LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY – In front of a raucous, cheering international crowd that thundered and roared, 36-year-old Sven Nys (Belgium) cemented his position as a living legend of cyclocross by winning his second World Championship title on a Kentucky flood plain. A second rainbow jersey has long frustrated the Belgian hero, to the extent that he vowed not to try again after last year’s seventh place at Koksijde. However, the pressure of international fans and a dominant early season changed Nys’ mind, and the veteran poster child of cyclocross can now be happy he came to American soil. “Now,” said the new World Champion, “my career is complete.”
National Champion Klaas Vantornout (Belgian) pushed Nys till the last half lap, but lost his chance to top his Belgian Champion’s jersey with the rainbow jersey when his pedal clipped a piece of fencing. Behind Vantornout, Lars van der Haar capped a mature and clever ride by holding off a charging Bart Wellens (Belgium).
Fears of a ‘grassy criterium’ proved unfounded due to the freak weather that’s visited Louisville this past week. Conditions changed lap by lap as the course became ever more slick and slippy, despite dropping temperatures and falling snow. The beginning of the race echoed the end of Hoogerheide – the last round of the World Cup – with Martin Bina (Czech Republic) moving up after the first few corners to lead the race. He was followed by a regularly changing group, the main protagonists being Francis Mourey (France), Marco Fontana (Italy), and a chorus of Belgian blue jerseys. Hanging tight on the tail was American National Champion Jonathan Page, who was looking motivated in his stars and stripes jersey in ninth place.
The start of the second lap saw the unthinkable happen – no Dutch or Belgians were in the top three. Mourey moved past Bina to take over at the head of the race, establishing a ten-second gap and enjoying a position he would occupy for some considerable time. Bina lost places here and there, and Fontana took one bike change too many as the Belgian team moved into striking position, giving the race a familiar blue look. All of Belgium breathed a sigh of relief.
The top layer of mud started to give way to frozen ground underneath, and the conditions created a need for far more bike changes than in the day’s previous three races. This unsettled the race, with few riders occupying the same position for more than a few minutes. Mourey pushed on at the head of the race, keeping his bike to maintain his lead. With seven laps to go he held a 14 second advantage over Kevin Pauwels (Belgium), who was soon followed by Vantornout and Bina. Jonathan Page slipped a few places but remained the best American, in 13th. Jeremy Powers and Ryan Trebon hovered around the low-20s, while Fontana slipped back to 17th after a mechanical.
The Belgians Are Coming
“The Belgians are coming! The Belgians are coming!” shouted announcer Richard Fries.
Mourey crashed on a simple corner, but quickly recovered. Pauwels, the name many water-cooler discussions put down as the pre-race favorite, steadily worked to bring the Frenchman back into sight, followed by a host of Belgians and the lone Czech rider Bina. As the conditions continued to deteriorate, Mourey no longer rode to the base of the concrete steps, but ran, mud stained, from further back. The chasing group persisted in trying to ride this section, which proved a slower option and contributed to Mourey’s lead. Lars van der Haar, despite a good start, found himself picking off riders at the lower end of the top 10.
“For me it was to try to stay calm,” said Nys about Mourey’s large early lead. “Don’t make any mistakes, and wait until Mourey was making some mistakes. We know Mourey, he’s a strong rider, but he makes a lot of mistakes. You need to know that, you need to stay calm, and wait until two or three laps until the end.”
The reward for Pauwels’s work was a gap of his own. Nys lurked a couple of seconds behind Pauwels, limiting the amount of time his compatriot could take out of the other Belgians. Just prior to five laps to go, Pauwels made contact with Mourey, who quickly looked back and signaled for Pauwels to share his work, hoping this would insulate them from the coming Belgians. Nys and Vantornout sat only five seconds back, with Albert somewhat off his game, down 11 seconds to the leaders. The defending champion, who was vocally upset about the race’s move to Saturday, did not look comfortable, and never factored in the podium.
Nys and Vantornout arrived at the wheel of Pauwels half a lap later. All three Belgians seemed content for Mourey to work, as did the Frenchman. Conditions had worsened to the point that some riders were performing half-lap bike changes, justifying the Belgian’s decision to bring five mechanics overseas with them.
The race stayed like this for much of two laps, with Albert hanging just shy of the leading four and van der Haar only five seconds off of Albert’s wheel. Vantornout appeared rangy and fresh, Nys looked as dangerous as a viper, and Pauwels had a calm poker face – all while Mourey looked increasingly cooked.
The Ghost of Bad-Luck Past Returns To Haunt Pauwels
Drama struck with four to go – Pauwels dropped his chain and was forced to dismount to pull it out of his bottom bracket, a process which took long, painful moments as his chances at the rainbow faded under darkening clouds. Riders, mechanics and sponsors have nightmares and repeated therapy sessions over less. No sooner had Pauwels got back on his bike than his chain then went into his spokes, forcing another dismount on the finishing stretch, bent over the bike, losing the race as he struggled furiously which his chain. His race was finished, a shame almost as much for the fans as Pauwels, who might have been preparing for a three-way Belgian battle. Needless to say, Vantornout and Nys capitalized on Pauwels’ predicament by storming out to an 11 second lead.
