Koksijde, Belgium – Saturday brought classic weather — sun, clouds, rain and sun again — to the Belgian coast as the UCI World Cup made the first of three visits to the heartland of ‘cross. It was a rare race where course conditions may have benefited from some wet weather, as the rain helped pack the shifting sand of the dunes that comprise the majority of the track.
The day saw Americans contest every race, with Kansas City standout Chris Wallace in the Juniors race, 2008 Junior National Champion Zach McDonald making his first start in the Under-23 field and Katie Compton, defending her World Cup leader’s jersey, along with Christine Vardaros in the Women’s. Jonathan Page looked to jump start his season in the Men’s race on the site of his near-calamitous missed doping control in 2008.
Vos, Van Den Brand Hold Off Compton’s Late Charge
The skies brightened for the women’s race, the rain that lashed the dunes during the early races tapered off, and the sun shone briefly. A quartet of riders—a who’s who of the women’s ‘cross world including World Champion Marianne Vos, Dutch Champion Daphny van den Brand, German Champion Hanka Kupfernagel and Sanne van Paassen—emerged at the front of the race after a crash by Sanne Cant just as the race left the pavement.
In the early confusion, Katie Compton (Planet Bike) collided with Pavla Havlikova and broke several spokes on her front wheel. With the first trip through the pits relatively early in the lap, Compton was able to make a quick bike change without losing too much time, but not fast enough to make the early selection.
While Compton was chasing, Kupfernagel was on the attack. Midway through the lap she led by nearly 20 meters, but Vos, van den Brand, and van Paassen would not let her go. The group reconverged, and worked together, trying to put as much distance between them and the World Cup leader.
Compton’s fortunes were slow to change. As the lap progressed she was in and out of contact with the second chase group, but she rode perhaps too aggressively in her attempt to close the gap. At one point she went over the bars and into the course barrier in the sand and, later, hit the steep flyover in the wrong gear and was forced to run. But after a lap Compton appeared to collect herself and began to methodically work her way up, coming through a chase group that included Havlikova, Christel Ferrier-Bruneau and Helen Wyman on her way back to the front.
At the same time, Kupfernagel launched another attack. This time only Vos and van den Brand could respond: van Paassen dangled, then began to fade. Kupfernagel’s move cost her and, by the end of the second lap, she was fading while Compton, who had just come around van Paassen, was closing in on third.
One tricky bit of bike handling as the World’s runners-up exited the sand put Compton onto the virtual podium. But up front, Vos and Van Den Brand were working together to fend off the U.S. Champion. Taking turns at the lead, the two worked until they made the left turn onto the final stretch of road and it was clear that Compton’s surge would be just a little too late.
With a very long stretch of of perfectly flat road to work with, Vos showed off the skills that have brought her Olympic Gold on the track and rainbow stripes on the road, pulling away from van den Brand to take the victory. Compton rolled across comfortably in third, looking relieved to have recovered a podium finish after her early, near-disastrous struggles. Kupfernagel and van Paassen held on to fourth and fifth, respectively.
Vos, who excels on harder, faster courses, told reporters after the race that she didn’t think she had the legs to beat van den Brand in the sand, but took every advantage she could find. “I had a hard time keeping up with Daphny riding up the dunes,” she said, “but my longer legs gave me an edge running in the sand.” And despite her top-notch credentials in the sprint, Vos said she was just riding as well as she could and didn’t really have a plan for the endgame. “I wasn’t riding to make it a sprint, but of course I know it’s a weapon for me.”
Compton blamed her early struggles on a combination of bad luck and difficulty finding her rhythm. “It’s weird because I was stuck in traffic and I needed to just relax and ride,” she said. “But when you hit that stuff slower than you’re used to riding it balls up your timing, and so my timing was off on everything. And it just kind of snowballed from bad to worse.” But later in the race, Compton smoothed out and realized she still had a shot at the podium. “I was chasing Sanne van Paassen and then Hanka for the last two laps to go, and I finally caught those girls. I was just fighting for the podium at that point.”
