Baal, Belgium – For Sven Nys, the celebration tonight may go on just a bit longer than usual, and not just because he’ll be celebrating a hot start to a New Year. Nys’ victory today before a huge and highly partisan crowd comes in his home town in a race, the Grote Prijs Sven Nys, that bears his name.
After a few days of slightly milder weather, cold once again gripped Belgium, and the early races of the day were contested under heavy clouds and occasional light snow. But the clouds parted and the sun shone for the elite race, though the mud, sticky and deep, persisted. Between the conditions and the difficult course, built on the side of a hill overlooking this tiny village’s main street, the race took a toll during a period stacked with races: only 26 elite riders managed to finish on the lead lap.
From the beginning it was clear that Nys was looking to do something special, as he grabbed the early lead of the race from Klaas Vantornout, who was returning to action after sitting out from racing earlier this week due to an injury. Just after the race left the road, Nys ran a turn in deep mud and blew apart the field, barely a minute into the action.
Nys’ early effort may have been aided by a large crash behind him that claimed a number of top riders. As the race came through the first right turn from the road, a number of riders went down along the right side of the course, with Radomir Simunek taking the worst of it, falling hard on his side and hitting his head as riders from behind piled into him. Simunek, who also took a serious fall in Kalmthout only weeks ago, stayed on the ground while others collected themselves, the most notable of whom was Kevin Pauwels, who ran into the pits, switched bikes and began the long chase back into contention.
Under the stress of Nys’ early effort, the race fractured into a series of small bunches, merging and breaking apart repeatedly as the pace varied on the undulating track. Nys soon ceded the lead to a hard charging Zdeněk Štybar, whose sudden acceleration further strung out the field as he opened a gap of perhaps 20 meters over the rest of the race.
Behind him, however, Nys was determined to keep things close, and he led a chase that featured Gerben De Knegt, Niels Albert, Vantornout and several others. Štybar drove the pace along the road at the end of the first lap, but the bunch began to come back together in the mud on the second lap.
By the time they hit the pits, where riders grabbed bikes lifted by mechanics for immediate shouldering for the stairs that followed just meters beyond, the race had become a two-man contest, with Nys quickly closing the gap to Štybar while the next two on the road, De Knegt and Albert, trailed significantly.
With GVA Trofee points up for grabs at the end of the second lap, Štybar and Nys both sprinted, but Nys stepped out of his pedal, allowing Štybar to come around to take first and three points. Nys, just behind him, claimed two points. Now some ten seconds back, Albert and De Knegt replayed Tuesday’s drama, although without the same histrionics, as De Knegt, who led into the road anyway, snatched the last remaining point from Albert.
While Nys and Štybar rode together in front, Albert made a move to go after the leaders alone. Albert’s acceleration shook Mourey, who had dangled for several laps, off his wheel, but De Knegt stubbornly held on, gaining ground and then falling back again as the two made their way through the next several laps. Despite leading De Knegt for most of the race, Albert looked decidedly uncomfortable in some of the course’s more technical sections, occasionally grabbing the barriers to steady himself and at least once to avoid a fall on his way through some of the deepest mud of the day.
With two laps to go, Albert finally dropped De Knegt, but still trailed Štybar and Nys by 30 seconds. In front, Nys came around Štybar when the Czech rider slowed in a tight, 180-degree turn and quickly gained a gap of several meters. For a moment it appeared Nys would simply ride away on his own, but he slipped on the metal stairs of the flyover, allowing Štybar to battle his way back into contention. Moments later, Štybar further closed the gap by running through one of the muddiest sections of the course while Nys rode. The two rode together again into the bell lap.
Štybar, however, between his early effort and the chase to regain Nys, may have burned one match too many, and Nys was able to hammer away from him as they made their last trip around the track. Near the road, where the hillside rose up like an amphitheater, one of the biggest finish line crowds of the season assembled itself, already celebrating what looked more and more like an assured victory for hometown favorite Nys.
“Of course [the crowd] helps,” said Nys afterwards. “But there’s a lot of pressure to win here. It’s not easy because it’s the same riders and they are motivated to beat the home rider. But, of course, when you can win, for that kind of atmosphere, it’s really special.”
But suddenly Nys bobbled in the mud just below the flyover, and again Štybar closed the gap (See last lap video of the 2010 GP Sven Nys). As the news about the race above them reached the fans on the road below, a shout of dismay rose from the crowd, who then held their collective breath for the finishing sprint. But their concern was premature, Štybar bobbled himself just seconds later, and Nys was free to cruise down the hillside to victory.
“I felt really good today, but then on the last uphill I first made a mistake after the first materiaalpost [pit],” said Štybar. “And then I lost contact with Sven and thought, shit, the race is lost. Then in the last uphill I ran and Sven was riding. I did that also the lap before, so I knew it’s a little bit faster. So then I came back. Then he made a mistake, but one second later I did the same mistake as him.”
Nys crossed the line, winner again in a race that bears his name, six seconds ahead of Štybar, and 46 seconds ahead of third place finisher Albert, who held off De Knegt without difficulty. Mourey claimed fifth, while Pauwels managed to battle back from nearly last place after his crash to a solid finish in twelfth place. Brian Matter was the only American finisher in 29th place.
Nys’ victory, and the points he picked up in the intermediate sprint, propels him into the lead of the GVA Trofee Series with 143 points, three points ahead of previous leader Niels Albert. Zdeněk Štybar holds third, ten points back from Nys. The victory was Nys’ ninth in Baal, and his fourth straight—Nys’ last loss in Baal came at the hands of Lars Boom in 2006.
“After two laps I felt like I wouldn’t win it,” Albert said after the race. “So then I tried to make the best of it, and today that was third. Nys has three points over me, but that’s nothing. If I can win and Nys has bad luck, that’s enough to fill the gap. But now I’m totally focused on the championships.” Albert has said repeatedly this season that his top priority is a win in the Belgian championships, held next weekend in Oostmalle.
After the race, Štybar told Cyclocross Magazine that he may have gone a bit too hard early in the race. “I felt really good,” he said, “but maybe it cost too much power. But I wanted to take the points, because I don’t want to lose my standing, because you never know. Now I’m quite far behind, but what’s important is that my shape is very good. Now I just have to keep it for one more month.”
Štybar also said that, at least today, the World Champion seemed a little bit off his game. “I rode behind [Niels] the first lap,” he told us, “and found that he made quite a lot of mistakes. So I was not really surprised that he was not there. But then I could stay at almost on the same pace from the beginning and we got a gap of half a minute and we could regulate the race. It was important for us that we could ride our own tempo.”
Nys told Cyclocross Magazine after the race that he was thrilled to win on his home turf. ”I think it’s the first time that it was so many people,” he explained. “It’s amazing to race here and to win again in my own place.” But, Nys added, he had to earn the victory. ”It was not easy because Štybar was really strong today,” continued the Belgian Champion. “The last two laps I felt that I could beat him, and the last lap I made some mistakes, but I think Štybar was doing the same. It’s not easy, because we added a new climb at the end of the lap and a difficult downhill. But it was something special, something really exciting for guys with a lot of power. And today it was for me.”
After a difficult season, most of Nys’ big goals have slipped away, leaving him out of contention in both the World Cup and Superprestige. Nys failed to finish the World Cup in Treviso early in the season and, on Sunday, a broken derailleur cost him a finish in the Diegem Superprestige race. Now, with the lead in the GVA Trofee, Nys told us that he would focus on that series. “Because of problems in Superprestige, it’s over there,” he said, “and I’ll try to win this overall GVA. There are still two races to go after the World Championships and I’m going to try to win them.”
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