It might be a bit of a stretch to say a rider who has won 19 races in the last 5 years had their best race ever at a relatively pedestrian November Superprestige race, but for the sake of this blog post, I will go ahead and say that Lucinda Brand had one of her most complete wins on Sunday at Superprestige Merksplas.
Brand, in my opinion, is the most interesting of the three Elite Women’s Toppers the Media Pit denizens recently crowned. We all know the many ways Ceylin “Prime Time” Alvarado can win races, and by the transitive property of Prime Time, we all kind of know the corresponding holes in Annemarie Worst’s game right now.
Brand is a bit more of a mystery. She has a huge upside in that she is easily the most powerful racer in the Elite Women’s field, but at the same time, she has a reputation as a roadie who is prone to big mistakes at big moments. But then at the same time same time, she has been improving and has started to fill some of the bill holes in her cyclocross game.
Sunday’s race was not going to solve Brand’s can’t-win’-the-big-one dilemma—she’ll have to do that in Oostende at the end of January—but it does provide a panorama of the Brand potential and intrigue, as as well as a demonstration of how hard she has worked to address her limiters and even turn some of them into strengths.
Before we head to the first doubleheader of the season in Kortrijk and Tabor, I think it’s worth taking a look back at Merksplas and what was a rather complete win by
The Dutch Dangler The Shark The Lurker Naughty by Nature(?) Yeah, I guess we still need a good nickname for her.
A History Lesson, As Usual
Growing up, I was a huge history
buff nerrrrrrrrrrrrd, so I guess it’s not too surprising I end up starting all these blog posts with a bit of a history lesson.
If I am being honest, I had intended to write a post about Brand before the season started, and given the premise I had kind of sketched out, I am very happy how the season has started thus far. It went a bit unnoticed, in part because Brand has somehow managed to remain a bit underrated despite palmares even some Toppers would love to have, but before the season, the 31-year-old Dutch road powerhouse announced that as a member of the Fighting Simbas, Brand would be dialing back her road schedule and going all-in on cyclocross.
In a world where cyclocross riders typically go to the road, and for better or worse, many women riders need to be multi-disciplinary to stay in the sport, it was interesting to see a road standout go all-in on cyclocross. The big picture of her decision was that the road’s loss was cyclocross’ gain, with Brand’s power and growing off-road skillset providing a major x-factor for Elite Women’s international cyclocross.
Prior to the 2016-17 season, Brand was a true cyclocross dabbler, participating in a handful of races each winter and getting middling results. Her best finish during her dabbling period was a second-place at the 2015 Centrumcross Surhuisterveen (¯\_(ツ)_/¯), a largely provincial Dutch post New Year’s race.
Beginning with the 2016 Superprestige Gieten October Classic, Brand made the most of her first season as a “full-time” cyclocross racer, finishing second at Gieten and then going on to finish second at Euros, second at Dutch Nationals, and fourth at Bieles Worlds. She also took a second behind Pauline Ferrand-Prevot at Druivencross that really laid the groundwork for the Lucinda Brand narrative we are still living to this day.
In a muddy, icy, sloppy December race at the 2017 Mother of All Crosses, Brand made the final selection with the current two-time mountain bike World Champion before taking second after some untimely crashes. In one neat package, Brand showed her potential–going toe-to-toe with a generational great–and Achilles heel–too much crashing.
As an observer, the first Brand race I really remember was the 2018 running of Druivencross. Although perhaps not as a snowy, it was wet and muddy with several descents that were quite treacherous. Although the field was missing a number of A-listers, Brand still had to outduel a Nikki Brammeier who had a very very good season in what proved to be her last as a professional racer. During that race, Brand crashed no fewer than three times, but after each spill, she used her overwhelming power to catch Brammeier and then ultimately beat her.
Watching Brand unleash her power in that race was a bit of a 👀 moment, albeit one that was tempered by the 😅 feeling of seeing her crash repeatedly. IDK, it was almost like watching Giannis score 40 in the paint and thinking, “Wow, if only he could shoot the three,” with “shooting the three” in Brand’s case meaning “not crashing.”
