OTB: Hunting Points and the EKZ Cross Tour

While the collective attention of most cyclocross fans was focused on CrossVegas and the opening of the World Cup calendar, let’s not ignore that the European cyclocross season has already begun. Further, before the season got started at all on the continent, there were the now ‘traditional’ opening races in China, which are seen as a test of early season form for some, while for others it’s a chance for an all-expenses paid trip across the Pacific to chase those precious UCI points and perhaps polish one’s résumé.

In brief, Wietse Bosmans (BCKP-Corendon) used his Asian trip to collect those much-needed UCI points as he aims to move back into the top-50 and thus qualify for future World Cups. After a 2014-2015 season dealing with the effects of Lyme disease, Bosmans had slid well out of the top-150 in the world rankings, so those C1 points were much needed. Bosmans also picked up a pair of C2 wins at Pennsylvania’s Nittany Lion Cross weekend, September 12 and 13, moving him to 59th in the UCI rankings.

While Bosmans and others, such as teammate Vincent Baestaens who picked up a win at day 2 of the Ellison Park Cyclocross Festival in Rochester, New York, were either hunting points abroad, already in the US and training for CrossVegas, or continuing to rest before what will be a long season, a number of top pros were in Baden, Switzerland for round one of the EKZ Cross Tour. Held at a venue that many North American racers would see as familiar, the dry, dusty and primarily grassy course encouraged small groups to form and test each other’s fitness and aptitude for racing in the atypical late-summer European heat.

The field was quite deep for an early season race, perhaps given the C1 points on offer, the significant amount of prize money on the line, or the necessity of getting in some hard efforts in the heat to prepare for CrossVegas. While ERA Real Estate-Murprotec (Laurens Sweeck, Diether Sweeck, Julien Taramarcaz, Radomir Simunek Jr), BKCP-Corendon (Phillipp Walsleben, David Van Der Poel), Sunweb-Napoleon Games (Dieter Vanthourenhout, Angelo De Clercq) and Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace (Joeri Adams, Jelle Schuermans) each had at least two riders lining up in Baden, there were other top names racing solo. These included Francis Mourey (FDJ), Clément Venturini (Cofidis), Simon Zahner (EKZ Racing), Fabien Canal (Armée de Terre), Marcel Wildhaber (Scott-Odlo MTB Team), Fabian Giger (Team Colnago-Sudtirol), Marcel Meisen (Kuota-Lotto) and Florian Vogel (RC Granichen) who are all capable of making a race hard, the presence of any teammates notwithstanding. Another notable name present was the Swiss Lukas Winterberg, a familiar face to many Americans from his time racing with the Philadelphia Cyclocross School and a perennial podium presence at many American races over the past 5 or so years.

Below is footage from Simon Zahner’s onboard camera from a hot lap of the Baden EKZ Cross Tour course:

On a course that had a good amount of elevation change, some downhill berms, several steep sets of stairs, and plenty of power-sapping grass, it was clear that those crossers coming off of blocks of pre-season training would be put to the test by some of the mountain bikers present who were on end-of-season form coming off the recent World Championships in Andorra.

It didn’t take long for Mourey and Walsleben to get a gap over a chasing group of Taramarcaz, Simunek, Diether and Laurens Sweeck, Adams, Venturini, Wildhaber, Vanthourenhout and Zahner. After a lap or so, a group of five came together at the front, driven on by the relentless pacemaking of Venturini. He was content to tow Sweeck, Walsleben, Mourey and Vanthourenhout, perhaps emboldened by a strong run of late-season road fitness.

This fast pace, combined with the heat, caused Venturini to crack, allowing for Laurens Sweeck to make his move. He quickly opened up a small gap and held it to the line for a fine solo win and some early-season C1 points. It was an impressive win for a young rider who was hounded last season over doping allegations before finally being cleared of any wrongdoing. Despite some grumblings towards the end of the 2014-2015 season that all was not well in the then Kwadr0-Stannah team, it seems the new-look squad is motivated and hungry to have a strong run at the 2015-2016 season.

