Though temperatures moderated some from the unusually cold conditions that racers have had to contend with in Belgium since mid-December, heavy fog rolled in early and racers steered in and out of the trees, emerging from the mist and disappearing again as they made their way through each lap. The course, a flat, but winding affair on the grounds of what is normally a summertime family playground, mostly packed dirt mixed with long stretches of sand, alternated between sloppy, saturated beach and hard, fast track through the forest.
In the Juniors, Belgian Gianni Vermeersch took a 12 second victory over Jens Adams, while David Van Der Poel held off Diether Sweeck for the final spot on the podium.
Later in the morning, new World Champion Pawel Szczepaniak led a large field through the early laps of the Under-23 race before fading badly and finishing 25th. French rider Arnoud Jouffroy, who finished third at Worlds, took up the charge, pulling away from the field in the second half of the race to take a seven second victory over series leader Tom Meeusen. Jan Denuwelaere won a three-way sprint over Vincent Baestaens and Lubomir Petrus to take third.
In the women’s race, Marianne Vos, fresh off her second straight World Championship in Tábor, stormed back from a last-lap mechanical to take the victory over Daphny van den Brand and local favorite Sanne Cant. Vos’ last-moment win, in her first race since Worlds, was a show of force after a tough fight between four of Europe’s best women racers: Vos, van den Brand, Cant, and Sanne van Paassen.
Vos may have finished the job, but van den Brand fired the first shot, surging off the line and quickly racking up a substantial lead over van Paassen and Vos, who rode in second and third place. But by the second lap, the three Dutch riders up front had come together in a single group, working together to hold off Cant, who’s effort was boosted by a hometown crowd.
Cant trailed the three leaders by perhaps as much as 15 seconds after the first lap, but surged through some of the wettest sections of the course while the leaders bided their time, connecting with the front by the end of the lap to make it a four-woman race.
Further back, British Rider Helen Wyman connected with and then shed series leader Pavla Havlikova and Reza Hormes-Ravenstijn. After a strong start, Wyman simply couldn’t match the speed of the women at the head of the race, and rode most of the way to her fifth place finish solo, some two minutes back from the leaders.
Meanwhile, the leaders traded shots. First the three Dutchwomen tried unsuccessfully to crack the Belgian Cant, then each individually took turns venturing a few meters off the front. But nothing stuck, and with one lap to go, it looked like it would come down to a four-way sprint for the win. Van Paassen ran into trouble and fell out of the lead group, then Vos’s front shifter jammed, forcing her to pit while Cant and van den Brand headed for the finish ahead of her.
Vos managed to tap some deep reserve of strength and blasted her way back into the race, first connecting with van den Brand and Cant, and then sprinting past them in the final few hundred meters. Vos hit the finish line half a wheel ahead of van den Brand, the exertion of the race’s final few minutes showing clearly on her face. Cant, who simply couldn’t match the power of Vos and van den Brand’s final sprint, took third, with van Paassen in fourth, some thirty seconds behind the leaders.
“I wasn’t able to get away” said Vos after the race. “We all tried, and sometimes we got ten meters or something, but then we came together. In the last lap I tried another time, but it didn’t work out, then I had some problems with my gear and had to get another bike. I thought the two were gone, Daphny and Sanne, but I just tried to come back and at the finish I was able to get the wheel of Sanne.”
A seventh place finish left Havlikova with the overall lead in the GVA Trofee, two points ahead of Wyman and three ahead of van den Brand going in to the decisive round of the series in two weeks.
In the men’s race, a timely move in the final moments of the race set up Sven Nys to edge out newly minted World Champion Zdeněk Štybar for the win. The two riders shot to the front of the race during the first lap and were never seriously challenged, eventually stretching their lead to nearly a minute over third place finisher Kevin Pauwels, who himself sprinted away from Niels Albert and Sven Vanthourenhout in the final meters of the race.