The question for the leading duo was now how many matches to burn. It must be enough to keep Albert at bay, but not so many as to gift the race to the other half of their pair. With two to go, Nys stepped up the pace and gapped Vantornout by two seconds. Behind them, van der Haar caught Albert, and the race for third came alive. ”I had big problem in the first two laps,” said van der Haar. “I didn’t have the right feeling. But after I felt really good. I had the power. I’m happy I didn’t disappoint my teammates. I’m smart, I know tactics, I can read my opponents. I went for it just before the technical section, and I could get a gap, but I could never get back to the win. I’m happy to get third in my first pro year.”
Behind the leaders, Julien Taramarcaz (Switzerland) and Bart Wellens had worked their way up through the top ten.
Vantornout made it back up to Nys, and it became clear that he needed to drop Nys before it came down to a sprint. Knowing this, Nys put in a few probing efforts, stretching the elastic between him and his countryman. “I race a lot with Klaas,” said Nys afterwards. “I know him. You need to use your experience. I know normally I’m the fastest of the two, and that’s positive. But normally it’s not a sprint over here. You need to be in the front in the last lap, and try to have a gap before the obstacles, because there I’m also fastest. When I have a gap before the obstacles, that’s positive to win the race. That’s what happened. I took a little bit more power before the obstacles, got a small gap, then more power until the end. I made also a few mistakes in the last three, four corners. But of course when you are in the front it’s possible to make mistakes, and when he comes back on the wheel, normally I am the strongest.”
As the temperature dropped, van der Haar tried the same moves on Albert, breaking him after a couple of probing attacks in his characteristically slugging style. Pauwels’ lap times turned out to be at the same pace as the leaders – a shame for those wishing for a three-up battle to decide the podium.
Nys put in a huge effort after bunny hopping the barriers, taking advantage of Vantornout’s choice to dismount and run. Vantornout made it back up to Nys, his chances to drop the renowned sprinter decreasing by the second.
The pair crossed the start/finish line soft-pedaling, craning their necks for a sight of van der Haar, who sat 17 seconds back.
Nys sat on Vantornout’s wheel, waiting for the inevitable attack. In the end, he needn’t have worried. Vantornout caught his pedal on a barrier at the top of the concrete steps, and Nys had the fraction of a second he needed to escape. Vantornout didn’t give up, but when Nys gets a gap in the final lap there are few that can answer. ”Today was very close,” said Vantornout. “The last lap I was making two little faults. Sven was also good. He was winning. That’s it. I was very close today. It’s a double feeling. I’m lucky that I have my Belgian champion jersey and the season was already very good from the beginning to the end. Also today.”
Nys began celebrating at the head of the finish straight, only to return to the drops to pump out a few more pedal strokes of a sprint when he realized how close Vantornout really was. Van der Haar was gleeful with third, in only his first year racing in the Elites at a World Championships. Wellens took a remarkable fourth, considering the health issues and patchy season that he’s had. Tim Johnson took home the highest US ranking in 19th.
“For me, it’s the best race of all my career,” Nys said, only partly playing to his American audience. When asked if there was anything else for the storied champion to do, now that he’s grabbed his long-elusive second World Champion’s jersey, the Belgian replied, “definitely. There’s new motivation to win as many races in the world champion jersey.”
The North American Contingent
A crash took Jonathan Page out of contention for top American spot, leaving the National Champion to say: “I’m disappointed, but I feel real good.” He was especially happy with the crowds. “It was an exceptional feeling of everyone cheering. Gave it my all today, but had a lot of bad luck. Unfortunately my chain shifted into my spokes, and I couldn’t get it out. I got it out of the back, but then the front came off, so I got that back on. I tried to be calm, but I lost it. I lost a lot of time. I slid out going too fast trying to make up time, got up then got a flat tire. All right. So I kept going again. I wanted to give it my all; it was just a lot of fun out here. I gave it as best I could for everybody out here.”
We asked if he thought the mechanicals could have possibly been prevented had he not switched bikes to his new sponsor’s Fuji Altimara, but Page remained positive about his new bike. “It could happen to everybody. It’s just one of those things, it just doesn’t take much, does it?”
“It was a special feeling, maybe one I’ll never have again in my career,” he summed up, adding, “I wish it had been tomorrow; I have a bit of an infection and am on antibiotics. Maybe one day would have helped me a little more, but who cares? I gave it my best. Everybody was super cool out there. It’s not bad when you hear your name: PAGE PAGE PAGE USA USA USA!”
