by Dan Seaton
Oudenaarde, Belgium – If there’s a map of hallowed ground in the world of cycling, the Koppenberg has to be on that map. With its barely rideable, cobbled 22% grade, it’s one of the most difficult ascents of the Ronde van Vlaanderen in the spring, and host to a race that many call a “little world championships” in the fall. On an unusually dry and balmy day for late October in Belgium, cycling paid another of its semi-annual visits to the storied steeps of East Flanders for the second race of the GVA Trofee, and the Koppenberg once again lived up to its reputation.
(See Christine Vardaros’ exclusive look behind the scenes at Koppenbergcross for more about the race’s history.)
In the women’s race, Pavla Havlikova won a dominating victory over second place finisher Helen Wyman, while World Champion Marianne Vos ended up lapped in 28th place after suffering two flat tires. In the men’s race, Sven Nys attacked a group featuring a veritable who’s who of cyclocross racing, to take victory over world champion Niels Albert and Klaas Vantornout.
Havlikova Capitalizes on Vos’ Very Bad Day
The women’s race began with what Christine Vardaros referred to as a very fast slow start, with an unusually long, into-the-wind straightaway before breaking left and into the fields at the base of the Koppenberg climb. Belgian national champion Joyce Vanderbeken grabbed the lead after that first corner and led a large group onto the cobbles at the bottom of the climb. But the hard pace at the early part of the race immediately fractured the pack, with Vanderbeken pulling Marianne Vos and Pavla Havlikova away from a chase group that included Helen Wyman, Sanne van Passen, Sanne Cant, and Saskia Elemens.
Meanwhile, Sanne Van Passen launched a bid to reel in Havlikova, gaining ground throughout the second lap, before she also punctured in the same place as Vos. While Van Passen was forced to make her way up the hill on foot, Wyman capitalized and took up the chase for second place. Vos, meanwhile, had recovered from her flat and was making her way through the back of the race when she flatted again in the same place. Once again she was forced to shoulder her bike on the cobbles, persevering despite a race that had become all but hopeless.
By the time Vos was rolling again after pitting at the top of the climb, Havlikova had come around her. At the end of the lap, the crowds watched a truly rare sight, perhaps befitting the legendary status of the Koppenberg: the world champion pulled. While Vos shared her misfortune with a race commentator, Havlikova rode comfortably to victory, more than 30 seconds clear of any possible challengers. Wyman held on to second, coming through some 20 seconds ahead of third place finisher, Sophie de Boer.
Havlikova also agreed that she had benefitted from Vos misfortune. “Although I rode uphill very well,” she said, “I think Marianne is somewhat stronger. Her bad luck was left the way to victory completely open to me.” Havlikova also mentioned the absence of Daphny Van den Brand, winner of the first GVA Trofee race in Namur, who was absent from the start due to illness, as a factor in the outcome.
Vos told reporters that she didn’t know anybody who had punctured twice in the same place. “Apparently there was a piece of glass in that place,” she said. “Running isn’t my strong suit anyway, and the Koppenberg is an especially difficult task. Unfortunately, this is one of the finest crosses of the season. So hopefully this was my share of bad luck for the season.”
“Once I got into my own rhythm it was ok,” said Christine Vardaros, who finished 16th. “It’s funny because it’s deceiving. You think you can relax on the descents, but if you relax people catch you. You work your ass off to get gaps on the climb and if you’re off the job for just a moment, that descent is one of those where you really have to power out of ever twist. If you don’t, if you just kind of ride it like a Sunday rider, it’s over.” Vardaros said that, despite the relatively pleasant conditions, the course was slick for the women, especially early in the day. “It’s a cow pasture, so it’s always going to be wet. It was really slippery. I actually fell on the preride. Almost everybody fell on one turn during the preride, but then you learn that you clip out if you want to be safe.” Vardaros also told us that she took some advice from a true cyclocross legend just before the race. “I had never ridden mud tires before, so when I saw Groenendaal before the race I asked him, ‘How’s my tire pressure?’ It was pretty funny to have him as guidance on tire pressure. And only at Koppenbergcross do you have the opportunity to ask someone so big a question like that.” (For the record, she ran 1.6 bar in both tires.)
