ESSEN, BELGIUM – In what proved to be one of the most exciting days of racing this season, on a course thick with mud, mechanicals, and bobbles, Jan Denuwelaere (Style and Concept) slid across the line, butt first, after being driven into the barriers in a two-up sprint against returning champion Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
Stybar had hit the pavement first and was powering to the line when Denuwelaere came out of his slipstream and started moving quickly up the inside. Stybar veered from his line, towards the fence, and the two racers made contact at the shoulder, with Denuwelaere driven into the fence and crashing down as Stybar banged his bar in disappointment. Though Stybar crossed the line ahead of Denuwelaere, he was relegated to fourth place, behind Rob Peeters (Telenet-Fidea) and Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus), giving Denuwelaere his first podium of the season, and the best result of his career. Even so, it was a photo-finish, as Denuwelaere’s backside tumbled over the line mere inches ahead of Peeter’s wheel.
The finish was eerily familiar to Denuwelaere’s last big win, at the 2011 Versluys Bredene (C2), also during Christmas week, when the relatively unknown rider cleanly outsprinted Stybar to take the victory. Denuwelaere has been trying very hard to get selected for the Belgian World Cup team – perhaps his performance today will aid in that effort. Throughout the race, Denuwelaere proved one of the strongest, powering through the long, muddy straightaway that most of the lead group of six – containing Nys (Landbouwcredit), Albert, Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor), Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor) and Rob Peeters – dismounted and ran, and leading long sections of the course. Kevin Pauwels came into bad luck again, halfway through the race, crashing and losing contact with the leaders. Sven Nys, as well, did not have his day, as the Belgian champion not only struggled on many of the difficult features, but also lost his chain on the penultimate lap, forcing him to dismount and watch the race go on without him. He crossed the line in fifth place. Albert maintains the series lead, 51 seconds ahead of Nys. American Jonathan Page took 12th.
As It Happened:
It was a blustery day when the Elite men lined up, some with umbrellas held over their heads to momentarily shield them from the rain that had been falling steadily. The course was thick with mud, in some places ankle thick, and deep puddles that sent up large waves in the racers wake. Welcomed back to the front row was two-time world champion Zdenek Stybar, who looked no less eager despite his time away from the ’cross bike. At the gun, however, it was the legendary Sven Nys who took the holeshot, a hard right hander that led immediately into a dismount and run up a sand bank.
As the racers came around for the opening round, all the main players were there: Nys, Albert, Pauwels, Stybar, Vantornout, Peeters. It was Marcek Meisen (BKCP-Powerplus), however, who took over and led much of the lap, until Nys again grabbed the front with Albert and Stybar on his wheel. Nys began to up the pace, causing the first big separation of the race. By the second lap, the lead group was down to six.
On the second lap, after letting Albert lead for a turn, Nys attacked after riding a short, grassy hill that the others ran; it was perfectly timed move, as Nys then was able to nab the 15 second time bonus ahead of Albert, who took the 10 seconds up for second. Albert was quickly on the Belgian champion, and did not give Nys any quarter to turn his attack into a gap, and the group – momentarily strung out – came back together as the current World champion took the lead with former champion Stybar looking comfortable in second, riding to cheers of “Yeah Steebee!” from the crowd.
On the third lap, Klaas Vantornout made his move, surging to the front and putting down an impressive display of power and finesse on the muddy straight, riding the section far longer than the rest and opening up a gap of about five seconds. Vantornout’s attack was neutralized, however, when his wheel got stuck in a muddy rut has he attempted to ride a small hill. Vantornout’s bike stopped cold, and the lanky rider had to dismount, sliding down the hill slightly as he did so, Stybar shooting past him with Jan Denuwelaere, who had bridged up to the lead group with Rob Peeters, on his wheel.
Nor did luck hold out for Kevin Pauwels, who crashed hard a bit further down the course and lost contact with the lead group, never to be regained. Jan Denuwelaere, in contrast, was having the ride of his life, and surged ahead of Stybar, establishing his own lead that he maintained well into the next lap. As Denuwelaere pushed on at the front, Stybar steadily pulled the group back to the man who had outsprinted him at this time last year. Denuwelaere, however, wasn’t finished with his lead, and powered through the same long section that gave Vantornout his gap to re-establish a gap of his own.
It came down to Nys, and then Vantornout, to bring Denuwelaere back, which did not happen until partway through the fifth lap as Denuwelaere continued to power through sections that were slowing others down. Into the long, muddy straight, Nys struggled as Rob Peeters all but sailed across the difficult terrain and took off on his own. Denuwelaere gave chase as Nys continued to struggle. By the time they hit the stairs a few lengths later, Peeters had seven seconds. However, a series of difficulties then happened, as first Peeters got stuck on the course, allowing the riders to make contact, and then Nys, sitting in fourth, tangled with the barriers and slowed down Albert and Vantornout behind him. Stybar caught and passed Peeters, with Denuwelaere on his wheel, and the three took off.
As the bell rang for the final lap, it was Stybar drilling at the front, with Denuwelaere on his wheel – would we see the champion return to take the win in his first true race back? Would the relatively unknown Denuwelaere surprise us all? As the group came back together, the finish was still far from certain – after all, Nys was still in the group, and the Kaanibaal has often shown that he can time his move perfectly, catching the world’s best off guard as he shoots away for the win.
That ending was not to be, however, as Nys dropped his chain navigating a 180 turn. The Belgian champion bobbled, then dismounted, and struggled to get his bike functional again. By the time he did, it was too late: the race would be decided without him.
The race, now, was down to four: Stybar, Albert, Peeters and Denuwelaere. First Albert took over the lead, but then Denuwelaere took advantage of the long straight that he had proved superior on for the whole of the race, storming past Stybar and Albert to take a small gap. A slip on the stairs of the flyover, however, brought him back to the group, and Albert again made a move that momentarily looked dangerous.
Stybar showed that he still has a world champion pedigree, and powered through the technical wooded section to catch Albert and surge ahead. As all four riders rounded out the back half of the course, it became clear that we would see an incredible sprint finish.
And it was, though not quite as expected. Stybar hit the pavement first and opened up his throttle. Though he was flying, Denuwelaere had his slip stream, and did not look ready to hand Stybar the win. The last time the two came to the line together, the Belgian bested the Czech, and as Denuwelaere came around the inside of Stybar, it looked like there might be just enough road for him to do so again. Stybar, however, began to veer toward the fence, attempting to squeeze Denuwelaere. The two made impact at the shoulder, and as Stybar fought to stay upright, Denuwelaere first slid up onto the fencing and then came crashing down, sliding across the line just behind a head-shaking Stybar and only inches ahead of Rob Peeters.
Denuwelaere stayed down, grabbing his wrist and rolling in shock as medics stormed the finish line; the fallen rider, however, got to his feet a few moments later and seemed shaken but alright. It was not the finish either man wanted, but there appeared to be no animosity afterward, as both men shook their shoulders, shrugged at the camera, and talked about the race.
“I find this extremely unfortunate,” said Stybar. “This was a very nice cross. Jan was very strong, but I would definitely not let him fall. I’m glad he has not broken anything, and still have won. I saw Jan on the left, and wanted to close the door, but he was very fast. So we were shoulder to shoulder, and then I lost balance. I’m very sorry.”