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by Dan Seaton with reporting by Mindi Wisman
Sint-Niklaas, Belgium – As the densely packed Belgian holiday cyclocross schedule reached its penultimate race, one might have expected fatigue to play the decisive role in today’s contest. Especially after Sven Nys, winner at yesterday’s GVA Trofee race in Baal, told reporters that he felt like he was in the middle of a stage race—that he was tired and sore. But, while several racers chose to rest their tired legs—among them Nys, Niels Albert, and Zdeněk Štybar, a trio that has dominated European cyclocross the past four months—fans were treated to one of the most exciting and dynamic races of the season.
The day began with a rare series of Masters races (normally Belgian Masters and Amateur racers do battle at separate venues from the pros), in one of which American Peter Webber took second place, 14 seconds behind Masters 40+ World Champion Marc Druyts. Later, the Juniors took to the course, an expansive, twisting but not overly technical track laid out on the shore of a small lake at the center of De Ster park, a course, perhaps, closer in style to an American race than any other of the past several weeks. Belgian Tim Merlier stretched an early lead to nearly a minute gap over Xandro Meurisse and Timo Verschueren, who finished second and third respectively. Kenzie Boutté, who rode together with Meurisse and Verschueren for much of the race, fell back in the final laps and took fourth.
In the first laps of the Juniors race, American Skyler Trujillo rode inside of the top five, but lost several spots over the race’s 40 minutes, eventually riding to a tenth place finish, the best American result in the race. Behind him, David Kessler took 17th and Jeffrey Bahnson 20th. For much of the early race, Yannick Eckmann and Joshua Lehman, both Euro ‘Cross Camp attendees, rode well, but both would be forced to abandon later in the race.
By the time the Elite and Under-23 men lined up, the sun had broken through the clouds, warming the windswept venue and giving racers one of the nicest days they have seen this holiday season, but leaving the previously frozen course treacherous. Between the sun and early races, the top layers of frozen ground thawed. The ground remained hard enough for some very fast racing, but, coated in a thin layer of mud, it was now extremely slick, and would cause problems for racers all day, especially over a steep manmade climb and descent near the middle of the crescent the course made around three-quarters of the lakeshore.
French National Champion Francis Mourey grabbed the early lead, immediately stretching the 59 rider field with a furious early pace that would not relent throughout the day. Behind him, Gerben De Knegt, Jonathan Page, Radomir Simunek—back from a hard fall in Baal yesterday—answered the call. By the time the race came through the end of the first lap, a five rider group, Mourey, De Knegt, Page, Simunek and Italian National Champion Enrico Franzoi, had escaped and traded shots up front. The quintet were pursued by Martin Zlamalik, Petr Dlask, and Dieter Vanthourenhout among others.
Further back, Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com rider Jamey Driscoll settled into the fast race on his own, riding alone between tenth and fifteenth place for much of the race. Just behind him, Driscoll’s teammate Jeremy Powers connected with Troy Wells and Belgian Bart Verschueren, who worked together throughout the race.
The frontrunners traded shots, Simunek and Page escaped briefly before the lead group came back together on the road, while others also took turns pushing the pace. With four laps to go, Mourey suffered a fall, riding as far back as eighth place before he managed to chase his way back into contention by the end of the next lap.
Then, with two laps to go, De Knegt ran into trouble, flatting after the leaders crossed a metal flyover on their way into the sand along an artificial beach just in front of the finishing straight. With a long trip to the pits, De Knegt fell well off the pace at the front and slipped to seventh place. At the same time, the chase group was breaking apart. Dieter Vanthourenhout and Dlask managed to claw their way into the lead bunch, while Zlamalik fell out of the top ten and just ahead of Driscoll.
As the leaders took the pace up another notch, it appeared the race might come down to a mass sprint for the win. But, with one to go, Jonathan Page suddenly trailed the group of four up front, riding a flat sustained on the same flyover that caused trouble for De Knegt halfway around the course before reaching the pits. Page held on, closing in on the front group, before a fall cost him any chance at the podium.
In the final moments of the race, Mourey surged and none of the leaders could match him, and the Frenchman led two BKCP-Powerplus Riders, Simunek and Vanthourenhout, who took second and third, respectively, into the finish. Franzoi managed to outsprint Dlask for fifth before Page rolled across the line for a disappointing sixth place finish.
Further back, Driscoll was bested by Zlamalik, but still managed a strong 13th place, about a minute ahead of Powers and Wells, who took 17th and 19th. In his final appearance of the season, Brian Matter rode one of his best races of his European trip, taking 26th. Justin Lindine took 31st.
Several other Americans, mostly Under-23s, also contested the race. Jerome Townsend was 33rd, Joshua Berry 36th, Steve Fisher 40th. Outside of the lead lap, David Quist took 49th ahead of Brandon Mart, who was 51st.
After the race, Mourey told reporters he just did what he had to in order to beat a trio of BKCP teammates, Simunek, Vanthourenhout and Franzoi, a new addition in 2010. “I was at the mercy of the BKCP riders,” he said, “but it’s nice to know that I was able to get the job done. Of course, it was a different race without Sven Nys and Niels Albert, but we still had a good field. I fell three times, but am happy I was still able to sprint for the win.”