In the end, Compton’s self-assessment was characteristically frank, “I was pretty happy I had the podium considering I sucked so badly on the first lap.”
Štybar Edges Nys Again
The men’s race featured a bevy of competing story lines, as World Champion and World Cup leader Niels Albert looked to rebound from a weekend that found him off the podium for the first time this season. Sven Nys continued to hunt for a victory in a World Cup while Zdeněk Štybar tried to continue his success from last weekend and make it a three-peat.
The race also featured the return of Bart Wellens to competition after a serious illness forced him to skip the first three months of the season. At the same time, Jonathan Page (Planet Bike) was looking to finally find his legs on the course where, last year, he suffered a concussion after a serious crash that eventually led to the missed doping control that derailed his 2008-09 campaign.
Early in the first lap, French Champion Francis Mourey shot to the front of the race, setting a ferocious pace that strung the field into a thin line. Behind Mourey, the masters of the ‘cross universe assembled: Gerben De Knegt, Nys, Štybar, Klaas Vantornout and Bart Aernouts all stuck close to his wheel, while Niels Albert worked his way through the group after a slow start.
Though the leaders made it through the first lap of Koksijde’s infamous dunes with relatively little trouble, deeper in the field the sandy course played havoc. Repeatedly racers bobbled, setting off chain-reaction accidents behind them, one of which caught Page, who went down at the top of a steep u-turn built into the side of a dune.
By the middle of the second lap, Mourey faded to fourth and Nys and Štybar found themselves with a bit of a gap over the rest of the field. The two racers briefly spoke, apparently discussing whether to try for a decisive move early in the race. But the gap didn’t hold for long. Soon a group of seven or eight strong came together at the front, now including Albert, who had shown himself to be very dangerous at the front of World Cup races earlier this season.
With Štybar’s attempt at teamwork unsuccessful, the Czech Champion decided to give it a go himself, surging as the race approached the end of three laps, riding on the strength of his superior bike handling in the dunes. The Belgian fans have embraced the congenial Štybar, perhaps more than even their home grown World Champion Albert, and he was buoyed by the supportive crowd as he pedaled away from the others. But the Belgian fans clearly still hold one rider in highest regard, and huge cheers greeted Nys as he led the effort to bring back the Czech rider.
The next several laps saw the group, now down to Štybar, Nys, Vantornout, Mourey, Albert, Sven Vanthourenhout, Erwin Vervecken and the Dutch duo of Bart Aernouts and De Knegt, stretch, snap and recombine as each man took a shot at the front. Throughout, Štybar seemed to be able to handle the sand better than any of the leaders, while Nys uncharacteristically bobbled repeatedly.
As the race reached three laps to go, Albert and Štybar found themselves alone, nearly 10 seconds ahead of the nearest chaser. But the pair simply couldn’t match the hard-charging Nys, who brought things back together in the sand part way through the next lap. Nys’ effort, however, cracked several of the chasers, and Vervecken and Vanthourenhout slipped out of the group while De Knegt and Aernouts dangled just behind the leaders.
With one lap to go, the leaders slowed just a bit, allowing the two Dutch riders a chance to rejoin. Aernouts was quick to capitalize, charging off the front while the other leaders sat up, riding tactically and waiting to see who would go. Aernouts’ attack was short-lived, but it set up perhaps the decisive moment of the race. As soon as the race came back together, Štybar came to the front and hit the gas in the sand, again capitalizing on his handling, pedaling through sand that forced everyone else off their bikes. Štybar and Nys, with Vantornout just behind, surged away from Albert, and the World Champion was forced to chase to avoid a repeat of last week’s race in Hamme-Zogge where he finished well off the lead group.
