Kalmthout, Belgium – There are only a handful of races that attain legendary status, races that qualify as career defining efforts. Sven Nys’ ride in Kalmthout today may have been one of those races.
After two mishaps in the first laps of the race, Nys found himself some twenty places back, almost half a minute out of contention, in the middle of the worst snowstorm Belgian cyclocross has seen in a generation. With the course buried except for an inches-wide track through the snow, making passing all but impossible except on the incredibly slick road sections, any other rider may have written off the race as a lost cause. But Nys collected himself and proceeded to teach a master class in cyclocross bike handling, riding around 19 different racers on the way to an epic victory over Czech national Champion Zdeněk Štybar and World Champion Niels Albert.
Before things went sour, Nys had an excellent start, riding second wheel behind early leader Klaas Vantornout before Nys bobbled coming through one of the course’s most technical sections – a tight, slippery left turn followed immediately by an equally slick, arching climb. Nys dropped his chain and was forced to the side of the course to fix it. When the Belgian Champion finally got moving again, he had slipped to 13th place.
When he came off his bike, Nys blocked the only passable route up the short climb, forcing the next several contenders off their bikes and springing Vantornout to take a substantial lead. While Sven Vanthourenhout and Martin Bina worked to close the gap to Vantornout, Nys’ terrible luck continued when he flatted and was forced to pit in the middle of the second lap. By the time Nys emerged from the pits, he was 19th and 30 seconds behind Vanthourenhout, who had taken over the lead from teammate Vantornout.
The snow, which was already falling hard as the race started, only picked up as the race continued, turning the roads sloppy and making an already difficult course unrideable in places. And while other riders found themselves unable to make their way around traffic in the deep snow, Nys somehow managed to move up, taking advantage of every turn and clear section of track as he willed his way forward.
In the middle of the fourth lap, Vanthourenhout led Radomir Simunek by just a bike length when, coming into a set of stairs in the middle of the course, Simunek slipped and fell hard on his side, landing on his face and arm, and stayed down, clearly hurt. As riders attempted to make their way around him, Simunek rolled to the side of the course, pulling himself up on the course barrier where he first received help from the Belgian fans before medical aid could reach the course. (Simunek emerged from the ugly crash with serious hip and elbow pain but, miraculously, no serious injuries.)
While Simunek’s personal drama unfolded on the side of the course, Štybar took over the lead after working his own way up after a slow start. After reaching the front, Štybar quickly dropped Vanthourenhout, riding comfortably in conditions perhaps more familiar to the Czech racer than to the Belgians. Behind, Niels Albert took up the chase, but could do nothing to close the gap to Štybar, riding consistently 12 seconds back for several laps.
Finally, with three laps to go, Nys came around Vantornout and connected with Albert. The two rode together briefly before Nys shook Albert off his wheel. Nys, lifted by a small but supportive crowd, powered through the snow, bobbing, weaving and occasionally putting a foot down, until he reached Štybar. The two rode together for only a few moments before Nys rounded a tight corner at the end of the road faster than Štybar and earned a gap.
With Albert and Vantornout trailing by a few seconds, Nys rode a nearly perfect race, taking next to impossible corners like only the world’s best bike handler could. Nys’ aggressiveness nearly cost him the victory when he overcooked a corner just after the course’s second set of stairs and crashed. But Nys grabbed his bike, ran a 180-degree turn and remounted, still ahead of Štybar and Albert.
From there, Nys couldn’t be stopped. He screamed through the course, again opening a gap over the two chasers. With the result assured, Nys pumped both fists in the air, elated to take his first World Cup win of the season, marking one of the most impressive victories of his storied career.
Behind him, Štybar edged out Albert for third, propelling the two younger racers into a tie for the overall World Cup lead. Vantornout took fourth over his teammate, Sven Vanthourenhout.
Jonathan Page, who returned to Belgium only yesterday after taking third overall at US Nationals last weekend, was the top American finisher. Page started strong, riding inside of the top ten early in the race before fading some to a 17th place finish. Jamey Driscoll finished 38th, Troy Wells 50th and Brian Matter 63rd. [Read more about the Americans' exploits in Kalmthout here.]
Niels Albert said that he was disappointed with his third place finish, but credited Nys with an exceptional ride. “During the last laps I was one of the fastest,” he told reporters, “but Sven was really strong by coming back that way, it was really impressive.”
Štybar told reporters that he doesn’t love racing in the snow, but was happy with his ride. “ I can say [the snow] is not my favorite,” he said. “I don’t really hate it, but I don’t love it. I’m proud I can ride in snow, in mud and dry.” Štybar said that he rode the race comfortably and that finesse, rather than power, dictated the outcome. But he added that he was disappointed that second place left him with a tie in the overall World Cup standings.
“To become winner of the [leader's] jersey, to go to Tabor with the leader’s jersey is my dream,” he said. “I think my shape is good, today was more about technique. The best present for my father would be the jersey – better than a new car.”
Nys’ chase from deep in the field has been a common storyline this season, but none have marked such a dramatic recovery as he made today. After the race, Nys said that his early troubles lit a fire under him. “It was a difficult race,” he told Cyclocross Magazine. “I started well, but I had some problems and a flat and two times my chain went off. There was one road so I couldn’t pass and I [had to] wait. I was maybe 15th place.” Nys said that, after struggling to get around people early in the race, he rode with anger, which fueled his fiery return to the front.
“I felt I had really good legs,” Nys said. “I felt I could win the race. I went fast in the corners, I took many risks to go as fast possible, because Stybar he is dangerous in the sprint, I had maybe 10 meters and it was enough to win.”