Tim Johnson looks happy with his first European effort this season. © Bart Hazen
by Dan Seaton
Hoogerheide, Belgium – Niels Albert, whose season appeared to be in shambles after several recent missteps and one hard fall in the Belgian Championships, roared back to life today with a comeback win in the final World Cup race of the season, just a week before the World Championships. Albert, who told reporters after the race he felt rejuvenated after a week of training in Spain, battled through the pain of a broken rib, sustained in that fall during the Belgian Championships, to stamp an exclamation point on a season that began with a blowout win in the warm, dusty fields of Treviso, Italy, and ended under drizzle and heavy clouds in the muddy fields of Hoogerheide.
If Albert’s victory was one of his most impressive of the season, his start was one of the worst. By the time the race turned from the pavement onto the dirt, the World Champion found himself deep in the field, riding behind the United States’ Tim Johnson around 30th place. While Albert steered through the crowds in the back of the pack, Belgians Erwin Vervecken and Sven Nys, and Dutch rider Thijs Van Amerongen set a blistering pace through the mud, trailed closely by a large group that included Kevin Pauwels, Klaas Vantornout, Gerben De Knegt, American Jonathan Page and series leader Zdeněk Štybar.
The course, though sloppy and slick throughout, remained fast, quite the opposite of last weekend’s slog through the heavy mud in Roubaix, with average speeds approaching 25 km/hr. A number of racers traded the lead through the second lap, including Page (with perhaps his hottest start of the season), Pauwels, Nys and others.
Albert corners hard to keep Nys at bay. © Bart Hazen
By the end of the third lap, Albert had reached the group at the front of the race, finally coming to the front when Štybar slowed and waved him up into the lead group as the race came along the road leading to the finish. But Albert didn’t wait long before making his move; he dropped the hammer during the next round, breaking up the race further back. For a moment it appeared the race would feature a battle between the three men who have dominated international competition all year, Nys, Albert and Štybar. But Nys popped around the half-way point of the race, first just coming off of Albert’s wheel, then fading dramatically to as far back as eighth place.
Nys would never recover or reconnect with the head of the race, and he eventually finished fifth, his worst World Cup finish of the season.
In front, Štybar, Albert and Pauwels were in a dogfight, attacking one another repeatedly, but to no avail, until Štybar made an error on a slippery turn, allowing Albert to go clear and putting the Czech rider on the spot, forcing him to chase the leader or risk losing his first place standing overall. Then, with three laps to go, Pauwels fell hard and found himself chasing the other two, trailing Albert by over ten seconds.
While Pauwels tried to minimize the damage from his fall, Klaas Vantornout broke free of the chase, which now included Nys, De Knegt, Vervecken and Page, all of whom had slowed somewhat after the fast start. Vantornout would not reach the leaders, but the chase never touched him, and the Sunweb rider would end up fourth on the day, good enough for fourth overall in the World Cup standings.
With a single lap to go, Štybar and Albert rode together with Pauwels just behind them, but a minor bobble by the Czech rider was all it took to give Albert enough distance to take the win alone. Just a handful of seconds behind him, Štybar rolled over the line just ahead of Pauwels, taking a second place finish and locking up the World Cup points standings as well.
After the race, Štybar thanked his teammate Pauwels for his help in securing the white leader’s jersey for a final time. “It was a tough race,” he told reporters afterwards. “Niels was very strong: a night-and-day difference from last week. I didn’t feel well today and made a number of mistakes. Fortunately Kevin was there. I must thank him for all of his help. I told him I definitely had to be second—he’s earned a bottle of champagne.”
Nys told reporters that he was simply tired after racing yesterday as well. “There was nothing wrong,” said the Belgian Champion, “Niels just went too fast. My legs were fatigued and I rode into the red. I couldn’t maintain the pace.”
Albert said that he saw the win as vindication, especially after a difficult and disappointing month on January. “If you know how I’ve lost the World Cup,” Albert told reporters, referring to the broken ribs he sustained at the Belgian Championship, “it’s very unfortunate. But I’m glad I feel good enough to hold on today.”
The season’s top riders also took time to do a little Worlds handicapping after today’s race. Štybar gave Nys the nod, telling reporters that he considers him the favorite for Tabor. “Nys is the main favorite for me there,” said the Czech racer. “He drives the best on ice.”
Nys, on the other hand, pointed to Albert as a top threat. “It’s clear that Albert is also a favorite in Tabor,” he told reporters. “He’s very strong, but I hope I will play a role. It will be an exciting championship.”
Jonathan Page, meanwhile, the top American finisher, matched his World Cup best with an eighth place result. Page told Cyclocross Magazine in a live internet chat that he didn’t have a magical race, but was happy to find himself feeling strong one week before Worlds. “It was good,” he said. “I didn’t have any major problems, but I definitely had to dig deep. There were some sections where I wasn’t the best and others where I could gain time and relax somewhat.”
Page added that he was excited about his chances in Tabor. “I’ve been training the whole season for these two weeks,” he said. “People think I’m full of it sometimes, but this is my focus.”
Other Americans racing included National Champion Tim Johnson in 32nd, Jamey Driscoll in 40th and Jeremy Powers in 51st. Ryan Trebon and Troy Wells also took the start but were unable to finish the race.
|7||Gerben DE KNEGT||NED||35||1:03:32||140||140|
|21||Thijs VAN AMERONGEN||NED||24||1:05:05||48||48|
|22||Marco Aurelio FONTANA||ITA||26||1:05:18||46||46|
|27||Wilant VAN GILS||NED||31||1:06:23||36||36|
|44||Patrick VAN LEEUWEN||NED||25||1:07:46||16||16|
|52||Eddy VAN IJZENDOORN||NED||25||1:09:25||5||5|