Well by golly, even if Giannis still can’t shoot, Brand answered some of those questions by winning Namur not two weeks later. Namur! The race single-handedly responsible for the existence of the term “mountain bike-ster.” In one afternoon at the Citadel, it became infinitely harder to dismiss Brand’s potential.
Beginning with Druivencross, Brand won 6 of the 8 races she started heading into Worlds that year. (Whut?) I mean yeah, Van der Poel won 8 of 8 heading into Bogense Worlds, but at a time we were talking about how any number of women could win any given Saturday or Sunday, Brand was kind of WINNING
ALL MOST OF THE THINGS.
Brand would go on to finish second at Bogense Worlds behind Sanne Cant, with her memorable moment being a botched bike exchange with her dad, of all people, as she tried to chase down a Sanne Cant streaking to her third-straight Worlds title. Like so many moments in her career, it had all the things that make Brand, Brand—the promise of her talent, being done in by a technical aspect, a title near-miss.
One could make a reasonable argument that Brand’s silver in Denmark was a quiet one because all of our attention was on Marianne Vos going for a record eighth world championship and Sanne Cant trying to defy the Dutch and get her third-straight. Perhaps because of her roadie rep, no one believed in Brand, and after how things played out, they were justified in their lack of belief.
The following season, she would be overshadowed yet again.
As late December 2019 approached, Brand was again on a roll. She won Niel. She won Urban Cross Kortrijk. She won Namur (!), again. And she won Zolder. However, like life, cyclocross can be a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, and Ceylin Alvarado, who was finishing second to Brand at Namur and Zolder, started winning races and thus establishing herself as the rider to watch at Runway Cross Worlds. Brand had another strong outing at Worlds, finishing third, but that race was mostly about Alvarado and Worst at the time and definitely in our memory of it after their thrilling sprint finish.
Fast Starts, Improved Skills, Resiliency at Merskplas
There was a lot of uncertainty heading into the 2020-21 season because global pandemic, but after the first block of races, Women’s cyclocross appeared to pick up where it left off with Alvarado and Worst delivering thrilling finishes at Ruddervoorde and the memorable European Championships.
Brand was in the mix in each of those races, but she always seemed to be chasing for much of the race and then running out of gas in the last lap before turning the theatrics over to Worst and Alvarado.
Last year throughout the inaugural season of the Media Pit podcast, we noted that Elite Women’s racing in Europe had gotten significantly fiercer, thanks in large part to Prime Time revving it from the opening whistle and relenting for the full 40-50 minutes of racing. That trend has largely continued this year, and Brand has largely gotten left off the vroom vroom train early on and had to burn several matches trying to get back to the front.
We saw the first hint of what Brand can do with a few more saved matches at Superprestige Niel, when an early crash from Annemarie Worst before the plop drop left Prime Time at the front with our favorite convicted doper Denise Betsema. With Worst not there to help Prime Time set a fast pace, Brand made contact earlier than she had in previous races and was ultimately able to make a strong move at the end of the race to win.
All of these factors were prologue to Sunday’s race at Merksplas. The power, the bike handling, the slow-ish starts. It goes without saying that if Brand was going to have her most complete race, Brand would have to overcome her technical issues and not falter in the last lap of the race. (Yes, yes, I know I buried my thesis statement under like 1,200 words of blabbering, I will take my C+ now professor).
On Sunday, Brand solved her slow start / burn too many matches problem by … getting off to a fast start and riding from the front. Prime Time took the holeshot, but then Brand slotted in at third wheel behind Worst and 1 minute into the race, she was already giving Worst a little rubbing-is-racing moment fighting for the lead spot. Then, when Brand got to the front, she played the role of Prime Time, setting her own blistering pace and drawing out Alvarado and Worst. One lap in, we had the Three Toppers at the front.
We have talked about it on the Media Pit, but it has felt like there were signs that, at least right now, Alvarado fears Brand more than she does Worst. Undoubtedly, some of this has to do with the sand. Alvarado’s power puts her above Worst when riding the sand and her fleet feet give her the advantage when they have to run. Brand, however, is equally as powerful as the World Champ and perhaps a step fleeter of foot. On Sunday, Brand and Alvarado’s sand supremacy showed, and the two bid adieu to Worst on the second and third trips through the sand.
