It was a thrilling start to World Cup racing, as a fast and technical Stellenbosch course kept time gaps close and placings fluid all race. Podium positions were still wide open coming into the last lap, as the front end of the race started to come back together.
Annika Langvad of Denmark won the opening World Cup round for a fourth straight year, after a protracted, back and forth battle with fellow former world champion, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot. Dutch national champion Anne Tauber rode the majority of the race on her own, between the leading duo and a chasing pack, where she finished, on her own in third. A wild sprint for the remaining podium positions saw Helen Grobert catch Jolanda Neff and Maya Wloszczowska part way through the final lap, before taking a wiley inside line on the final corner and out sprinting both Kross Racing teammates to claim fourth in a three-way photo-finish. Catharine Pendrel, after racing in podium position for the majority of the race, faded in the last half of the closing lap to finish seventh.
How the race unfolded
World champion Jolanda Neff (Kross Racing), racing with a partially healed plate on her collarbone from a crash with Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (Canyon Factory Racing) at Hoogerheide cyclocross World Cup, had her characteristic fast start, coming out of the first corner in the lead. Ferrand-Prevot immediately pushed through to take the lead, with Annie Last (CST Sandd American Eagle), Annika Langvad (Specialized) and Mayo Wloszczowska (Kross Racing) following through at the front of the race. Kate Courtney (Specialized), the American U23 world champion from 2017 making her debut in elite, came through the first checkpoint 10th, with Catharine Pendrel (Cliff Pro Team) 15th and Emily Batty (Trek Factory Racing) 16th. Canadian Cindy Montambault (Trek) had a very quick start, jumping up through the start grid into 20th, with Norco Factory Racing’s Haley Smith 30th at the first checkpoint and Rebecca Beaumont 37th.
Neff, Ferrand-Prevot and Langvad quickly formed a leading trip, with Last chasing and Hungarian Barbara Benko (Ghost Factory Racing) close behind. Deep pockets of dust had formed around the track, and immediately started wreaking havoc on racers. Ferrand-Prevot spun out on a technical singletrack climb, one that would continue to catch riders out all day, causing all five riders behind her off their bikes. Neff struggled for traction again on the following climb, slipping back from the leading duo, leaving a 16 second gap by the top of the hill.
Behind that group, Pendrel and Batty were moving up through the field and were sitting 10th and 13th respectively.
On lap 2, Langvad started to put Ferrand-Prevot under pressure, continuing to open up small gaps to the French rider any time Ferrand-Prevot caught up to her wheel. Behind them, young Dutch rider Anne Tauber (CST Sand American Eagle) was 27 seconds back, and Pendrel had moved past Neff on a loose climb to move into fourth. Last had fallen back to 11th, just in front of Batty in 12th.
Langvad and Ferrand-Prevot continued to trade off leading the race through the third and fourth lap, with Langvad making several small mistakes on technical sections and having to close down gaps to the French rider. Behind them Tauber continued to float 30 seconds behind, while Pendrel battled with the Kross Racing duo of Neff and Wloszczowska. The Polish national champion slowly faded off that chasing group coming into the fifth and penultimate lap.
Langvad spun out again on coming out of the feed zone on the fifth lap, letting out a seven second gap to an attacking Ferrand-Prevot. What seemed like trouble for the Dane was quickly reversed, as Langvad had a 10 second gap in front of Ferrand-Prevot by the time they next appeared on camera.
Starting the sixth and final lap, Langvad was 14 seconds up on Ferrand-Prevot and 42 ahead of Tauber in third. 1m29s back, Wloszczowska has rejoined Neff and Pendrel, with a hard charging Helen Grobert (Cannondale Factory Racing) only 10 seconds back by the time the group hit the second time check.
Langvad spun out again on the loose, dust-over-concrete singletrack climb and struggled to remount, running before wobbling back and forth over the top. Ferrand-Prevot saw her opening and threw everything she had into a last ditch chase, but was unable to close the gap. On the same section, Pendrel was gapped by the Kross duo. Shortly after, Grobert caught, and continued past the fading Cliff Pro rider.
An exhausted looking Langvad bounced through the physical “Pick up sticks” section, but was safe to cross the line for her fourth straight opening World Cup round win, with a 13 second gap back to Ferrand-Prevot in second. Anne Tauber crossed at 34 seconds back, her best result in an elite World Cup.
Behind them, Grobert had caught onto the back of the two Kross teammates through the pick up sticks section. The trio crossed the final fly-over into the finish area with Neff holding a slim, half bike length advantage. Grobert looked like she would be pushed to the outside for a Kross 4-5 podium finish, but the German paused, and dove inside both riders, launching into a wild, three-up sprint for the line. Grobert came out on top in the photo finish, ahead of Wloszcowska in the fifth and final podium spot, leaving Neff in sith. Pendrel crossed the line shortly after in seventh, not the Canadian’s best result, but a strong start to the season.
Emily Batty held position to finish in 14th in a spring with Germany’s Elisabeth Brandau. Haley Smith moved up through the pack to finish 23rd, ahead of American Kate Courtney. Cindy Montambault finished 34th, two spots behind French XC legend Julie Bresset, who is returning to racing this year. Rebecca Beaumont finished in 44th.