Amanda Miller scrapped with a Belgian, passing her on the bike and then losing the spot on Valkenburg’s big run-up. She rode in fifth, then fourth, then back into fifth before the two crossed the line of the season’s second cyclocross World Cup for the final time.
Miller didn’t know whom she was racing, not until after the finish and a shower. She didn’t know her fight was with Sanne Cant, one of the world’s best cyclocrossers, the current Belgian national champion, and a perennial contender for the world title.
The Iowa native’s finish was confirmation that a recent push back toward cyclocross could pay off. It was an eye-opener, too, showing just how far her legs might take her this season.
“A podium at worlds is becoming a more realistic goal,” she said, sitting in a Boulder, Colorado coffee shop the week after her best-ever World Cup result. “Now that I’ve gotten my feet wet over there, and seen that I can be up there fighting for the win, it’s opened my eyes to some new goals.”
Miller, 28, is no stranger to the front of races. In 2010 she moved from a successful collegiate career, as so many pro women do, straight into the top echelons of European road racing. Stage wins at La Route de France and Thüringen Rundfahrt highlighted successful 2011 and 2012 European tours with the now-defunct HTC-Highroad squad. But she’s been quiet since, racing primarily in the U.S. for Tibco — quiet, that is, until Valkenburg.
Now racing for Boulder Cycle Sport-YogaGlo, Miller credits a change in focus, and a change in her summer program, with her good fall form.
“This past season I took a new approach. I needed a change or I would have left the road scene completely,” she said. That meant fewer race days, just 35, and adding run training, beginning in June. “All along, I knew I wanted to focus on ‘cross this season, and make that my focus and goals for years to come.”
The elite ‘cross calendar works well for Americans this year. The early North American season was chock-full of big races and healthy competition, while most of the must-hit European races are packed into the second half of the calendar. Miller set off on the right foot at the year’s World Cup opener in Las Vegas — her first World Cup ever — where she placed 10th. Competition from other top American women has kept her sharp since.
“The past race weekends, we’ve been beating each other up, there hasn’t been a clear winner,” Miller said. “When Katarina [Nash] shows up, she’s more of a challenge, but a lot of the races have been tactical. In Wisconsin, it was trying get rid of Katie Compton. They’ve all been hard. That’s made us all faster, I think.”
“At the front, it seems like everyone’s stepped up their game; it’s deeper. That’s made us better internationally,” she said.
Indeed, American women had one of their best overall showings in years in Valkenburg. Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com’s Kaitlin Antonneau stormed to second, Miller followed in fifth, and her teammate Crystal Anthony finished 12th. Katie Compton (Trek Factory Racing), who is focused on the second half of the season, followed in 13th.
Even the hardest North American competition isn’t an echo of a European World Cup. Miller didn’t know how her form would translate to the tougher courses and competition of European cyclocross. “Honestly, that morning [of Valkenburg] I told Crystal Anthony,‘ I think my goal for this race is just to finish.’ I had a second row call-up, so that helped. But I never expected fifth,” she said.
Miller had fourth in her sights, but struggled on Valkenburg’s running sections, despite running she’s been doing. She lost time to Cant there each lap. It’s a weakness she’ll now focus on, and hope to eliminate before returning to Belgium for the Namur and Zolder World Cups in December. There, she believes she can step even higher on the world stage.
“I feel like I’m definitely on par now, and hopefully I can build on that,” she said. “I think I can ride better.”