One of the reasons Alvarado stands out as the Top Topper thus far this season is she has shown she can win races in any number of ways. Despite still being a U23 by age, Alvarado has shown wisdom and patience beyond her years in making assessments of strengths and weaknesses during the wait and then picking the perfect time to make her move.
After a Lap 3 where Brand led through the singletracky section through the woods, it appeared Alvarado sensed a weakness in her rival because in the fourth of six laps, she made a big effort to deny Brand the lead spot heading into the woods.
Historically, a rider who podiumed at U23 MTB Worlds taking the lead into the woods against Brand makes a lot of sense. The knock against Brand has always been her bike handling—one need to look no further than last Sunday’s race at Leuven to find a race where a crash cost Brand dearly—so why not put her under pressure and force a mistake on the most technical part of the course?
The thing that stood out about Prime Time’s acceleration into the woods was that it was a legit move, not just an attempt to gain a second or two. And once through, Alvarado stayed on the move, constantly looking back to see if she had broken Brand with her big attack.
Brand, to her credit, absorbed the Champ’s body blow and kept her within one big Brand acceleration of closing the gap. As Alvarado popped out onto the start/finish straight, you could see her relent and recognize that the result of her big move was a few more seconds on Worst but the status quo with Brand.
After rolling through the sand with relative ease in Laps 1-3, Brand did get a little squirrelly in Lap 4. That trip through the sand proved to be foreshadowing, as she led into the pit in Lap 5 but got super squirrelly and had to dismount and run. Her super sand sprint helped ease some of the damage, but Alvarado exited the section with a 7-second advantage, and with 1 to go, Brand was actually closer to the hard-charging Betsema than she was Alvarado.
If things did not end up differently, one could argue it was every Brand near-miss ever, with Brand making a technical mistake at a key moment and her opponent taking advantage. And in this case, it wasn’t just any opponent, it was the coldest last-lap killer in cyclocross with a 7-second lead.
I would argue that biffing the sand the way she did was not a mistake on par with how she crashed last Sunday at Leuven or even a botched bike exchange at Worlds—sand can be a crapshoot at times—but the result was the same, Brand appeared cooked thanks to a mistake of her own doing.
Brand, however, was not out of it. She erased about half of Alvarado’s gap on the flats at the start of the lap, and then erased the rest of the lead IN THE WOODS.
While Brand has still struggled with some of the techiest of features, she has shown substantial improvement riding the flowier technical sections such as the one through the woods at Merksplas. Even though Prime Time ostensibly had the chance to neutralize Brand’s power in the section, Brand used that stretch of the course to highlight some of the improvement she has made as a cyclocross racer.
Then, in a twist of irony, at least of the Morissetteian kind—it’s an Alvarado mistake, when you expect it to be Brand’s, isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?—it was Alvarado who made the race’s definitive blunder. With rain starting to fall, Alvarado wiped out on a slick off-camber-ish turn and slid to the ground. Brand pulled around her and took a lead she would not relinquish for the rest of the race.
As we discussed in the Pit, Alvarado’s mistake was no doubt in part a result of a lack of concentration while dealing with a muddy pedal she could not clip into. Some of it, however, was likely the knowledge she had been unable to drop Brand despite multiple efforts, and giving up even a second opened her to a potential attack from her always-aggressive rival.
Brand’s win was her third of the season, and it kept her 2020-21 On Podium Percentage at a perfect 100%, making her the only Elite rider to podium in every start. More importantly, it showed that she could take a massive shot from a World Champ who has been doing the rainbow stripes justice on a weekly basis and even turn one of her perceived weaknesses into a strength against that same World Champ.
I think Brand showed a lot in this race, and frankly, I would not be surprised if she started winning on a regular basis. If she can get off to fast starts like she did at Merksplas and not have to burn matches to make it to the front, her sheer power and skills in the sand help offset some of Alvarado’s advantages, and future duels between the two will no doubt lead to even more great racing.
At the end of the day though, cycling is all about winning that rainbow jersey, and until Brand shows she can put together the perfect race when it counts, it seems she will be known as a great regular season player who could not win the big one. However, if Brand can show the resiliency, heart, and improved skills she showed at Merksplas, there is no reason to believe that this cannot be the year for her to finally get those rainbow stripes.