Nys and Štybar grabbed a gap just as the course opened up after the first series of tight turns, powering through the wet sand on a half-frozen beach that wrapped around a small pond in the middle of the course. For a few moments, Enrico Franzoi was able to hang on to the leaders, but soon fell back into a chase group with Gerben De Knegt and his teammate Radomir Simunek.
While Nys and Štybar were pulling away from the rest of the race, disaster struck for Erwin Vervecken, who started well in fourth place, as he broke his derailleur and was forced to run the better part of a lap to reach the pits. The mechanical trouble so early in an already fast race put to rest any hope of a finish in the top-10 for the former World Champion, in his final season of competition.
Only Pauwels managed to challenge the two leaders. Pauwels, who had a slow start, was gaining ground on the pair through the first several laps, and came within just a few bike lengths of them before suddenly fading and falling back to race together with Albert.
Albert himself had to fight his way from deep in the field after a slow beginning. He hopped from group to group, eventually teaming up with Vanthourenhout and Bart Aernouts to chase the leaders. The Albert group managed to close the gap to the front to about 10 seconds before their effort fell apart. Aernouts fell off the pace first, then Vanthourenhout, while Pauwels and Albert joined forces but continued to lose ground.
While the chase group behind them evolved through its several incarnations, Nys and Štybar continued steadily on. Nys claimed a three point bonus by winning a second-lap sprint, then, several laps later, Nys capitalized on a bobble in the sand by Štybar, opening a quick, but sizable gap. But Nys was forced to slow through a technical series of turns on the back half of the course, and by the end of the lap the two were back together.
“In the first half I was really suffering,” said Štybar. “I couldn’t really find my rhythm, and one time I made a mistake in the sand, and at that moment Sven was quite far away. But then I could close the gap and from that moment, I got a better feeling. In the second half I think I was on the same level.”
From the midpoint of the ten-lap race, Nys and Štybar, apparently gaining enough ground every lap to feel like at least second place was locked up, simply rode together. Nys, who looked uncharacteristically off balance at the World Championships last week, was back to his typically graceful style, looking relaxed and confident, while Štybar seemed to push his bike harder, bobbing and moving, appearing more aggressive, if no faster, than Nys.
But Nys won the tactical battle, backing off just enough in the final few turns to force Štybar to the front as the two approached the finish. Forced into leading out the sprint, Štybar could not hold off Nys, who came around him just as the two reached the finish line. Behind them, Pauwels pulled away from a disappointed Albert in the final hundred meters of the race to take the last spot on the podium, distancing Sven Vanthourenhout—who had reconnected with them in the final laps—in the process.
Despite the convincing victory, Nys told reporters afterwards that he was not feeling his best going into the race. “My head is clogged,” he said, “but not my legs.” Nys said he was forced to resort to an antibiotic for the first time in two years. “If you can win one of the big competitions, it’s worth the risk,” he said.
Nys added that he felt that both he and Štybar lacked the finishing punch they may have had before all of the trials of the season. “That was a typical late-season sprint,” he said, “but I felt like I was slightly better than Štybar. I felt the whole race like I might be a little better, but I couldn’t shake Zdeněk.”
Nys’ win and the bonus points he picked up in the intermediate sprint give him an all but insurmountable 14-point lead in the overall GVA Trofee standings, while Štybar’s second place leaves him tied for second with Albert. Kevin Pauwels and Bart Aernouts, holding fourth and fifth, are some fifty points down from third.
For Nys, abandons in both the first round of the World Cup in Treviso and the Diegem Superprestige in January all but wiped out any hope of overall victories in those series. The GVA Trofee remains the sole possibility for a major series victory this season for the man who has dominated all three of cyclocross’s biggest prizes in recent years.
After the race there were special honors for Vervecken, who grew up in Lille. Vervecken told fans that he tried his best to make a race of it, but the early mechanical left him impossibly far behind. He thanked the local fans for an outpouring of support at his final appearance in his boyhood home. “Everybody was here,” he said. “And not just my fans, but people who would otherwise never come to a ‘cross. I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Check cxmagazine.com for more soon, including full results and photos.