Niels Albert and Sven Nys traded their knobbies for slicks at this week's Tour of Belgium © Dan Seaton

by Robbie Carver

Three days ago, the cyclocross capitol of the world began hosting the 80th edition of the Tour of Belgium, a five day stage race whose first start gun went off in 1908. Why should you care? Well, because, being placed where it is, the event draws a large number of big name European ’crossers. Need more? In 2009 the leader’s jersey went to none other than 2008 World Cyclocross Champion Lars Boom.

Riders have completed two stages so far: the rainy, 156km around Eeklo; and the 162km bunch sprint into Knokke-Heist. Today racers travel 192km to Mechelen and tomorrow will go against the clock in a 16.7km time trial. The hilly 173km final stage, in Herstal, has been designed to stir up the classification and keep the race interesting through the end.

Though Boom was not present at the start line (maybe he’s taken Tom Boonen’s request that he go back to cyclocross), the field is still stacked with some ’cross heavy hitters. Not wasting any time after racing the MTB World Cup #3, Sven Nys cracked the top ten on the second stage bunch sprint, giving him the highest ’cross placement so far. But the highest GC spot goes to Nys’ competitor, Sven Vanthourenhout, who, with a 15th and 11th place currently sits 17th overall.

Two-time world champion Bart Wellens heads up his ’cross-heavy team, Telenet-Fidea, which includes Kevin Pauwels, who took first in the 2009 Heusden-Zolder World Cup; the young, quickly rising Tom Meeusen, who at 21 stormed the Belgium’s Elite National Cyclocross Championships with a bronze medal; and the consistently high placing Rob Peeters.

Danny De Bie, Telenet-Fidea’s team leader, seems pleased with how the team is doing so far. As he reported on the Telenet-Fidea Web page, “Bart is racing great. Wednesday he finished 22nd. Bart stays aggressive until the end, and he’s always motivated. In cyclocross this is his greatest asset, even on the road…. He is also not scared to join the battles in the nervousness of the final kilometers.”

BKCP-Powerplus, another well-known ’cross team, brought a strong team, including 2009 world champion Niels Albert, U23 star Jim Aernouts, Belgium pro Dieter Vanthourenhout, four-time Italian cyclocross champion Enrico Franzoi and Radomir Simunek, who took eighth at the world championships in Tabor.

A name more recently in the headlines is Arnaud Jouffroy, who was crowned the U23 world champion after gold- and silver-placed brothers Pawel and Kacper Szczepaniak tested positive for using the banned performance enhancing drug EPO.

Joining former Giro d’Italia winner Dennis Menchov in the DNF category was Sunweb-Pro Job’s Klaas Vantornout, who dropped out of the race due to illness: “In the meantime I have lost three pounds and ten days, and I was not on the bike” he said on the team’s Web page.

Check back in a few days, when we wrap up our coverage of the 2010 Tour of Belgium.