By Dan Seaton
Essen, Belgium – On a brisk and windy day—perhaps the coldest racers in Belgium have seen this season—Niels Albert returned to his old form after nearly a month of disappointing results. Riding what has become his trademark race, the World Champion attacked hard from the gun and never looked back. Although Sven Nys made a dramatic effort to close a gap that, at one point, reached nearly 30 seconds, his effort fell just a few seconds short, giving Albert his first win in a month and a seven point lead in the GVA ‘cross series. Zdeněk Štybar finished 33 seconds back in third place.
After riding a series of races in which he had to claw his way through traffic early in the race, Albert left no question about his intention to win this week, going immediately to the front of the race. Only Nys could match his early pace, riding locked on to his wheel for the first half of the twisting and muddy lap.
Nys briefly came to the front of the race a few minutes in, passing Albert when he bobbled on a short but very muddy embankment that caused trouble for many throughout the day. But Albert surged just after he and Nys, who had been joined by Štybar and Kevin Pauwels, finished their first lap.
Hammering hard as the quartet wound their way along a winding path through the woods, Albert immediately shook Štybar and Pauwels loose. Nys dangled for another lap, closing in as the pair made their way through a series of 180 degree turns, made more technical by thick, slippery mud, and finally leading again after Albert once again had difficulty on the muddy climb. It was the last time all day anybody but Albert would lead the race. Albert immediately counterattacked and this time went free.
If there was any question about whether his form had returned, Albert answered resoundingly, pounding away in his bobbing, aggressive style, while Nys, Štybar, and Pauwels struggled to organize a response.
The race, on a brand new course in Essen, featured a combination of slow, muddy, snaking turns and fast hardpack and road (with a bit of sand thrown in for good measure) almost perfectly suited to Albert’s strengths. Despite a difficult headwind on much of the course, the mud kept the pace slow enough that Albert had no problem holding off the trio of chasers, despite the breeze.
In the chase, Štybar and Nys took turns punching the pace, Štybar buoyed by the partisan crowd in Essen, his Belgian home away from home. But, a little after the half-way point, it was Nys who finally made things interesting. Trailing the chase by a substantial margin, Nys changed bikes and suddenly found his second wind. Nys caught Pauwels when he fell on the way down that troublesome muddy hill and quickly was chasing Štybar.
Albert, meanwhile, slowed noticeably, although continuing to pour everything he had into the effort, it was clear he was paying the price for his early efforts. Nys reached Štybar and the two worked together for most of a lap before Nys hit the turbos and Štybar couldn’t match him.
From there, it was just a question of whether Albert could withstand Nys’ last minute attack. Nys could see Albert as he crossed the line with one lap to go, some ten seconds behind. For a moment it looked like Albert would succumb to Nys’ charge, but Nys made a critical handling error in the laps muddy middle section, and Albert poured it on. As the pair hit the finishing straight, Nys, realizing he would fall just a second or two too late, sat up and let the crowd acknowledge the winner. Štybar rolled across about 20 seconds later, clapping for his hometown supporters as he crossed the line.
Pauwels was slowed by a series of crashes that started with a fall on the way down the descent that followed the tricky, muddy climb. Nonetheless, he held off a chase group led by Dieter Vanthourenhout, who rode his best race of the season so far to claim fourth place.
Albert told reporters afterwards that he wanted to make a statement with his performance. “I’m not super,” he said, “but my shape is improving. It was a hard effort, but I definitely wanted to win once this weekend. I wanted to show that I am still the Niels from the beginning of the season.”
The World Champion told reporters he was hoping he could repeat again tomorrow on the difficult course in Overijse. (Check cxmagazine.com for full coverage of Belgian racing action on Sunday afternoon.) “The ‘cross in Overijse? It’s a lot of uphill, so that’s positive for me,” he said.
Nys, despite the disappointing near miss, was in a good mood after the race. “I’m gradually becoming an old timer,” joked the Belgian Champion. “I just needed the ‘cross to last a few laps longer.” Still, Nys apparently felt he had a good race overall. “I was very happy with my ride here. Since Asper-Gavere my condition is improving. I’m ready for the next few weeks.”
Štybar, for whom Essen was essentially a home race, said he enjoyed himself today. “I didn’t have a super day,” he told reporters. “Albert rode the first laps very fast, and I was immediately ten seconds behind.” Štybar said that he was lifted by the overwhelming support of the home town crowd. “I enjoyed the home game. They chanted my name all the way around the course. Now I know what Baal means to Nys,” he said, referring to Nys’ home town race, held annually on New Years Day.
Cross continues in Belgium tomorrow with one of the oldest races still run, the 72nd edition of the Vlaamse Druivencross in Overijse, just south of Brussels.
|9||Tom VAN DEN BOSCH||BEL||2:42|
|10||Gerben DE KNEGT||NED||2:54|
|15||Thijs VAN AMERONGEN||NED||3:59|
|17||Wilant VAN GILS||NED||4:26|
|19||Tim VAN NUFFEL||BEL||4:49|