Ryan Trebon held the top American spot for much of the race, but a crash in the last third of the race injured his arm and he was forced to DNF after attempting to ride a lap while awkwardly holding his arm and grimacing. He tweeted, “Well, shit that didn’t feel so good. Not too worse for the wear though. Just beat up all over.”
And mistakes like that are costly, Tim Johnson explained, saying, “You have a problem, you lose a couple places and ten seconds. Five problems in a race and you’re a minute back. My bike worked great, pitted every lap. I wish I could have had that finish straight to just keep going. So cool.”
With Trebon and Page delayed from crashes, an emboldened Johnson took over as top American and began picking through the field.
“I really can’t believe it. The crowds were amazing. I couldn’t feel my legs the entire race. Everyone should be hired here! The dollar bills, the good hearted heckling. Pretty cool,” Johnson said. “I feel bad. I saw Ryan crashed. Jonathan had a bike problem. I’d rather race for that position. Those guys are as big a part of everything as I am.”
“It could have gone better. How about you?” Driscoll answered and asked his teammate post-race.
“I didn’t crash as much.” a grinning Johnson replied.
“Yeah … I crashed. I had this feeling of ‘I don’t know why I’m going slow.’” Driscoll laughed.
Grouped together with Jeremy Powers and Jamey Driscoll for much of the race, Canadian Geoff Kabush also had a good race, saying, “I was in the mix. It’s survival out there. I’m glad I was able to make it, for sure.”
He and Driscoll both pointed out a sense of ‘familiarity’ “It felt like the USGP at times. It’s funny, I ended up with the guys I already know,” Kabush laughed.
“It’s always funny,” Driscoll explained. “No matter where you are at a World Championships race, you always seem to do that. I thought it was pretty hilarious.”
But it wasn’t just a USGP, and the feeling was much different. “It was crazy. It had a European feel, with the course conditions and the crowds and the depth of the field,” said Driscoll.
The big question: did Worlds live up to expectations? “Yeah. It definitely did,” said Johnson. “All the course shit that went along with it—didn’t matter. It was a good course. It’s a big deal. I think it’s a success. I’m really bummed only because I wanted everyone to have a full weekend of this instead of just one day … I want to keep riding around!”
Jeremy Powers was also thrilled with Worlds, even if, by his own admission, he didn’t have his best day on the bike. “It was incredible. I didn’t have the best ride, but it’s just great to be here. I think the American fans turned out, I think it’s great for the sport. One of the best days I can remember on the bike.”
Watch the Americans talk about their races below.
The World Champion’s View on US Cyclocross
With Sven Nys being the most decorated racer of his – and perhaps any – generation, the symbolism of his win on the first Worlds course outside of Europe was not lost on him. “For me it’s really special. I’m not the youngest rider anymore. I try to do a lot of things in professional cyclocross all over the year to promote our sport. To win here is maybe more special to win than in my own country. I felt myself the whole week really relaxed. The respect that I got from everybody over here helped me a lot. I hope after my career that I can do a lot of things for cyclocross also out of Belgium.”
With the rainbow jersey such a painful pursuit for Nys, and his statement after last year’s worlds that he would not try again, questions naturally turned to his decision to come race in the United States. “It’s true,” he said of his frustrations. “And definitely also this day, before the race, I felt a little nervous again. I felt, god damn, why am I doing this? It’s so stressful. It costs a lot of energy. But in the end, when you win the jersey, you say—this is why you are doing it. It was a hard season, I was sick before the national championships. I thought, okay, when my shape is going a little bit up it’s maybe possible to win the world championships. When the circumstances are good, when everything is raced the way we want, it’s positive. Everyone did a hard job to do everything perfect. I felt this today. Also the crowds. I felt before the race that I got the respect from the US and the fans over here. I felt myself really calm.”
Of the last minute change to Saturday, Sven was unconcerned. “Doing it in one day, ok, it was a little stressful for everybody. But it works, and they did the right thing to do it today. Maybe if we see tomorrow the track, it’s a swimming pool. The race, the organization, what they did today, with all the stress they have with the weather, it works, and it helps international cycling. I hope we can come back for World Cups to promote our sport again. Maybe we see in three, four years what’s happening with [the World Championship in the US].”
And of the course itself? “It was a European course. It was hard, technical; it was a nice World Championship race. It was difficult until the end, with two or three seconds. Definitely because of the weather. When we had a dry race, maybe it was more of an American race. Faster, more guys who can win the world championships. But now, we have a lot of skills. Technical, the power, mentally. At the end of the race, the more complete riders coming to the front, and that’s normally what we see in European races also. I hope a lot of cyclocross fans saw this race and want to do cyclocross, and the young guys are also motivated to do also cyclocross.”
This is an amazingly detailed and descriptive report! We're lucky to have such great sportswriters covering cyclocross!
I thought the most pertinent quote from Nys was after the race. He thanked his American fans and acknowledged that he wouldn't have even been there without the upswell of support for him, which changed his mind and made him buy a ticket to Louisville.