Loenhout, Belgium – On a cold and dreary day—though one made warmer by a crowd still feeling the holiday spirit—two riders bounced back from disappointing weekends to take victories on the famous whoop-dees of Azencross. In the women’s race, Daphny Van Den Brand attacked out of a group that also included her countrywomen Marianne Vos and Sanne Van Paassen to take a dominant 25 second win. In the men’s race, Sven Nys recovered from two falls to ride away from Niels Albert and Zdeněk Štybar in the final lap, pulling within five points of Albert in the overall GVA Series standings.
Van Den Brand’s win today came on a course that was almost the polar opposite of the steep, difficult slopes in Namur, where she took her first GVA win of the season. If the only similarity between conditions here and in Namur was the thick, heavy mud that covered parts of the track today, the differences were plenty. Today’s race, held just a few kilometers south of the Dutch border, was almost perfectly flat; the only changes in elevation were man-made: several bridges, a few small earthen mounds—steep, but just meters high—and a long section of BMX-style washboard. Otherwise the track was either road, as the course wound its way through the streets on the outskirts of Loenhout, or one of several muddy fields just outside of town.
It was British rider Helen Wyman who took the early lead, setting a hard tempo that broke the race apart early in the first lap just as a light rain began to fall on the race. With Wyman were Van Den Brand, Vos, and Van Paassen, while behind her Sanne Cant and Linda Van Rijen led a large, strung out chase group. But Wyman’s early tempo may have been too much; and by the second of five laps, she had popped off the front and rode together with Cant and Van Rijen, while the three in front traded shots.
Van Den Brand, though she bobbled several times in the thick, rutted mud, appeared throughout the race to be the strongest of the three, and, in the middle of the third lap, she decided to try her luck alone. Van Den Brand attacked and, within seconds, had opened a significant gap that continued to grow throughout the race.
Behind her, Vos apparently decided that Van Paassen was not strong enough to bring back Van Den Brand, and went after Van Den Brand on her own as the pair came through the washboard section of the course. Vos, riding in shorts and short sleeves on a cold, damp day, quickly gapped Van Paassen, but made no progress at all on Van Den Brand. By the final lap it was clear that Vos couldn’t catch the pigtailed powerhouse Van Den Brand, and, in turn, that Van Paassen couldn’t match the two women who led her around the track.
The real race was for fourth place, where Sanne Cant and Helen Wyman battled throughout the race before Cant made the decisive move, to the delight of the Belgian fans who cheered her, gaining a gap of 10 seconds that stuck until the finish. GVA Series leader Pavla Havlikova, who took a strong second place finish in Namur and capitalized to win Koppenbergcross when Vos flatted twice, battled back from relatively deep in the field to take seventh behind Van Rijen, good enough to maintain a four point lead over Wyman, who is second in the series.
Christine Vardaros, the only American in the field today, started very strong before fading slightly in an unusually large women’s field. Vardaros overcame a painful rib injury, sustained in a crash at the World Cup in Zolder, to place 34th.
Van Den Brand pointed to race conditions that suit her skills as a big reason for the win. “The weather today was really nice,” she told reporters after the race. “The last few days were a lot worse. The cold last week was a little too much and I had to train on the rollers. We also had a course that was really good for me today. I was able to open a big gap quickly, but I made some mistakes, so Marianne could have come back.”
Van Den Brand, who had to skip the second round of the women’s GVA Trofee, the Koppenbergcross, added that she thought she was back in the running. “I hadn’t expected this, but with today’s win, I’m back in the picture for the Trofee,” the Dutch Champion told reporters. “If I can keep my form at this level, I can go into the World Championships with some confidence.”
The men’s race treated fans to another battle between the three dominant riders of the season, Nys, Albert, and Štybar, though, at the start, such a showdown may not have appeared likely. Nys, under pressure after a difficult weekend following a hard fall in Zolder and a derailleur destroyed by the mud in Diegem, shot off the line right from the gun, but couldn’t match the early speed of Italian Champion Enrico Franzoi, who led through the first turn.
Frazoi’s moment at the front was short lived, as Štybar came around him in the rutted mud just off of the road and quickly gained a gap on the field. First he was trailed by Gerben De Knegt, but De Knegt couldn’t stay with the Czech Champion, and, by the end of the first lap, Štybar led the field, alone by seven seconds.
At the front of the chase group, Niels Albert took a bad line in the deep mud, falling into the barriers to his right. While Albert wrestled to right himself, Nys, who had trailed him by only a few meters, crashed into his rear wheel. In the time it took for the two to sort themselves out, both were deep in the field and would be forced to spend the next lap picking their way back to the front of the race.
By the beginning of the third trip around the course, Nys and Albert had joined Štybar at the front, leaving behind Albert’s teammate Dieter Vanthourenhout, who led the field in the chase. Just after Vanthourenhout set out alone to bridge to the leaders, Nys, in third, crashed as he came into one of several slippery bridges on the course. Nys jumped up, running with his bike while Vanthourenhout reached him, and the two rode together and connected with the leaders by the fourth lap.
Vanthourenhout could only match the leaders for a few moments before he came off the back of their group, eventually being passed by Gerben De Knegt, who also escaped from the chase group on the fourth lap. Vanthourenhout was swallowed by a bunch led by Rob Peeters, Franzoi, and Bart Wellens only moments later.
