Disappointed, exhausted, yet pleased, Kaitlin Antonneau churned through her emotions much as she struggled over the frozen course Sunday to win her second-straight U-23 title in the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross nationals in Verona’s Badger Prairie Park.
“I wanted to be on the podium,” the Racine native said, after sliding to ninth place in the elite women’s race.
Anonneau, 21, finished second among the elite women a year ago, when she also claimed the U-23 crown and doubled up with a win in the collegiate Div. 1 race. She secured the same titles after the 2013 races, but had hoped for a better finish among the elites.
Her mentor, Katie Compton, from Colorado Springs, Colo., surged away from the field on the opening lap and dominated the field for her ninth cyclo-cross nationals win. Jade Wilcoxson was the surprise of the race, chasing from well back to take second. Nicole Duke (CyclocrossWorld) overcame a flat tire and balky derailleur for third. (Full results on the day can be found here).
Antonneau (Cannondale Cyclocrossworld) established herself near the front of the chase group and battled Meredith Miller for second place in the early laps.
She dropped her chain on one of the final climbs, “a little kicker” and struggled to get her drive chain back in working order. Her shot at a repeat climb atop the elite women’s podium vanished with the half-dozen riders that pedaled past.
“My race was over,” she said.
Dozens of racers encountered similar problems – dropped chains, stuck derailleurs and frozen cleats – rattling over a course that turned from mud to rock-hard ruts with the overnight drop in temperatures. The windchill blew in the single-digits and the clean lines all but disappeared on a hilly, technical 1.8-mile layout.
“There were no lines,” said Casey Hildebrandt, a freshman at Ripon College. “I didn’t know where they were until half-way through the race.”
Hildebrandt found his groove well enough in the men’s collegiate Div. 2 race to score a third-place finish, behind Robert Rimmer (Virginia Intermediate College) and Timothy Jenkinson (Mars Hill).
“The podium is good, but I wanted to win and go out on a good note,” said Hildebrandt, who is transferring to Lindenwood College to pursue his cycling aspirations.
Isaac Neff, of Madison, had lesser expectations going into the men’s elite race, then suprised himself with an 11th place finish, the best among the Wisconsin riders battling the nation’s best. Brian Matter, of Sheboygan, was right behind, in 12th.
“I didn’t have any expectations, honestly,” said Neff, store manager at Williamson Bicycles. “There was no pressure on me. I was just out riding my bike, having fun.”
In his case, fun meant finishing a race with icicles frozen into his beard.
As Neff noted, the pressure at the start line pressed heaviest on the likes of Jeremy Powers, the defending champion, Ryan Trebon, Jonathan Page and Timothy Johnson, fighting for the stars & stripes jersey and spots on the U.S. team racing in the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championship in Louisville, Ky., in three weeks.
Page stated his case with a powerful performance and his fourth national cyclo-cross title. Where other hesitated, he pointed his front wheel downhill and bombed forward. He took an early lead and built a comfortable gap over Zach McDonald, who led the chasers right to the finish line for an impressive second place finish.
Matter, Neff and Tristan Schouten – all Wisconsin riders – chased hard for a top-10 finish that at times seemed within their grasp.
“I felt like I had a top 10 ride,” said Schouten, from Sheboygan, who showed good for early, but faded to 19th in the last laps.
Ice clogged the cleats on his shoes about the half-way point of the 60-minute race, and he gave ground to riders who could pedal powerfully up the hills and control their bikes on the descents.
“My feet were flying off the pedals in all directions,” he said. “The guys who could pedal went right by me.”
Matter spent most of his race going in the other direction. He recovered from a fall on the first lap and picked up places lap after challenging lap.
“I had one of those races, where I kept feeling better and better,” said Matter, a pro from Sheboygan. “I was in chase mode. It was not the result I wanted or was capable of, but the sun was shining. The course was rideable. I was happy.”
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Twice the fun: Team Sports Inc. and the Madison Area Sports Commission hosted the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross Nationals for a second year, and proved that bike races can be staged in Wisconsin, in January, with plenty of rock salt, snow removal equipment and effort. From Wednesday through Sunday the course transformed from muddy mess to rutted concrete. Some riders complained. Most persevered. It is cyclo-cross after-all. It’s supposed to be awful. Or, as Brian Matter opined: “It is what it is. For this time of year, it could be worse.”
Crowds: Based solely on my impressions, the crowd on Sunday for the elite men’s and women’s races was smaller this year in 2013. If true, it was most likely due to the weather: windchill of about zero this year, compared to a comfortable temperature around 30 the first time USA Cycling scheduled its national cyclo-cross championship in January. The same party atmosphere prevailed. Spectators fired fireworks on the water tower hill in Badger Prairie Park, the beer started flowing about 10 a.m. and most packed adequate provisions to ward off cold and absolute sobriety.