Gavere, Belgium – In conditions that can only be described as truly Belgian — heavy, slick and deeply rutted mud — Niels Albert claimed another impressive solo victory on the site of the heavy fall that seriously disrupted his 2008 season. Sven Nys, who overcame a substantial gap to reach the World Champion with several laps to go, flatted with just two to go and never managed to reach the front of the race again, finishing second.
If there were any doubt about the difficulty of the conditions they faced, one look at the riders’ expressions as they inspected the first turn from the road into the wall-to-wall mud pit that comprised the course told the whole story. But early stages of the course were forgiving compared to the slip-and-slide landscape that followed. Klaas Vantornout, coming back from a torn shoulder tendon following a hard fall in Hoogstraten, was the first to plunge from the pavement and into the mud, leading the 40-rider field through their first trip down the descent.
But it was Kevin Pauwels who made the first move, attacking hard from just behind Vantornout and pushing a gap of several seconds over a chase that featured Rabobank riders Gerben De Knegt and Bart Aernouts, Vantornout, and Radomir Simunek.
Meanwhile, the trio that has dominated European ‘cross this season — Albert, Nys, and Zdeněk Štybar — all started slowly and were picking their way through traffic. Albert, in particular, appeared to have difficulty handling his bike, repeatedly putting his feet down in order to stay upright and, at one point, dismounting for a climb that most other competitors rode. As Pauwels continued to drive ahead, the undulating chase group gained and lost riders. Eventually Štybar reached and then surged past the chase, while Albert drove another big group forward just behind the leaders.
By the beginning of the third lap, Štybar had connected with Pauwels and the two led the race together. Albert, who seemed to have found his rhythm, was closing fast with a large group locked on his wheel. Nys, who had been perhaps as far back as 20th early, was now rapidly gaining ground, and a race that had at first offered a view of several fresh faces at the front now turned into another clash of the titans.
Just as Albert reached the leaders, Štybar began to fade allowing Albert to go clear of the rest of the bunch. He quickly stretched his lead to almost a half of a minute over the rest of the chasers. Nys was just joining the chase group and appeared to be the sole rider able to handle his bike gracefully despite the sloppy, slippery mess on the course.
Although Albert seemed to settle down midway through the race, he continued to ride relatively conservatively on the descents. Nys, sensing an opportunity, threw caution to the wind, riding full-speed down the twisting, bucking hill that formed the backbone of the course. Whether it was courage or desperation that drove him, Nys was rewarded and the gap continued to drop, first to 20 seconds, then 15. As Albert came into view, Nys stepped on the gas again, dropping Štybar and Pauwels behind him.
Štybar edged out Pauwels in a sprint for the remaining spot on the podium, while Vantornout rounded out the top five.
“In the two laps before the end I had just come back to Niels and that’s the worst moment you can imagine in that race,” Nys told Cyclocross Magazine afterwards. “I had closed the gap from 50 seconds and I thought I could win the race. But I had a flat tire, and it was too bad that it happened in just the two laps before the end.”
Nonetheless, Nys said he remained confident. “My form is, at the moment, really, really good. Of course this is a race that I like very much, it’s technical and with a lot of power,” he said. “It’s muddy and really technical, and at every corner you must be focused and have a good feeling on the bike. And the whole race I had that good feeling. I thought I could do some special things in the downhills, and made up some time to Niels. But, of course, when you have a flat tire, then it’s over.”
Štybar, who has found himself just off the top step of the podium throughout much of the season said he was eager to get there soon. “I hope I can win,” he told us. “Of course we’re now starting the critical part of the season, with double weekends and some traveling. But I hope one time it comes.” Štybar said that Albert made his move just at a moment when he was in difficulty, but that the rest of the race had gone well. “It was like just one moment and he was away,” he said. “I had just a bad moment, and then got better and better, but I just couldn’t close the gap anymore. But I have to be satisfied that I’m third.”
“Last year I had a big crash here,” said Albert. “And I was a little bit scared in the downhills and Sven is a very technical rider. For me the downhills were a little bit scary, but I won today and I think this [crash] is very far behind me and I don’t have to think about it anymore.”
American Jonathan Page told us he was caught behind several falls early in the race, and struggled some to find his rhythm in the mud before a broken derailleur put an end to any hope of a finish in the top ten. Page crossed the line in 21st.
Full Results below.
Mindi Wisman contributed to this report.
Awesome race recap (in Flemish…) below. Nys is killing it on the muddy downhills; not sure what the story is with the “Kamasutra” signs; and how about Vantornout leaving his wheel behind!?
Nys had a very bad start that put him towards the back of the field going into the slick mud off the starting pavement. He wasnt able to clip into his pedal. he said that he just kept calm about it as he jumped from group to group. His descending was almost twice the speed of albert's!