The most highly-anticpated battle on Belgian soil is to take place in Antwerp this Sunday at the Belgian National Championships. The two favorites are current national champion Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) and former world champ Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus). But depending on the course conditions, pre-race predictions can easily change – especially in a country like Belgium, where there are nine guys who regularly finish in the top 10 in World Cup events. Any one of them can be Belgian champion if the track is in his favor.
As the more experienced of the two current favorites, Nys is confident yet realistic about his chances for a repeat of last year. “My shape is really good. I am on the podium every day now, second or first. With my experience and all the titles I’ve won, I think it is possible to win again. But of course Niels Albert is also really strong, and we will see what happens. But I’m motivated and the shape is good and now I hope I am not getting ill. And then it is possible to win. It’s all in the mind,” Nys tells CXM.
The two-man battle between Nys and Albert may be the dominant topic surrounding the Belgian Championships, but oddly enough the two such riders don’t believe it will come to fruition. Albert says to Sporza, “If you look at the last races, you would expect it to be a Nys-Albert duel, but a Belgian Championship is always a little strange.” If, by chance, it does become a two-man battle, Nys has his designs on how it will play out. “If we go into the last lap together, it is over for Albert.” Naturally Albert sees it differently.
Of all factors that can come into play, weather seems to be the most determinant. As of Wednesday, when most of the riders inspected the course, it was mainly dry and fast. Since that evening, though, the rain has been continuous through Friday evening, most likely turning the track muddy. Even so, with Mother Nature in charge, riders can’t be certain of what to expect on race day.
While Albert did not check out the course last Wednesday since course conditions were expected to change daily, he definitely has his track preference. “For me, a slippery course would be nice so you can ride fast and slip too.” Nys’ ideal conditions require a bit more rain. “[If the expected rain arrives], the track is going to be hard with a lot of mud and sand. For me that’s OK [smiles]. If it’s muddy then the strongest can win.” After checking out the course on Wednesday, Nys tells Gazet van Antwerpen that if the course remains semi-dry and fast, he doesn’t see a top favorite winning. “The way the course is now, [Tom] Meeusen or [Kevin] Pauwels could win. It is hard to make a difference on this course at the moment. [If it stays like this], I expect a very exciting last lap.”
Depending on actual course conditions, the faces at the front of the race can change. Another rider in particular who will benefit from muddy race conditions is Bart Wellens, currently ranked fifth on all Classifications so far. Not entering the race under the best circumstances due to a fall on his knees last Sunday, Wellens remains hopeful. “It is one day – you can have a very good day, but also an off day. We will see. I hope to be on a very good day. I will focus myself the whole week to be very good in that one race, but it’s difficult since Nys and Albert are so good. Normally it would go to one of them, but we will see.” Wellens’ final goal of the season is to win one race. If all goes well, this would certainly be a nice one to win for the ever-friendly rider.
Another top threat is Wellens’ teammate, the bashful Kevin Pauwels, who is not as keen on the heavy courses. “If it’s not too muddy, I think I can do a good race. I don’t think my condition is as good as in Hasselt [where he won in a sprint against Nys on November 20th] because the last races were not as good. I think Nys or Albert will win, but the course is better for me than Tervuren was [where he placed eighth].
A guy who is good for the big events is Klaas Vantornout, who finished second last year in both the Belgian Championships and World Championships. This lanky rider was named by Nys as a rider to watch. Nys explains, “Because Klaas didn’t win any races this year, he’s really dangerous. For him it is one of his last goals he can get. When he says he’s gonna be good, he is good.” Vantornout enters the race in good spirits and hopes that luck is on his side, saying, “In Zolder I crashed the first lap, in Loenhout the condition wasn’t bad, but my tire was flat. No luck. But yesterday, in Baal, it was good. For me it was the final test for Nationals. Niels and Sven are better for the moment, but the Belgian Championship is always a special race. Everyone starts from zero (without a classification). I had a little bit of luck last year. I hope for a good day Sunday.”