Nys’ Final Lap Move Seals His Sixth Straight Koppenberg Title
Italian Champion Enrico Franzoi took the early lead when world champion Niels Albert was slowed when he briefly caught his bike in a course barrier half way up the climb. But by the second lap Albert had climbed back into the fight, while Franzoi was paying for his early efforts and the race broke open into several groups. In the front, Nys, along with Zedeněk Štybar, Klaas Vantornout, and Francis Mourey, set an aggressive pace and appeared to be making a bid to pull away from the rest of the field, but the group slowed as they hit the headwind on the finishing straightaway, allowing a group containing Albert, Kevin Pauwels, and Bart Aernouts to connect with them to make it a seven man race.
The next several laps followed a similar pattern as a series of riders attacked on the climb. First Štybar went, then, during the fourth of ten laps, Albert counterattacked just as the race began to come back together. But every time the race turned onto the homestretch the riders would slow, sometimes motioning for one another to pull through, and allowing anyone dropped on the climb to come back into the race. While several other riders took brief turns at the head of the race, nothing lasted for more than a few moments, and the group of seven leaders repeatedly broke apart and condensed back together.
When Nys attacked as riders neared the top of the climb with three to go, Albert suddenly found himself off the back of the group of leaders. Albert first looked to his bike as if something were wrong with it, but then skipped the pit near the top of the climb. Albert, it appeared, simply couldn’t match Nys’ acceleration. But Albert managed to rejoin the leaders on the descent, and then attacked himself near the top of the next to last climb and yet again the race came back together at the end of the lap, leaving the door open to any of the seven leaders who wanted to make a bid for the win.
After the race, Albert told Cyclocross Magazine that he was satisfied with his second place finish. “On Thursday I was a little bit sick and when you want to beat Sven Nys, you must be 100 percent,” he said. “And today I’m 95, and that’s not enough for the win.” Albert said that what appeared to be bike problems with a few laps to go was simply his inability to respond Nys’ attack. “For me, it was just a total loss there,” he explained. “I came up the Koppenberg and it was just done. And it was my luck that when we came to the road, the guys in the front didn’t want to ride.”
Nys told us he was proud to win for a seventh time on the legendary course. “The climb, of course, is history. It’s a classic in the beginning of the season for the road racers. And it’s a big climb, first the cobblestones, and then a little down, and then the fields. It’s really hard.” Nys said he was lifted by the huge crowds that lined the course, especially on the climb and descent. “It’s an important race, and when you can win with a sprint on last climb like this, it’s a good feeling.” According to Nys, the relatively dry conditions made the race for position on the final descent especially important. “The downhills were perfect, it was a little bit muddy, but not extreme, and the only thing you could do was have an attack on the last lap and be sure that you had 10 or 20 meters on the downhill. That was the difficulty of the race today, and you had to be the strongest in the last lap.”
Meanwhile, Štybar who was animated throughout race told us that he sensed the race would be won only in the final minutes. “Nobody really wanted to take over because probably everybody was really saving their power for the last lap and the last climb, and that made the difference,” he said, referring to the tactics that dominated the bulk of the race. Štybar said that despite his rare off-podium finish today, he was happy with his form at this point. “For me personally, I think my condition is very good. It just was not enough to win the race.”
American Jonathan Page, riding for Planet Bike, finished 18th after a bit of a slow start, and found himself caught behind a second chase group when the race began to break up at the end of the first lap. “I wanted to ease into the race a little bit,” he said, “but they were just faster than me at the start. So there wasn’t exactly any easing into it. I just tried to keep within myself for a while, but there still wasn’t enough. They had a little bit of an edge on me.” Page, who lives just a few kilometers away in Oudenaarde, said he had never seen the Koppenberg in such good conditions. “I’ve never done this race in such good weather — not that it made it any easier.” Page said the combination of a fast track, difficult climb, and strong headwind at the finish made for a tough race. “We were going either really slowly or extremely fast. I did ok today,” he said. “I hung in there.”
(Mindi Wisman contributed to this report.)
|3||Sophie DE BOER||NED||20||44:50||12||12|
|7||Linda VAN RIJEN||NED||22||46:35||4||4|
|10||Sanne VAN PAASSEN||NED||22||47:10||1||1|
|18||Steffy VAN DEN HAUTE||BEL||17||52:14|
|22||Kim VAN RENTERGHEM||BEL||21|
|9||Gerben DE KNEGT||NED||35||1:03:23||12||12|
|15||Tom VAN DEN BOSCH||BEL||25||1:03:58||1||1|
|21||Wilant VAN GILS||NED||31||1:04:15|
|23||Eddy VAN IJZENDOORN||NED||25||1:04:30|
|28||Thijs VAN AMERONGEN||NED||24||1:06:36|