Into yet another long, hard cyclo-cross season, Belgian Champion Sanne Cant can hold her hands up high. She has taken her personal game up another level and brought with her the whole women's cyclo-cross field.
With six wins and 19 total podium placings including two in the Koksijde and Zolder World Cups this season so far, she has surpassed her season of last year where she nailed the podium 10 times including the Koksijde World Championships and scored top five 21 times.
"I definitely expected that there was going to be a wider top-end of riders without Daphny van den Brand [who retired last season], but I never thought it would go so well! I won races on tracks that I usually can't do anything on," said Cant. "Of all the races this season, I am most proud of my performance at Zolder World Cup and Loenhout [finishing 3rd and 1st]. They were both courses that were not ideal for me and yet I was able to put in a good showing."
But one would ask how a single rider, barely 22 years old, could have such an impact on the future of women's 'cross. The answer is clear: Belgium is the homeland of 'cross and Cant is one of their own. And when the Belgians have a rider who can go for the win, they pay attention. This includes the press and media.
Three-time world Cyclo-cross champion Erwin Vervecken said, "If you can get a Belgian to compete with the top girls to win big races, then their situation would change a lot. If she would win five races a year, then people would be more interested in women because they know someone who lives close. Then they'll come early for women's races."
Vervecken said, "It may be a young sport for women, but I still don't understand the UCI's stand on the inequality of the sexes. They are the official cycling institution, so they should make it equal [in financial rewards as well as racing opportunities]. For them, it's not so hard. But I do understand that you can't change everything in one year."
Helping the women's field to come so far already is thanks to many folks including fellow compatriots of Cant such as van den Brand, Marianne Vos, Katie Compton, Helen Wyman, and Hanka Kupfernagel who have been active in paving the way.
And as much as the sexes have been equal in the USA since 1975 when the first national championships were held for both men and women (as opposed to Belgium where the men's event was held in 1910 and the women's not until 2000), a bit more needs to come from within Belgium to help bridge the gap. Cant can prove to be just the key to open up more opportunities for her gender.
Cant is already noticing a difference in some aspects of her life. "People definitely recognize me now at the races and it's naturally pleasant to get so much attention. It gives me a kick to ensure I'll ride faster. But when I'm out shopping I'm still not really recognized yet," says Cant. who said, "I don't give [my impact on women's cyclo-cross] much thought, but if I can help the situation then that makes me very happy!"
She is currently sitting in Louisville, Kentucky preparing for the world championships. While it may be her first time to America, she is not shaken one bit by her new surroundings. She remains certain that she will be at her best come race day. "The first nights were tough due to jetlag. Now I feel quite a bit better. I think I am back on rhythm. As for my expectations, that's tough to say. I haven't seen the course yet. But I am hopeful that I'll get on the podium again like last year."
Once the season comes to an end, Cant doesn't take much to recharge for her summer season of racing. "I'll simply enjoy a few days of rest on the couch." It's nice to be 22.
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