LOENHOUT, BELGIUM – In an exciting duel that saw both riders on the ropes at different moments, Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) landed the final punch in a muddy duel against Zdenek Stybar (Quickstep), escaping the two-time World Champion on the final quarter of the course and powering to the line to take a passionate win at GVA Loenhout. Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor), who got caught behind an opening-lap crash by Julien Taramarcaz (BMC), never made contact with the leaders but pulled his way up to third after teammate Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor) cracked out of contention. Sven Nys (Landbouwkredit) arguably had the worse race of his season, first crashing on the opening lap after tangling with some course tape and getting caught behind the traffic, then again in spectacular fashion, flipping over the fencing and disappearing into the crowd before emerging, slowly, covered in mud. Nys was in no mood for hecklers at that point, so when one threw an empty beer cup at him, the Belgian champ jumped off his bike and chased the heckler into the crowd. Nys threw no punches, but clearly dressed the terrified man down before getting back on his bike and finishing the race, well outside the top ten.
Treacherous Course Catches Racers Out
As the rain fell, Klaas Vantornout took the holeshot, with Rob Peeters, Tom Meeusen and Zdenek Stybar all in tow. It was only moments, however, before the race took the first of many dramatic turns, as the unbroken pack of riders turned onto the first long, challenging muddy straight and Julien Taramarcaz crashed hard after losing his front wheel. The tumble caused a backup behind the Swiss rider, and most notably forced Kevin Pauwels to dismount and lose precious positions getting through.
Then, it was Sven Nys’ turn. The Belgian champion had been sitting outside the top ten, and on the next long straight began to make his way past traffic along the side of the course. It would have been a good move, if not for the course tape that snatched his bars and, as quick as a blink, slammed him into the mud. By the time Nys recovered, he was well afield of the lead and had upwards of twenty riders to make his way through. Last year at Loenhout, Nys had a similar crash – though further on in the race, after the field had thinned – and managed to claw himself back into contention. Would he be able to do so again?
As Nys and Pauwels set about making up for lost time, Vantornout and Peeters traded turns at the front, with half the field in tow. By the time the lead group came around for the second lap, there were 25-odd riders still packed tightly together, though notably Nys was not with them, but in a small chase group behind. As the pack came into the first mud straight, it was Tom Meeusen’s turn to crash, losing his front wheel and running into the tape. He would never see the lead group again.
Albert Takes Control; Nys Loses It
Niels Albert, perhaps sensing that his arch-rival Nys was stuck far back, decided that it was time to thin the field. The world champion took over the lead from Vantornout and upped the pace, immediately stringing the group out and, within moments, causing the separation that decided the race: Vantornout held on, with Stybar just off his wheel, while Thijs van Amerongen slipped off the pace, with no other rider able to respond. Albert continued to power through the mud, Vantornout clinging to his wheel and Stybar in no-man’s land, riding furiously to catch back on to the flying BKCP rider.
As they came through for the third lap, it was Albert and Vantornout, with Stybar about five seconds back, followed by a small group led by Amerongen and containing Peeters and Radomir Simunek. Nys crossed the line thirty seconds back, looking strong and ready to ride back into contention.
That was not to be, however, as Nys lost his wheel on a water-logged inverse speedbump and careened over his bars and over the fencing and into the crowd, completely disappearing from the camera. The crash seemed to stun the Belgian champion, as it took him long moments to get back to, and on, his bike, his face completely caked with mud and the fight seemingly gone out of him.
Nys’ Spectacular Crash:
The Duel Begins
As Albert swung onto the finishing straight for the fourth lap, Stybar bridged the final few bike lengths to latch on to Vantornout’s wheel. By this point, as well, Kevin Pauwels had worked his way through the traffic and now chased alone in fourth, roughly ten seconds down. Albert led the trio through the course, at one point bobbling at the same spot that sent Nys into the crowd, but a well placed foot kept the world champion upright. Albert was setting a blistering pace through the mud, and the effort started to show on Vantornout, who began to yo-yo off the back.
A bobble by Stybar near the end of the lap gave Albert some room, and he wasted no time in accelerating, forcing the former world champion to dig deep to catch back on to the current. The effort proved too much for Vantornout, who by the middle of lap five had finally cracked and slipped off the back, looking behind him for his teammate Pauwels.
Pauwels was looking strong, and possibly had it in him to regain contact with the leaders, but as the small rider came out of the pits, he slid out on the sharp left hand turn and crashed. Though he was quickly on his bike, the lost time and momentum spelled the end of his chances.
The race, now, was down to the two world champions, and what followed was a thrilling exchange as each rider sought to overpower the other. On the sixth lap, Stybar launched himself into the mud, all but sprinting across the thick goop and opening up a four second gap on Albert. In the next muddy section, those four seconds ballooned to eight, and it looked as if Albert again would be relegated to second place. Indeed, the current world champion seemed for a moment to all but give up, shaking his head, defeated and disbelieving that he once again would prove second best.
The lapse in concentration, however, was momentary, and soon Albert was again powering in pursuit, and Stybar – who was throwing everything at the course – was no longer making any gains. A small bobble by Stybar cut his lead in half, and by the time they came around for the final lap, Albert was within a few bike lengths of the leader.
Albert Throws Down on Stybar; Nys Throws Down on Heckler
Stybar hit the mud first, and gave a massive burst of energy to the straightaway, opening up another few bike lengths. Albert, however, had the bit in his teeth and quickly closed that down, making contact. Stybar, knowing he was stronger in the mud, repeated in the second straight, again opening a small gap but again being shut down by Albert.
And then it was Albert’s turn. The current world champion swung around the former and punched it. Stybar’s efforts had cost him, and as Albert accelerated, Stybar was on the ropes, suddenly off the pace by a few bike lengths and out of matches to catch back on.
Meanwhile, Sven Nys was on the second muddy straight, ready to be done with an atrocious day, when a heckler threw a beer cup at him. Nys looked down at where the cup had struck him, then over at the crowd, and jumped off his bike. When the heckler realized that the Kaanibaal van Baal was heading straight at him, he fled away from the tape. Nys, however, wasn’t having it, and entered the crowd for the second time this race, sprinted to catch the heckler, and gave the man a piece of advice as other spectators then tackled the beer thrower. Nys returned to his bike, and set about finishing his race.
Watch Nys Chase Down the Heckler:
“After my first fall I thought I could deploy a comeback, but the second time I fell a little too hard and the spring was broken,” said Nys, via Sporza. “However, the most frustrating thing was the beer being poured from the first round, always in the same place, and I think by the same person. Seven rounds in a row. I do not know if he threw on others, I can only speak for myself.”
Discussing his pursuit of the thrower, Nys said, ”I had that pre-conceived. If he throws in the seventh round, I’m going to go quietly up to him and ask him, Why? Does this make sense? He apologized. But no more than saying ‘Sorry.’ He was pretty drunk. I did not get aggressive. Throwing beer is low-to-ground and does not belong to cyclocross. We are not animals. After the seventh round I was tired. A little respect for everyone is deserved.”
Albert punched it one more time, and entered the finishing straight alone. His head down, his legs pumping furiously, Albert drilled it all the way to the line before sitting up and pumping his fist in the air, taking a long overdue, and well-deserved, win as Stybar followed a few seconds behind.