Although one to watch, Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea) holds modest ambitions. “To win will be difficult because it’s dependent on the weather. If it is frozen, my chances go up by 50%, but with the mud, the first three places are gone because they have more power than I do. I will ride the National Championships keeping in mind that I want to have a selection for Worlds, and then I’ll be really happy with my season.” As a first year professional, Meeusen has already won a World Cup, a Superprestige and a smaller race, all while keeping his humility intact.
At the last races, a face repeatedly at the front has been Rob Peeters (Telenet-Fidea.) When asked about his recent successes where he placed fourth in both the Superprestige Diegem and Tervuren, Peeters explains, “We went to Spain to train for Nationals and World Championships, so normally the condition will be very good, but you can’t order good condition. I do hope for a good race though – close by the podium will be good. Last year I was fourth. It would be amazing to do better than that.”
Never one to discount at a major event is Sven Vanthourenhout, as he proved last year when he led Nationals for most of the race. “Championships for me are always important . It’s a one day race – no classifications, no thinking about points. I am always very focused for a race like that. The last two to three weeks before the Championships, it’s always in my mind to stay focused and be very good that day,” says Vanthourenhout. As for the course, he adds, “If it’s frozen with ice [like last year], that’s my favorite track. But if you go to a Championship, you have to be ready for every weather condition.”
Although his last two races were lackluster compared to his numerous podium placings earlier in the season, Bart Aernouts (Rabobank-Giant) remains another rider to watch, especially if he is part of a small lead group. When all the riders pause to look at each other, Aernouts can make his typical escape move that catches them all by surprise.
Dieter Vanthourenhout (BKCP-Powerplus) has had an up and down season, but when he is up, he can be very dangerous for a podium placing.
After the race, there is expected to be many sad faces, but Albert’s may not be one among them even if he doesn’t win. That is, as long as he holds true to his pre-race attitude. “If I have no regrets Sunday evening, then I rode a good race. The rest [such as the result] doesn’t matter.” And if this sentiment isn’t hard enough to believe coming from a guy that enters the race with an almost 50% chance to win, Albert tops it off with his view on the tri-color Championship jersey. “If I had the chance to choose between the Belgian and World Champion jerseys, people will call me crazy, but I’d choose the Belgian jersey – it’s a very special one.” While it does seem a crazy idea to prefer a Belgian Championship win over Worlds, cyclocrossers are a strange bunch – and to many Belgium is the center of ’cross.
This race within the race is always an exciting one, as it too is for a coveted Belgian National jersey, one that gives its wearer instant recognition and occasionally a professional contract for the following year. Outgoing champion is Geert Wellens, brother of Bart, who enters the race with a level head. “It is the only race that could make this a good season for me, because up until now I have had a very bad season. But last week was the first race I was good…so it is just on time. I will be happy with a top five. The race is maybe 25km from my home, which can help. The strongest guys I think are Kevin Cant, Patrick Bassez – nobody expects him, only me. And never forget Tom Vannoppen. He’s an old professional and always good on that day.”
Belgian Elite Start List:
1. Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet);
2. Bart Aernouts (Rabo-Giant Offroad Team);
3. Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus);
4. Vincent Baestaens (KDL Trans-Your Mover);
5. Ben Berden (individueel);
6. Davy Commeyne (Landbouwkrediet);
7. Jan Denuwelaere (Style & Concept);
8. Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea);
9. Kevin Pauwels (Telenet-Fidea);
10. Rob Peeters (Telenet-Fidea);
11. Kenneth Van Compernolle (Style & Concept);
12. Tom Van den Bosch (AA Drink-Leontien.nl);
13. Dieter Vanthourenhout (BKCP-Powerplus);
14. Sven Vanthourenhout (Sunweb-Revor);
15. Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor);
16. Jan Verstraeten (KDL Trans-Your Mover);
17. Jelle Wallays (Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator); – odd one of the bunch, U23 rider who just turned pro on the road, and therefore must race Elite Nats according to Belgian federation rules;
18. Bart Wellens (Telenet-Fidea).
Sven REALLY looked like he was having a bad day. I watched the whole race, and he didn't start well, didn't look like he was pedaling at full strength any time he was on-screen, and looked like he was about to get lapped by Albert if he'd have tried to finish. (Probably not, but that's what it looked like on TV). And Niels was just killin' it.