Page, who appeared to be in excellent position to contend for the win, was disappointed by the outcome, though he remained positive about his form. ” Today was good,” he said, “and I think now I’ll say that I’m as good as I was before I went to Nationals. I hope to stay that way. I finally feel a little better.”
Despite his overall good form, the late flat and a fall after that were too much to recover from, said Page. “I flatted on the bridge—I think De Knegt did it on the last [previous] lap—something was there and I never saw it. So I rode, trying to get in front of people and slow them down as much as possible and stay as close as I could with a flat tire. It was a long way to go [to the pits] with a flat. So I tried staying there and I did a pretty good job. After a quick bike change I was just pushing the envelope a little bit and I caught back on on the couple whoop-de-doos by the lake. Then unfortunately I just stacked it because I was trying to go too fast—and that was my race and I couldn’t catch 4th or the podium.”
Brian Matter, who heads home to Wisconsin tomorrow, told us he was happy to end his European trip with a good race. “I was really happy,” he said. “It was good way to finish off my Euro ‘cross campaign. A little bit faster racing with some greasy corners so suites my style a little better than slogging through the mud.” Matter, looking back on a tough two weeks in Europe, added that he’ll head home with his confidence high. “This definitely ended on a little bit of a high note,” he told us. “It definitely helps. The last two races in Loehout and Baal were tractor pulls, which was tough, so I’m happy to end it this way.”
Jeremy Powers was another rider who was happier today than he had been earlier in his trip to Europe, though still hoped for better results. Powers suffered a hard fall at the Zolder World Cup and did not finish a race in Loenhout earlier this week. “You have to take it with a grain of salt,” he said after finishing. “These races are hard and obviously it hasn’t gone that well, it hasn’t been a very successful trip. Sometimes that happens, sometimes it’s great and other times it’s not so great. Maybe my body needs a couple days off and then to reassess and do some training and come back for Worlds. So I’m staying optimistic, I think I’ll still be fine. It hasn’t been perfect, but it hasn’t been terrible either.”
Powers rode well late in the race after some trouble early, and said that while he was happy with a few things, he would have liked to do better. “Sint-Niklaas is a good race,” he told us. “They changed the course, so it was even better this year, really American-style: a lot of punchy sections, off-camber, twisty-turny. But it just got so icy, and it really glazed up with mud on the top and ice on the bottom, and its just bad when that happens. I definitely ate it a couple times. I was psyched to not get too banged up or have to change a bike. So it was good, hoping to do better as always, but I’ll take what I can get for the moment.”
Jamey Driscoll, Power’s teammate, told us he felt strong, but lacked the power to get to the front early in the race. “I had a pretty good start,” said the Vermont native, “but one thing I’m lacking is, you gotta go ballistic on the first lap out of every corner just to maintain position.” Driscoll rode much of the race on his own, and looked strong in the later laps.
“I did kind of feel like once I settled in I could have been up with some higher guys,” he told us, “but that’s the way it goes. You’ve got to fight for position when you’ve got it. On this course last year, it was harder for me because I had a hurt wrist and this was the first race back. It’s the same conditions as last year, it’s super icy so I had that in my head, that I had to be super cautious. And you do, but I know that I wasn’t as relaxed as I should have been, which hurt my technical riding on those off-cambers. You’ve got to be so loose and flawless to do it quickly and I didn’t quite have all the qualities.”
In the end, Driscoll told us that he was satisfied, if not exactly thrilled, with his trip to Europe. “I think I’ve done pretty well,” he said. “It’s not like I had this ridiculously good ride, but being consistent is a big improvement, so that’s good to see. Steady progress is what I’m looking for.”
With National Championship races throughout Europe next weekend, those Americans remaining on this side of the Atlantic now find themselves with a weekend off following tomorrow’s race in Tervuren. Page heads for Switzerland, while Troy Wells and Jamey Driscoll head to warmer climates in southern Europe. Jeremy Powers returns to the United States for a few weeks before returning in time for the final round of the World Cup in Hoogerheide in the Netherlands.
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Brief Results – Juniors
1. Tim Merlier (Bel)
2. Xandro Meurisse (Bel)
3. Timo Verschueren (Bel)
4. Kenzie Boutté (Bel)
5. Niels Van Den Driessche (Bel)
6. Michael Vanthourenhout (Bel)
7. Daniel Peeters (Bel)
8. Joeri Hofman (Bel)
9. Michael Dhondt (Bel)
10. Skyler Trujillo (USA)
17. David Kessler (USA)
20. Jeffrey Bahnson
Full Results – Elite & Under-23 Men
|7||Gerben DE KNEGT||NED||35||1:00:19||6||6|
|22||Kay VAN DEN BRANDE||BEL||25||1:03:18|
|23||Tim VAN NUFFEL||BEL||29||1:03:22|
|24||Steven DE DECKER||BEL||28||1:03:28|