Albert tore through the dunes, making a few nifty moves of his own now, and came into view just behind the leaders as they rounded the bend onto the final straightaway. Štybar, isolated in front, slowed the pace and looked back, allowing Albert to latch on to the leaders. Albert made a move on the inside and, simultaneously, Štybar took off on his own. Nys responded one critical second later.
The effort of the late chase may have been too much for Albert, who popped and watched any hope of a finish on the podium slip away. But Nys was closing the gap, running up close on Štybar’s right. The two hit the line just half a wheel apart, Štybar taking the victory with Klaas Vantornout just behind them. Albert finished fourth, and Mourey rounded out the top five. Wellens also rode well in his first effort of the season, crossing the line in 13th.
Jonathan Page’s terrible luck continued and, despite taking advantage of good legs and great handling in the sand to almost claw his way back into contention, the American flatted twice and eventually finished 27th. After his early fall in the sand, Page told Cyclocross Magazine he refocused himself quickly. “I tried to be patient and make my way back up, which I did for a while, and then I got the first flat tire,” he said. “So I went back again and came to the spot I had been in. I moved up and moved up, but I just never caught a break.”
Despite some recent races he might prefer to forget, Page said that he feels like his form is coming along and is just waiting for his luck to change a bit. “Actually, I felt really good today and, ok, it’s easy to say, ‘Yeah I feel really good.’ With a clean race I would have been good, but I didn’t have a clean race.”
After the race Nys said that he rode the best race he could, but that his sprint just wasn’t quite enough for the win. “It was just like last week and my sprint was a little bit better than last week,” he told Cyclocross Magazine. “The only problem is that Štybar is a little bit stronger in sprints—not in the race, I think, I’m doing everything perfect there, but when it’s a sprint like this, it’s difficult to win over Štybar.” Nys said that he continues to feel good, but just hasn’t had the extra edge he needs to take a victory in a few weeks. “My feeling is good,” he told us. “I race every weekend for the victory, but I am still getting second. It’s not bad, but it’s just that little bit more extra—maybe tomorrow.”
Nys also speculated that some of his difficulty in the sand was the result of running higher tire pressure to help in both the sprint and on the course’s several extended flat stretches. “I took some risk with the tires,” he said. “I added a little more pressure on the tires for the fast parts of the laps, but in the sand that’s a problem.”
If Nys was relatively content, even in defeat, Albert let some of his recent frustration show as his results have declined over the past couple of weeks. “I’m not in good shape for the moment,” he said. “My condition is not very bad, but not very good either. So for me it’s just the beginning of a little bit tougher moment and we will see what comes next.” Nonetheless, Albert said that despite the recent speed bump in his season, he remained confident. “I think I started the season very hard,” he explained. “Six or seven weeks ago I was, I think, the best man of the season. And now I think I’m a little bit in bad shape. But for me it’s no problem. We’ll see what happens in the next part of the season, and for me it’s important that I’m good for championships, and we will see what those bring.”
Štybar said that he wanted to attack the race earlier, but didn’t have the legs to ride away from the others in the front of the race. And despite Nys’ praise for his strong kick, Štybar himself was not all that confident at the end of the race. “I came first onto the road, and I was nervous because there were five for the sprint, which is not easy,” the Czech champion told us. “I started first, but it’s a long road and and my shifting wasn’t working. My 12 [toothed-cog] didn’t work and I had to go back to the 13.”
He also said that he felt good coming into the race, but that he was uncertain of whether he could claim victory on such a technical course. “Yesterday I felt really good, I said, ‘tomorrow I will try to make a good race. But everybody knows that I am not really a sand specialist,” he told us. “With the rain it was less technical, but not too much less. So I am really happy.” Štybar said he felt lifted by his recent breakthrough success, “You know that if you win one race then you break some border and you know that you can do it. And then you are more confident in yourself and then you can go further and further. It could be my last win this year—I wish not, but it could happen, so I am happy of course that today goes like it goes.”
Video highlights of the Junior, U23 and Women’s races:
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