France won the mixed team relay to open up the 2024 UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Tábor with a bang, with junior rider Aubin Sparfel holding off Great Britain’s Cameron Mason in a thrilling final lap and sprint to the line.
Sparfel went into the final lap with a seven-second lead on Mason thanks to a powerful penultimate lap from Hélène Clauzel and despite the Brit’s efforts right to the final moment, he never made up the difference.
Last year’s champions Netherlands were absent after opting to focus on the individual events, meaning runners-up from 2023 Great Britain were coming in with hopes of going one better.
After being the only squad to start with a women’s rider and falling to last on lap one, Great Britain’s seemed to have their tactics perfect with Cat Ferguson and Oscar Amey making up ground in the middle laps. They granted Anna Kay a 20-second lead over Clauzel, but the Frenchwoman’s chase and overtake of the Brit proved to be the decisive moment.
A fast-closing Michael Vanthourenhout took the Belgian team home for third with too much work to do on the final lap to chase down the leading duo.
“It’s just amazing. We would like to win today but now we are World Champions. It’s just incredible,” said France’s Clauzel after the victory.
“It was super stressful but we know Aubin [Sparfel] is super strong and he just won. We are very proud of him,” said France’s U23 men’s rider Martin Groslambert.
The mixed team relay event is contested by six riders: one elite male, one elite female, and two male and two female riders from the under 23 or junior ranks. Each nation can determine their own starting order.
Tábor 2024 is the second edition of the mixed team relay at the World Championships after being raced first in Hoogerheide last year following the 2022 test event in Fayetteville. Last year’s champions and the dominant force in cyclocross, the Netherlands, opted not to field a squad and instead focus on the individual events.
An explosive first lap saw the tactical battle begin with the ten starting nations choosing to lead off with riders from different age groups and genders. The majority led off with their men’s U23 or junior rider, while Great Britain were the only squad to start with a women’s rider, Zoe Bäckstedt.
The lead was swapped throughout lap one by Poland, France and Italy with Filippo Agostinacchio riding strongly for the latter, but it was France who led the way heading into the first changeover after Rémi Lelandais took the lead in the final portion of the lap.
Great Britain changed last with Bäckstedt around 45 seconds down, hoping their alternate tactics would pay off later in the race.
Lap two saw the leaderboard remain largely similar to how the first lap ended but France did marginally extend their lead before handing over to top women’s junior prospect Célia Gery.
Italy’s Valentina Corvi was making good progress on Gery after leaving the Belgian team behind, with other strong teams such as the USA and Great Britain 30 seconds and 54 seconds down respectively.
The junior World Cup winner from this season Gery refound her form in the second half of the lap after making some early mistakes, extending her lead out to nearly 30 seconds on the rest of the now grouped-up field behind.
Clara Honsinger made up great time, moving the USA up as Czech rider Kryštof Bažant put the home team into second at the next changeover, despite sliding out on an early off-camber corner.
The French lead was 30 seconds at the beginning of the fourth lap but that was quickly coming down as the early rider order choices were starting to take effect. The British team, after being in last after lap one, had their male junior Oscar Amey closing in on the leading trio of France, USA and Czechia after Cat Ferguson cut into their advantage during the previous lap.
A crash for France’s Lauriane Duraffourg opened the door for Amey to close the gap as they approached the boards with the Briton quickly taking over the lead before the change with only their elite women’s and men’s riders remaining.
Great Britain led into the penultimate lap after a blistering round from Amey, giving Anna Kay a 20-second lead to maintain ahead of France and the USA. Kay kept it neat and tidy throughout her lap, but the French squad was closing through Hélène Clauzel.
Clauzel’s strength on the uphill sections had her past Kay in no time with a last-lap decider set up between Great Britain’s elite male rider Mason and France’s junior male Sparfel.
Belgium started the lap in the bronze medal position with a 38-second deficit to make up but they did have the European champion Vanthourenhout on the attack and chasing the two leaders.
Sparfel looked to have been reeled in by Mason, but the Brit slipped while trying to remount after navigating the planks section, dropping him back a few seconds as the lead as they approached the final few corners.
It was only as the duo hit the final road section that Mason made contact before the final sprint to the line, but the younger man managed to hold off Mason’s last-gasp effort and throw his bike to confirm the victory and world title for France.
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