A race marred with controversy provided the stage for one special Fort Lewis College cyclist to excel in front of a global audience.
After winning the USA Cycling Collegiate Cyclo-Cross Nationals race Jan. 8 in North Carolina and placing second in the under-23 women’s race two days later, Fort Lewis’ Sofia Gomez-Villafañe qualified for the UCI Cyclo-Cross World Championships in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium.
Gomez-Villafañe was able to raise enough money to make the trip with the help of her parents and the Durango cycling community, and she took to the course Saturday with no expectations. But the 22-year-old from Argentina shined through the rain and mud on a tough course and finished 19th overall.
It was the first women’s U23 cyclo-cross world championship race ever held.
“I went into this race thinking it was a bonus race since I had not planned on attending,” Gomez-Villafañe said in an email interview with The Durango Herald. “I was for sure making time up in the technical sections, which helped a lot.”
The race was won by 19-year-old Evie Richards of Great Britain. She finished in 41 minutes, 34 seconds. Gomez-Villafañe finished in 45:40 and was thankful for no mechanical failures that found so many other competitors.
“It ended up being a very tough course because all the rain made the course extremely physically demanding,” Gomez-Villafañe said. “For our race, the conditions had not changed things too much aside from having a little more mud present. Everything was still rideable except for the big hill climb that came after the steep run up, that section became a full on run.”
Gomez-Villafañe, who has been coached by Durangoan and internationally successful professional cyclist Carmen Small over the last year as well as the Fort Lewis College coaches, represented Argentina in the race. She is originally from Patagonia and cherished the chance to represent her home country, though it may have been for the first and last time. Her sister, Caro Gomez-Villafañe also was competing at the world championships, making the weekend even more special for the whole family.
“I think that this will be my only time representing Argentina since I think that I will start my papers with the UCI to have them accept and recognize my American nationality,” she said. “I do not think I could have been able to come to race if (Caro) had not been here.”
The race wasn’t completed without controversy. European champion Femke Van den Driessche of the host nation Belgium is under investigation for a technological fraud after her bike was inspected one lap into the race. A motor was found on the bike.
International Cycling Union off-road manager Peter Van Den Abeele said his control commissioners noticed a suspicious bike during the women’s U23 race and immediately tested it for fraudulent use of technology to artificially increase speed.
Even though Van Den Abeele refused to name the rider, the Belgian team Rudy De Bie told VRT network it was a rider of the host nation.
“Now we will look further into this case. For the UCI, it is the first time that we see such technological fraud. It is a setback for us,” Van Den Abeele told VRT.
It was a disappointing turn for a country that loves cyclo-cross.
“Racing at Zolder is a very unique experience,” Gomez-Villafañe said. “I learned that a part of the course was sacred and therefore no spectators could be there, only the races were allowed.”
Gomez-Villafañe said she will take a little bit of time off her bike before beginning training for mountain bike season. She will compete for Summit Bike Club’s competitive team based out of Utah this summer and will participate in some professional cross-country races as well as nationals.
She said Saturday’s top-20 finish has inspired her to further chase a career in cycling.
“I think that having a finish like this gives me more motivation to keep training and really give cycling a full try,” she said. “The last four years I have been focusing on school, working, and just really learning how to actually ride a bike while attending Fort Lewis. I think next year I will be able to see some big improvements since I will have more time to train and hopefully will be a part of a team with support to be able to race the professional calendar.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.