Nys, who’s handling in the difficult mud surpassed both Albert and Štybar, made several attempts to power away from the two, but nothing stuck, and each time he went, the group converged again a few moments later. Finally, on the last lap, Štybar made a mistake in the mud, putting a foot down and slowing significantly. The bobble allowed Nys and Albert to gain a gap of perhaps 30 meters. Štybar chased as hard as he could, but couldn’t close the distance and dangled behind the two others for the rest of the race.
Nys, meanwhile, driven to win today, made his move as the two crossed a flat, grassy stretch in the middle of the lap. He passed Albert, who had to come off his bike on a short but very muddy rise, and after that could not close the gap to Nys again. Nys hit the line looking almost relieved, perhaps feeling the trouble of the long weekend was finally behind him, with Albert eight seconds behind. Štybar claimed third, 17 seconds behind Nys and more than a minute in front of De Knegt, who was fourth. Peeters outsprinted Vanthourenhout and Wellens to take fifth. View the final lap video from Azencross.
Jamey Driscoll led the American finishers crossing the line in 22nd, just over four minutes off the lead. Troy Wells, about two minutes behind Driscoll, was 30th. Brian Matter and Justin Lindine finished 43rd and 49th respectively. Jeremy Powers, who also took the start today, was among the twelve riders who did not finish the race. Jonthan Page, normally a fixture on the European racing scene, took a rare day off. Page returns to action in Luxembourg on January 1, while many of his compatriots will continue with the Sylvestercyclocross in Bredene tomorrow.
Nys said that, after a rough weekend, he felt back to his old self, in spite of the trouble he had in the early laps. ““In the beginning I had a good start,” he told Cyclocross Magazine, “but Niels crashed and I was right behind him and couldn’t go around. That was a problem for the sprint, for three [GVA Trofee] points, and then I crashed again. But I felt I could win the race because I had strong legs. So I tried to close the gap and see what I could do in the last laps, and it worked. I knew that if I stayed in the front in the technical zone, where Niels had to go off his bike, I could win the race.”
Nys, who told us after his crash in Zolder that he was afraid he had injured his knee, said he was feeling much better today, and that he tried not to let the weekend’s disasters get him down. “I knew it was not my condition,” he said, “just bad luck. I had some crashes and some problems with my back. After that you have to take care of yourself, go to the physical therapist, and that worked. I had 24 hours to recuperate from all the stuff I did, and it helped. And today I was really strong—I felt as strong as in Kalmthout, so I’m happy with this victory.”
If Nys was back to a more relaxed version of himself, Albert leaned more to the slightly disgruntled rider we saw after a series of second, third and fourth place finishes that dogged him in late October and early November. Albert was especially miffed at Gerben De Knegt, who popped out of a bunch Albert had been leading to claim a GVA Trofee point in a sprint bonus at the end of the second lap. During the race, Albert responded by giving De Knegt the finger, and he continued to complain about the Dutch rider’s move after the race. “[The gesture] was pure frustration,” said Albert. “I worked hard to bring back Štybar and to attack in the last 20 meters is poaching. I don’t understand.”
But Albert did accept responsibility for the bobble that cost him the race. “I made a small mistake on that slope and it was over,” he said.
Despite his third place finish and the fact that he appeared to be suffering a little more than usual today, Štybar told reporters he felt like he was in the middle of one of his best seasons ever. ”I felt good,” he said. “But [at the end] I made a mistake and got gapped by a few meters and that was the moment of the race. I couldn’t close anymore because it’s always quite fast in the last lap, it was really muddy, technical, and really every second counted, especially in the last lap.”
Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com’s Jamey Driscoll, who’s 22nd place finish was the second best of his European campaign this season, said the race was an especially hard one. “It separated the strongest real quick,” the Vermont native told Cyclocross Magazine after finishing his race. “You had to handle your bike, but a lot of it was pedaling. The front group had a big gap really fast, and I don’t know if I could have been up there.”
But he also told us that he was happy with how things have been going so far in Belgium, adding that the transition to European racing can be a difficult one. “I think these guys are really good, especially in the conditions that they’re used to,” he said. “It’s always humbling when I come over here. But getting some decent rides—like I have been—is comforting as well.”
Brian Matter (Gear Grinder) said that a couple of early mistakes cost him a lot of time, though the later part of the race went well. “I was a little tentative on the start,” he said when we checked in the evening after the race. “I knew it was going to be a long hard race and I was having some issues with wet brake pads and carbon rims. After I made it into the dirt I started going but instantly realized I had too much tire pressure.”
With the help of the Euro ‘Cross Camp mechanics, Matter was able to fix the problems with his tire pressure, and began to move back up through the field. “I feel like I botched the first three laps,” he told us, “but after that I started going pretty good. I must have passed 15 or 20 guys.”
Matter said that, overall, his second trip to Belgium is going well, but that it has been challenging. In 2008-09, an unusual cold snap in December, and another one in January, meant many races were contested on frozen courses in snowy or icy conditions. This year, after the blizzard in Kalmthout, mud has been the dominant feature of most races.
“I was really happy with my results on the ice,” said Matter. “It is probably more similar to the mountain bike racing I do in the midwest. But I’m not afraid of the mud and had some good results in the mud back home at Jingle Cross and the North Carolina GP.”
Mud, he continued, adds an extra dimension to the race, but also changes the post-race routine as well. “The mud is harder on the equipment and makes for a lot more work after the race with bikes and the laundry,” Matter explained, concluding, “It is what it is—and I’m here to race.”
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