Masters of the (Cyclocross) Universe – UPDATED: More Photos

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Jonathan Page enjoyed the evening. © Bart Hazen

Jonathan Page enjoyed the evening. © Bart Hazen

by Dan Seaton

Hasselt, Belgium – Let’s be honest here: cyclocross is a circus. Sure, the thousands of fans who turn out every week come to see a bike race, but they also come to rub shoulders with their heroes, eat frites, drink and dance in the beer tents, collect the freebies that the sponsors hand out, and just take in the scene. So perhaps its fitting that European ‘cross wraps up its season by moving indoors and putting on the biggest, most ridiculous show of the year.

And it is ridiculous. With a course that features a BMX-style jump, a trip through the grandstand, disco lighting and a DJ, and a race highlighted by wheelies, airborne racers, and a made for TV storyline, there’s no argument about that.

So, though the Cyclocross Masters may have been as much a race as it was performance art—perhaps a kissing cousin of professional wrestling and monster truck rallies, but with bikes—it thrilled the fans, who packed Ethias Arena for the show, and put a climactic final exclamation point on six months of racing.

The race works like this: preliminary races early in the evening serve as qualifiers for the final, an elimination race that pits ten racers at a time (twelve for the women) against each other in a battle not to be the last across the line at the end of every lap.

The format basically distills ‘cross to its purest essence. And with 20 of the season’s top men, 12 of the top women and lap times around three minutes, in some ways it feels like the most competitive race of the year. The elimination final adds a twist, but the qualifier—except for its Le Mans start—is straight ‘cross, 20 minutes for the women and 30 for the men.

The Early Rounds

Vos attempts the incline that organizers added to the terrain. © Bart Hazen

Vos attempts the incline that organizers added to the terrain. © Bart Hazen

In the women’s qualifier, Hanka Kupfernagel grabbed an early lead, shooting up the stairs that lead into the stands and stretching the field behind her after a moderately ridden, sort of ceremonial opening lap. But Kupfernagel faded a couple of laps in, and the battle shifted. Belgium’s Sanne Cant challenged World Champion Marianne Vos and Daphny Van Den Brand up front, but fell in the loose dirt on one of the course’s two dozen tight turns. With Cant out of the picture, the race came down to the rivalry that’s dominated women’s ‘cross for much of the second half of the season: Vos and Van Den brand. The two were shoulder to shoulder coming into the final lap, but Vos’ superior handling—especially on the extremely steep two meter high dirt mound just before the finish—was enough to put her in position to take the early win.

A few minutes later, Sven Nys claimed a men’s qualifier that could have been a recap of half the races of the season. Perennially fast starter Klaas Vantornout was the first on the bike and quickly grabbed a lead, while behind him Niels Albert slowly worked his way up to the front after a typically slow start. Also working their way through the mix were Sven Nys and Zdeněk Štybar, who wowed the crowed with a some dramatic jumps (and a fall or two) off the ramp on the back side of the course. Štybar, who got his start in cycling racing BMX as a child, consistently impressed the crowd with his handling and showmanship on a course that had as much in common with motocross as it did with traditional cyclocross.

In the end, the race came down to a sprint between Nys and Albert, Nys claiming victory, while Štybar took third just ahead of Klaas Vantornout whose just-off-the-podium finish echoed another common theme from throughout the season.

Elimination!

In the women’s second race of the night, the elimination race, there were relatively few surprises. Between a hard pace and the fact that the women already had one race in their legs, the top five contenders had relatively little difficultly staying alive while one by one riders popped off the back and were pulled. Since, in many cases it was clear who would not survive the lap, the race was a strange blend: a hard effort up front, but a series of ceremonial loops full of high fives and waves to the crowd for those left behind.

The final eventually came down to a five way battle between Vos, Van Den Brand, Kupfernagel, Sanne Van Paassen, and Sanne Cant. Kupfernagel was the first to go, when she was beaten to the line by Van Passen with two laps to go. When the bell sounded for the final lap, it was Van Paassen’s turn to wave goodbye, and the crowd was treated to the same familiar rivalry, Vos and Van Den Brand, with Cant mixing it up early before Vos pulled away on the trip down the ramp from the stands. Once again Vos claimed victory ahead of Van Den Brand, with Cant claiming the third spot on the podium.

“This was a very fun [race],” a tired Van Den Brand told Cyclocross Magazine afterwards. “For the people I think it’s a party, but for us it’s full gas. It’s very heavy to do several laps here and then about an hour later, another several laps.”

If Van Den Brand was as tired as she said afterwards, it didn’t show on the podium. The Dutch Champion joked with the crowd and her fellow racers, eventually stealing a huge bottle of champagne that Vos received for her efforts. Her actions set off a brief bottle-stealing war between the women of the podium that left the World Champion with two big bottles of the unusual green beverage she was last seen sipping after the final outdoor race of the season in Oostmalle.