On the women’s side Eva Lechner (Colnago-Sudtirol) put on a clinic and rode away for a fine solo win with a nearly 30 second gap at the end of a hot, dusty day in Baden. This would prove to be a great tune up for the Italian as she used the racing in the heat to prepare for CrossVegas where she would pull down a fine second place to Katerina Nash (Luna) while holding off a resurgent Sanne Cant (Enertherm-BKCP). In Baden, it was another Czech rider sharing podium space with Lechner, this time in the form of former Telenet-Fidea rider Pavla Havlikova (MRM-Avalon Pro Cycling), with the first-year senior Swiss rider Sina Frei (JB Felt Team) snagging a great third place ahead of former World Champion Hanka Kupfernagel (Wolfis Bike Shop Heitersheim).

Speaking of strong early-season rides, it seems that the French pros must be reading cxhairs.com because both Mourey and Venturini were impressive in Baden and Steve Chainel put in a fine ride at CrossVegas for 18th place. Venturini recently spoke with Josselin Riou at Labourés Magazine about his goals for his first year racing in the senior Elite ranks, the top takeaways from his first pro season on the road with Cofidis, ex-teammate Steve Chainel’s new cyclocross program, and the current state of French cyclocross given we’ll go a full season without seeing the tricolore being worn at the professional level.

When asked about his objectives for the current season, Venturini was unequivocal on his plan to tackle the full Coupe de France series in hopes of winning the overall, as well as taking the Elite national championship win as the top goal. Despite being ranked 19th overall in the UCI rankings [Editor’s Note: This interview occurred before CrossVegas and the most recent rankings, which now find Venturini in 21st place and second best Frenchman behind Francis Mourey in 14th], Venturini will “not focus on racing UCI races every weekend, like the Belgians; this will undoubtedly make scoring points more difficult, but I’ll instead focus on getting top results at every race I attend.”

This point-chasing should be made easier by being given “carte-blanche from the team [Cofidis] and having a staff at my side at each race.” Venturini clearly “feels very comfortable in the team” which he hopes will lead to many opportunities this winter. On the topic of close friend, mentor and frequent training partner Steve Chainel, Venturini is adamant that he is supportive of this pure focus on cyclocross with no signs of jealousy given his institutional support from Cofidis this year.

Venturini is clearly disappointed that there will be no visible tricolore jersey at the pro/Elite level this year, but also understands that Clément Lhotellerie’s choice to retire was a financial one, admitting that “it is hard, in France, to make a living racing the discipline of cyclocross.” What does make the financial decision easier, however, are top results and those are something that Venturini had plenty of in the 2014-2015 season. He was the overall winner of the EKZ Cross Tour last year, which in addition to netting the young Frenchman lots of UCI points, was also a good payday; this large prize purse is one of the main reasons many riders are choosing to focus on this five-race series.

When asked how Venturini planned to balance the defense of his EKZ Cross Tour overall title and his focus on the Coupe de France, he was rather pragmatic and diplomatic. He told Riou that, “I’m lucky, the respective schedules correspond quite well. I cannot be in Hittnau, however, because I’ll defend my title at the Coupe de France stop in Marle.” Something that many in the US can appreciate, especially in areas where cyclocross is still primarily grassroots or in the early stages of growth and popularity, Venturini believes that, “it is important to be faithful to the French organizations as there are so few, and if you do not want them to disappear, you have to keep the traditions.” One of Venturini’s criticisms of the Coupe de France, however, is the slow speed of receiving prize money, telling Riou that “in France, it is slow and I am still waiting for money from the 2013-2014 Coupe de France series.” Whereas at “the EKZ Cross Tour all races are UCI C1 points and prize money that go in line with the high level of the event, with the money paid out immediately. When you see the media coverage, advertising, social network presence [of EKZ], it is well done; when you see the list of participants in Baden, one quickly realizes that the EKZ is popular with the riders.”

No interview with a top young crosser would be complete without the standard query: what does the future hold: cyclocross or road? Venturini, rather than choosing one or the other, is clearly content to enjoy his current ability to race both disciplines, saying that “Boom and Stybar are a level above me” and that “no discipline is more binding than another, as evident by the number of cyclocrossers that excel on the road.”

Keep your eyes on the young rider from Villeurbanne during this season and I think you may find a rising star willing to carry the torch, at the men’s Elite level, for the French…unless he opts for the road and the path trodden by many before him.

Full text of the Venturini interview, if you’re a Francophone, is here: http://laboures-magazine.fr/index.php/2015/09/12/clement-venturini-cofidis-me-laisse-carte-blanche/

Feature image © 2015 Brett Rothmeyer

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