Oostmalle, Belgium – Sven Nys, whose 2009-10 season has been punctuated by some of the highest and lowest notes of his storied career, managed to hit a very high note today, claiming his seventh national title on a slippery, snowy track in northern Belgium. Nys’ trademark this season has been the late-race comeback, starting with his first win of the season in Ruddervoorde and climaxing with a huge come-from-behind win in near-blizzard conditions in the World Cup in Kalmthout. And Nys, the defending champion, put an exclamation point on his come-from-behind season today, riding back from an early fall to take a solo victory over Klaas Vantornout, Under-23 standout Tom Meeusen, and Rob Peeters.
Nys’ trouble started early in the race when a poor start left him relatively deep in the field. As riders struggled to find safe lines during the early part of the race, Nys, stuck behind those who bobbled and fell, found himself relatively far back in the field. “My start wasnt very good,” the newly crowned Belgian champion told reporters at the finish. “And then a few riders allowed some little gaps to open because of steering mistakes, so the gap was immediately 10 or 15 seconds. So I went to the front of the chase group, but I took a lot of risks and crashed flat on my belly.”
The accident knocked Nys’ chain off, forcing him to stop and fix it, costing him even more time as well. But once rolling again, Nys seemed to have the old magic working for him as he methodically made his way to the head of the race, avoiding mistakes even as he took risks, while other riders slid and fell away behind him.
“It was incredible,” said Nys. “When I was younger I might have crashed from the nervousness. But it has happened a lot recently that I had to come back from a poor position and that made me stronger—it kept me believing I could do it.”
While Nys was battling his way back into the race, Sven Vanthourenhout and Tom Meeusen were trading shots up front. The two managed to get away early and took turns at the front before Meeusen fell when he came into a slippery turn a little too fast. Though the younger rider collected himself quickly, the fall allowed Vanthourenhout to get away, and he stayed alone, well off the front until the fifth of eight laps.
Further back, Meeusen was picked up by his teammate Rob Peeters who, riding with Klaas Vantornout, had managed to get clear of the rest of the race. Together the three went after Vanthourenhout, but made little progress in the early laps.
Behind them, Nys reached a chase group led by World Champion Niels Albert, finally connecting with Erwin Vervecken at the rear of the group at about the midpoint of the race. Ahead Nys in the group were Dieter Vanthourenhout, Bart Aernouts, and Bart Wellens. Wellens saw his fortunes turn south when he suffered a mechanical just as Nys was reaching the chase group. Wellens was forced to shoulder his bike and run almost half a lap to the pits, eventually winding up some four and a half minutes off the leaders.
But as Nys took control and began to push the pace at the front of the chase group, Albert disappeared.
“Nys made it back to our group and took over,” a disheartened Albert said afterwards, ” when a Nys fan pulled me off my bike. You can do whatever you want to me, throw beer on me, spit on me, yell at me. You can do all you want, but doing something like that is deplorable.”
Albert, whose account was confirmed by a number of spectators after the race, told reporters that he was pulled off the bike just as Nys hit the gas. “I looked back and they were applauding their feat. I’m not saying that I would have won, but it’s sad to lose it this way. Sven has to talk with his fans [about this] now,” said Albert. “But chapeau to Nys, he deserved to win.”
With Albert out of the race, Nys pulled away from the other chasers while Vantornout, Peeters, and Meeusen reeled in Vanthourenhout. With just two laps to go, the groups at the front converged, coalescing into a five-man race. But Nys wasted no time in seizing the lead, and again increased the tempo. This time, only his former teammate Peeters could match him, and the two rode together in front, while Vantornout and Meeusen chased. Vanthourenhout, who had fallen while in the lead, now appeared to be suffering, either from injury or the effort of his solo laps early in the race, and faded from contention.
Finally, with just over a lap to go, Peeters slipped and fell. He lost Nys’ wheel just moments before the two chasers, who, in the slick conditions, could neither stop nor steer around him, crashed into him from behind. While the three behind him collected themselves, Nys simply rode away to victory. Though Vantornout would make one last bid to reach him in the final lap, it was simply too late for the lanky Sunweb rider.
An ebullient Nys shook his fists with joy, celebrating as he rolled across the line three seconds ahead of Vantornout, who, in turn, held off Meeusen. Peeters took fourth, while Dieter Vanthourenhout claimed fifth, edging Bart Aernouts, 35 seconds behind Nys.
Geert Wellens claimed top honors in the Elite without contract field, which started 15 seconds behind the professionals. Wellens bested Tom Vanoppen, who is making a return to cyclocross after retiring in 2008.
Earlier in the day Sanne Cant took a 50 second victory over defending champion Joyce Vanderbeken to claim her first national Women’s title while Jim Aernouts earned a victory in the Under-23 race.
After the race, Meeusen, on the podium for his first time in the Elite Belgian Championships, said he hoped this was just the beginning for him. “I’m happy,” he told reporters, “and, if everything had gone my way, I think more was possible. But I’m happy just to be on the podium. Nys told me that it wouldn’t be the last time and of course it makes me very proud to hear him say that.”
Vantornout, who had struggled lately with injury, missing several races over the Christmas holidays, said he saw his second place finish as something of a redemption. “The past few weeks I’ve been out of sight because of a lot of trouble,” he said afterwards. “So today I wanted to show myself, and I think I’ve proved that I can contend on any track when I’m healthy. I was constantly with the leaders until I fell. I was on Nys’ wheel and think I could have stayed there, but you never know. I’m happy anyway with the silver medal.”
Nys, for his part, took time away from the post-race celebrations to speak directly to the fans. “[What happened to Albert] has no place in ‘cross,” said the new Belgian champion. “People like that should be banished [from 'cross] for life. I don’t want someone like that called a supporter of mine, I want nothing to do with them.” Nys pointed out that he, and many riders have been the victims of careless or malicious fans. “It’s far too common,” he said. “I hope that in the next few days people will use their brains and behave themselves.”
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