Caroline Mani Closes out here most successful season ever. On a wet and chilly day in Belgium, in front of a crowd of thousands, Raleigh-Clement’s Caroline Mani delivered a phenomenal performance to claim the silver medal at the 2016 UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium. The 27-year-old Frenchwoman rode in contention of a podium spot from the gun of the exhilarating 40-minute race to the nail-biting finale.
“Coming to the finish line I realized ‘I am going to win the silver medal at worlds.’, but honestly my first reaction was disappointment because I was so close to winning,” Mani said. “It was a mixed feeling at first – I was happy, I waved, I had emotions and then 30-seconds later I told myself ‘I am number two in the world!’ “
Newly crowned Dutch cyclocross champion Thalita De Jong, a 22 year-old road cyclist for the powerhouse Rabo-Liv Women’s Cycling Team, won gold - taking the rainbow jersey home to the Netherlands for the seventh time in ten years. Pre-race favorite and hometown hero Sanne Cant (Belgium) settled for a disappointing bronze.
Photo credit: Meg McMahon
A medal in Zolder was far from Caroline Mani’s mind at the start of the 2015-16 cyclocross season. She began the season with one key objective – to win the French National Championships. The thought of a podium at the World Championships in Belgium had yet to be conceived. It wasn’t until Mani scored her most impressive UCI result to date in late December – second at the highly esteemed Namur World Cup – that Mani would start to realize her potential for a medal in Zolder in January.
“After Namur I thought maybe I could get a podium at worlds,” said Mani. “I knew that if Katie Compton and Kaitie Antonneau could be on a podium at a world cup, I could too because I was on the podium with them in America. But really you have no idea what will happen.”
Following her podium at Namur, Mani scored three more top five finishes at the Zolder, Lignières-en-Berry and Hoogerheide World Cups and powered to a dominating win at the French Championships, further boosting her confidence that she could go home with her first-ever Worlds medal.
“When I look back at Namur, I should have won if I had had a decent start,” Mani continued. “I was stronger than Nikki Harris. I thought then that I could do well at worlds, but we didn’t talk too much about worlds then because first I had to focus on winning nationals.”
“There was a lot of pressure before nationals, but I won it pretty easily,” said Mani. “But I really hurt myself. I had a cast on my thumb for a bad sprain so I knew I needed to take three or four days to reset. I did some hard training with my cast on the trainer and then had my mechanic take it off. And then I went on to get two fourth places at the world cups even with terrible starts.”
Photo credit: Meg McMahon
With a front row call-up in Zolder, her front wheel placed centimeters from the rainbow striped finish line, Mani was poised for a strong start, but getting into good position off the line had been a struggle for her in Europe.
“I’m a chicken,” explained Mani. “I’m really scared. In America I can take the hole shot, but in Europe people are crazy. At the world cups the starts are longer and faster and people are pushing. Every time I have someone around me I panic.”
“I had a lot of people putting pressure on me to have a good start, and that was difficult to deal with in the two weeks leading up to worlds,” Mani added.
When the light turned green, Mani, along with the rest of the front row, went full tilt off the line. By the end of the first lap, Mani found herself comfortably situated in the front group along with World Cup overall winner Sanne Cant, 2016 Hoogerheide World Cup winner Sophie de Boer (the Netherlands) and 2016 Namur World Cup winner and British national champion Nikki Harris.
“On the start line I told myself ‘let’s just do this!,’ said Mani. “I had a good start, went wide around the first tight corner to avoid crashes and I was about top ten after the pits. I was already at the front of the race when in Europe I don’t normally even see the front.”
The four leaders would each take turns leading the race as they distanced themselves from the rest of the field. Typical of her aggressive and animated racing style, Mani would often take control at the head of the group as if to say “if you want the win, you have to take it from me first.”
“I was the one who made the race the first few laps,” said Mani. “They were all focused on Sanne. Everyone thought she’s going to be the one to win so their race was all about her.”
“I tested her and I knew she wasn’t the strongest one,” Mani added. “I dropped her on the road climb and running. I knew I was stronger. I attacked and went away, but it was easy to bring me back on the long road sections.”
Photo credit: Meg McMahon
Unbeknownst to the four leaders, De Jong was quickly making up ground from the back of the field. Just before the start of the fourth and final lap, the Dutch champion reached the lead group. Contact made, she attacked them all on the hardest part of the course creating a small gap to Cant and a further gap to De Boer and Mani.
“Nobody told me anything about De Jong,” Mani said. “I had no information. It may not have changed anything, but if the others had helped me more, maybe she wouldn’t have caught us or she would have caught us later in the last lap and I could have gone with her.”
“But you can tell she was a bit stronger,” added Mani. “She’s one piece on her bike and was just smashing the pedals. She got a gap in no time, but that was the part where I was struggling, where I wasn’t strongest.”
De Jong hit the final run-up with eight seconds on Cant. The Belgian champion had a slight gap on Mani, but Mani’s quick climbing legs would propel her past Cant on the steep run-up just a few hundred meters from the finish line. Mani came off the last fly-over onto the finishing straight alone, flashing a massive smile and screaming “on my god!” as she crossed the finish line 14 seconds behind De Jong and 10 seconds ahead of Cant.
“I’m glad I ran the incline so many times back in Colorado Springs, although I was sure we would ride the long, steep climb in Zolder,” said Mani. “I even switched from a single chain ring to a double so that I could attack on that climb if I was with people. But I never used the small ring and I was faster running anyway. From Namur I knew I could drop people running.”
Mani has been a member of the formidable Raleigh-Clement Professional Cycling Team for just over three years. Donn Kellogg, manager of the Raleigh-Clement squad, is ecstatic about the growth and development of the captain of his team.
"To watch a rider you have worked with for over three years make such a great effort in her training and dedication and then realize such a result is incredibly rewarding,” said Kellogg. “Caroline rode like a champion forcing the race selection at some of the hardest sections, in particular the steep climb where she was consistently dropping her competitors. She was within grasp of the win and that will carry over for her motivation going into the 2016-2017 ‘cross season."
For the past five years, Mani has based herself in the U.S. and her schedule has emphasized the North American cyclocross calendar. Kellogg is the first to acknowledge that Mani’s outstanding performance in Europe these last two months may require a schedule readjustment for next season.
"Caroline and I will sit down in the next few weeks with the complete UCI schedule and plan the right approach,” said Kellogg. “Certainly, reviewing these past few weeks where Caroline won French nationals, finished seventh overall in the UCI World Cup standings (despite missing two events) and capped it all off with an outstanding ride to the silver medal at the World Championships will make us look at complete international schedule.”
“This will require full evaluations as the Raleigh-Clement Professional Cycling Team is primarily a North American based team with our support systems in America,” Kellogg added. “We will have to put dedicated resources in place in Europe to properly support an expansion to a more complete World Cup schedule. It’s absolutely a great problem to have."
Caroline Mani’s 2015-2016 season highlights: 17 podiums, 4 wins Back-to-back winner of the USA Cycling Pro CX series French National Champion Silver medal at 2016 UCI Cyclocross World Championship #2 UCI ranking (as of 2 February 2016)