BAAL, Belgium – Racing nearly in his back yard, Sven Nys claimed his tenth win in his namesake race by pulling away from World Champion Zdenek Stybar in the final few hundred meters of a cold, muddy contest.
On the first dreary winter day of 2011 in this tiny village northeast of Brussels, Nys rode through mud and melting snow—a leftover from the storms that turned two World Cups nearly into sled races—moving up from a poor start to take the lead on the second lap. Motivated by a boisterous and clearly partisan crowd, Nys, joined by Stybar for most of the race, powered their way around the heavy course to a finish almost a minute and a half ahead of third place finisher Niels Albert.
Early on, Lars Boom, one of only two riders ever to upend Nys on his home course in the twelve years the race has run, looked liked the biggest threat. Boom, in his last race in Belgium this season, surged away from the rest of the field during his second trip through the pits, quickly opening a gap of 10 meters. But the Dutch champion bobbled and fell awkwardly into the barriers on his way down the trickiest descent of the lap. Boom spend several seconds adjusting his bike before remounting, near the back of the field, but immediately was in trouble, looking awkward on the bike and massaging his back with one hand. He would leave the race early, telling reporters that he would go for x-rays of his tailbone.
Meanwhile, the race continued, and Stybar, who lead the race before Boom’s attack, picked up where he left off at the head of the field again. Stybar was joined in front by teammate Kevin Pauwels, but Nys was on the hunt and came past the fading Pauwels, setting up the two-man duel of the day.
During the rest of the race both would launch attacks and both would make mistakes on the difficult course, but nothing proved decisive, and the two made the trip down the final steep descent before the finish together. But near the bottom of the hill, Nys manage to slide by Stybar, passing close and slowing the Czech just a bit (see video highlights here). And as the two came around the 180-degree turn at the bottom of the hill, Nys unleashed a fierce attack with Stybar couldn’t answer, and in seconds Nys had a significant gap.
That move did prove decisive, and the elated—and mud-covered—Nys was able to roll across the line comfortably ahead of the obviously disappointed Stybar, who missed out on the chance to take his first major victory since his return to racing on at the beginning of the week.
“Maybe four or five thousand people are here for me today,” Nys told Cyclocross Magazine after the race. “It’s my hometown, and it’s really important to do a good race here. I have a lot of fans here, and I gave everything to win this race.”
The Belgian Champion—for whom today’s win was the fifth straight in Baal—said his near-perfect move near the end of the race was only part of a plan insomuch as he hoped to avoid a sprint with the dangerous Czech rider.
“Every space on the track it is possible to have a gap, because it’s so dangerous and muddy. Stybar is really dangerous to do a sprint with, and it was a really hard downhill and Stybar was doing it perfectly and I had to follow. And then I had, really, the perfect line, and that for me was a sign that I could win the race today.”
Stybar, on the other hand, said the second place finish was bittersweet.
“Mixed emotions is a very good word for this moment,” said the World Champion. “Today I felt very good, finally, and today I was really close to the win. I really thought I could win today, especially when I passed Sven in the second [pit]. But then I took a wrong line and it was just too deep, and Sven just passed before the sharp turn, and even there I knew already that I couldn’t pass him because he got maybe three or four meters, and I couldn’t pass him anymore.”
Stybar added, however, that the knee injury that sidelined him for the better part of a month continues to improve.
Three Americans also took the start, with Jonathan Page continuing to show strong form, passing a number of riders and eventually racing for a spot inside the top ten. But late in the race Page fell into one of the many frigid puddles that lined the course, and slowed by the effects of the cold.
“It was really cold,” Page told Cyclocross Magazine. “Not so much the temperature, but just ice water coming up at you the whole time. My start wasn’t terrible, I just wasn’t directly up there. Then I started coming back and coming back, close to tenth place in a big group. But that’s where I made my little mistake that turned into a huge mistake. I just clipped my hood on one of the turns with the padding and it flipped me to the ground, but I was on the ground in a big ice puddle. Basically I went the rest of the race going from cold to colder.” Page, the top American of the day, finished 14th.
While Stybar and Nys did battle at the front of the race, Page’s countrymen Brian Matter and Mark Lalonde fought a fierce duel of their own a little further back. Matter won the day, finishing 32nd, while Lalonde finished 33rd.
In the U23 race, Belgian Wietse Bosmans took the win in a sprint over compatriot Joeri Adams. Cody Kaiser was the sole American and finished in 33rd.Stay tuned for a full report. Full results and video below the photos.