The men, meanwhile, were split between two fields. In the consolation race, rising star Tom Meeusen managed to hold off Radomir Simunek and Jonathan Page and grab eleventh overall on the night. Page spent a good chunk of the race up front, amusing the crowd by mixing a few wheelies and jumps into what otherwise appeared to be a tough effort.

“This is a fun event for the last race,” Page told Cyclocross Magazine later. “It’s not every day that you get [a promoter] who worked so hard to put this thing together. It’s special.”

Stybar finished as he's ridden most of the season - strong. © Bart Hazen

Stybar finished as he's ridden most of the season - strong. © Bart Hazen

With all but the top ten sorted out, it was time for the night’s main event, a showdown between ten of Europe’s most popular stars. While Sven Vanthourenhout lit things up with a hot start, the real drama was in the back of the race where favorite Sven Nys had a poor start and was forced to race for his life during the first few laps. Nys first held off Erwin Vervecken, who finished tenth in the final race of his career, then Dieter Vanthourenhout, before finally making his way to the front of the field. Gerben De Knegt was the next to be eliminated, then Sven Vanthourenhout and Bart Aernouts. Bart Wellens finished fifth, taking high fives from the fans along the course as he rolled out of the arena after his elimination.

Klaas Vantornout was the last rider out, leaving fans with one final fight between Nys, Štybar, and Albert, three rivals who have dominated the podium all. And once again, the final lap of the season echoed the storyline that played out all year, as Niels Albert, who lead much of the final lap, was eclipsed by the Czech rider who has captured Belgian hearts in the closing moments of the race while Nys was forced to settle for third.

And with a flourish of disco lights and thumping bass, the season was over. The three men, joined by women’s winner Vos, rolled around one final lap, waving to a crowd celebrating six more months of sweat and mud and tears.

“It’s what I really like,” winner Štybar told Cyclocross Magazine of the whole event, “because now I had time for the people, and I could sign a lot of posters and cards and do some pictures. So it’s also very nice for the supporters. We have more time—it’s not really important, the race—so we can do a nice race and also have time for the supporters.”

But as much as the who spectacle was a goodbye party for ‘cross, Štybar reminded us that it was a race as well. “It’s really very tough,” he said. “It doesn’t look like it’s such a tough race, but it doesn’t roll so well, and you have there the stairs, and you’re doing it fifteen times — or even twenty times, I don’t know — and all the s-turns mean you have to always start from zero, so it’s really very tough.”

Full results below.

Photo Gallery:

Men’s Race:

Women’s Race:

Full Results

Women’s Qualifier (20 minutes):
1. Marianne Vos 22:00
2. Daphny Van Den Brand 0:03
3. Sanne Van Paassen 0:08
4. Sanne Cant 0:28
5. Reza Hormes-Ravenstijn 0:36
6. Hanka Kupfernagel 0:47
7. Nikki Harris 0:54
8. Helen Wyman 1:01
9. Nicole De Bie-Leijten 1:50
10. Veerle Ingels 2:05
11. Joyce Vanderbeken 2:28
12. Christine Vardaros 2:56

Elimination Race:
1. Marianne Vos 28:14
2. Daphny Van Den Brand
3. Sanne Cant
4. Sanne Van Paassen
5. Hanka Kupfernage
6. Reza Hormes-Ravenstijn
7. Joyce Vanderbeken
8. Nikki Harris
9. Nicole De Bie-Leijten
10. Helen Wyman
11. Christine Vardaros
12. Veerle Ingels

Men’s Qualifier (30 minutes):
1. Sven Nys 30:53
2. Niels Albert 0:02
3. Zdenek Stybar 0:08
4. Klaas Vantornout
5. Gerben de Knegt 0:39
6. Bart Aernouts;
7. Bart Wellens 0:43
8. Sven Vanthourenhout
9. Dieter Vanthourenhout 0:45
10. Erwin Vervecken
11. Jan Verstraeten
12. Radomir Simunek 0:50
13. Christian Heule 0:58
14. Jonathan Page 1:07
15. Tom Meeusen 1:09
16. Enrico Franzoi 1:19
17. Rob Peeters 1:22
18. Ben Berden 1:37
19. Martin Zlamalik 2:10
20. Thijs Al op 1 ronde

Elimination Race:
1. Zdenek Stybar 23:16
2. Niels Albert
3. Sven Nys
4. Klaas Vantornout
5. Bart Wellens
6. Bart Aernouts
7. Sven Vanthourenhout
8. Gerben De Knegt
9. Dieter Vanthourenhout
10. Erwin Vervecken
11. Tom Meeusen
12. Radomir Simunek
13. Jonathan Page
14. Thijs Al
15. Enrico Franzoi
16. Jan Verstraeten
17. Martin Zlamalik
18. Ben Berden
19. Christian Heule
20. Rob Peeters


 

 

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1 comments
Ken Getchell
Ken Getchell

Hmmm, sounds a lot like SpectaCross but without the classic mud, real monster trucks or poker-cross. But I may be a teensy bit biased.

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