Belgium Lets Sanne Fly, but Women’s Equality Has Long Way to Go

Runway Cross Worlds took place 10 months ago, but airplanes are back in the news in the cyclocross world once again. This time, instead of thrilling finishes and dominating MvdP wins, the drama has been all about the second-class role still assigned to Belgian women in the country’s cycling program.

While the Dutch have been dominating Elite Women’s cyclocross at all levels in recent years, one need look no further than Bogense Worlds to find Sanne Cant bailing out the Belgian team and preventing the Motherland of Cyclocross from going home winless at Worlds. Yes, Sanne has not been the same Sanne who won three straight world championships, but still, three Worlds titles should have a bit more cachet in a cyclocross-mad country than they appear to have.

Sanne Cant bailed out the Belgie federation at Bogense Worlds. © 2019 Bill Schieken

The disrespect, in this situation, centers around this weekend’s two races in Kortrijk, Belgium, which is located on the west side of the county near Roubaix, and Tabor, Czech Republic, which is south of Prague. While many of us Americans just assume European races are always right next to each other, the drive from Kortrijk to Tabor is actually 10 hours with no stops. Do the math, with Saturday’s races wrapping up in the mid-afternoon on Saturday, and that is a tough hike to make while still getting sleep and having some semblance of physical wherewithal for Sunday’s World Cup.

To help make the trip happen for Team Belgium, the Belgian federation took a page from the original Prime Time playbook and chartered a private plane at €1,000 a pop to transport the top Belgian cyclocrossers. One would think this would include, IDK, a three-time world champion, but when the news of the charter plane plan was announced, it did not.

Apparently the plane Belgie cyclocross coach Sven Vanthourenhout scored has a total of eight passenger seats. Those spots were allotted to Eli Iserbyt, Wout van Aert, Toon Aerts, Michael Vanthourenhout, Laurens Sweeck, Quinten Hermans, and Daaaaaaaan Soete. Sanne Cant also wanted to do the Kortrijk/Tabor double, but earlier in the week, the other Sven said they did not have room at the inn for her. “I’m looking for a solution for her. I’m trying to arrange a larger private plane with a few extra seats, so that she can come too.”

It has been no secret that Sanne has not had a Sanne-like season and a half, and we all love Quinten and saying Daaaaaaaaaaan’s name, but to give a couple of definitive Middlers spots on the plane in place of the three-time world champ is just the latest example of how women’s cycling is viewed in Belgium.

Entering the week, Sanne fully expected to be doing the double the hard way. “Apparently the plane charter from Golazo to the Czech Republic is canceled because there are few candidates and the special expensive charter of the men is already full. So we go by car.”

On Saturday, Sanne was on the start line at Urban Cross Kortrijk, so it appeared she had worked out a solution to her international transport for Sunday’s race. Cant had a so-so race in Kortrijk, trying to keep the blistering Dutch pace early on before settling for an 8th-place finish that was equal to (soon-to-be-ex (?)) Topper Toon and better than Laurens Sweeck and the aforementioned Daaaaaaaaan.

After the race, thanks to some CXHairs readers, we learned that in a Homer Simpsonian do-the-right-thing-in-the-end way, the Belgies found a way to #letsannefly.

They even found a way to sneak Vanthourenhout on the plane, making for a happy ending to Airplane-Gate for everyone.

Airplane-Gate garnered extra attention because the Belgian cyclocross world has not exactly been covering itself in glory with respect to women in recent weeks.

Two weeks ago, Sporza ran an article that highlighted some comments by Paul Herygers that not so subtly tore into Belgian women’s cyclocross.

“I am disappointed from a Belgian point of view. It is very, very thin. And unfortunately the end is not yet in sight,” said Herygers.

Herygers: “Sanne is not good. You cannot find any other words for that. It does not turn. How can you turn something like this around while the season is in full swing?”

The story ran after Leuven, where Cant finished 18th, but she did bounce back with a 5th-place ride last weekend at Merksplas. To her credit, in the same story linked above, Sanne took the controversy in an on-brand even-keeled way.

“I have not panicked, the outside world has,” she said. She also added, “The only thing I can do is answer with the pedals.”

Friend of the blog Jens Dekker helped call our attention to this story, and in a few hundred words, he captured the Belgian conundrum well.

Whatever it is the Dutch federation has done, it is clear the country has made a substantial investment in women’s cycling, and it has paid off in cyclocross, on the road, and elsewhere. The Dutch women are absolutely dominating women’s cyclocross, from the 30-something Brand, to the World Champ Prime Time, to Junior stars Shirin van Anrooij and Puck Pieterse, and even to Fem van Empel, an 18-year-old soccer player now beating Sanne Cant in races.

If the Belgians have to be dragged kicking and screaming into giving their greatest women’s cyclocross racer ever a spot on a chartered plane over career Middlers, perhaps it is no wonder they are not putting the money and effort into developing a robust pipeline of elite athletes capable of coming remotely close to competing with the current Dutch dominance.


2 thoughts on “Belgium Lets Sanne Fly, but Women’s Equality Has Long Way to Go

  1. Hi, great opinion pieces on both Brand and Cant and its unbelievable that Cant was not part of the original passenger list and given the proper respect her record and talent deserves. It might be stretch though to say this is all about a lack of investment in Belgian women and equality. Do you know for example what actual investment (and what system) the Netherlands is putting into wormen’s cycling compared to Belgium. And why are Dutch men not doing better and showing in greater abundance. It would be good to know. Certainly it would be good to see younger Belgian women coming through and it cannot be just down to the performances of Cant and Verdonschot though it would be nice to see them on the podium. I did not see Verdonschot mentioned by the way in relation to the plane story.

  2. So…what you’re missing here is that the Dutch are a more equitable and relaxed nation who seem pretty unbothered by the notion that men and women are equal. I suspect Patrick Lefevre – well known for suggesting that a young waitress who took exception to being sexualised by one of his team – was inseparable from being a prostitute in expecting money for her exploitation represents a Belgian male state of mind. ( Also cycling – given UCI sanctioned neither Lefevre or the rider- still many miles to travel before it really starts acting for women). ( Also riding a bike in Holland is how most people get around most of the time) In these circumstances no wonder the enigmatic @Sannecant and her dry humour and the unapologetically gay, diminutive and generally lovely and hard as nails @lauraverdonscht
    are finding it hard to match established and rising stars from federations who actually give two fucks about their female riders. To all intents and purposes SC and LV are privateers who have got to the top in spite of their federation not with them.
    Women are part of the future of cycling and the UCI should have mandating how girls/women are brought into the sport as a priority in all its member federations. Sexism sucks especially when it is ingrained into systems.

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