconds behind Vos in fifth place. It will be interesting to see how well Vos can recover in less than a day, with the extremely hard World Cup round in Namur coming up. The World Cup race is a level above the the IJsboerke Ladies Trophy, although Vos won the 'Cyclo-cross de la Citadelle' back in 2011. In past years the race has often served as the first race of her cyclo-cross season, and she has been a podium regular.
The Dutchwoman said she worked hard on her base in South Africa, only increasing the intensity in recent weeks. Considering how long it's been since she made a start at a 'cross event, a fourth place in Antwerp was a solid return to racing. Then again, Vos' performance in Namur will be reveal far more about her chances in this comeback campaign.