Tim Johnson looks happy with his first European effort this season. © Bart Hazen

Tim Johnson looks happy with his first European effort this season. © Bart Hazen

by Dan Seaton

Hoogerheide, Belgium – Niels Albert, whose season appeared to be in shambles after several recent missteps and one hard fall in the Belgian Championships, roared back to life today with a comeback win in the final World Cup race of the season, just a week before the World Championships. Albert, who told reporters after the race he felt rejuvenated after a week of training in Spain, battled through the pain of a broken rib, sustained in that fall during the Belgian Championships, to stamp an exclamation point on a season that began with a blowout win in the warm, dusty fields of Treviso, Italy, and ended under drizzle and heavy clouds in the muddy fields of Hoogerheide.

If Albert’s victory was one of his most impressive of the season, his start was one of the worst. By the time the race turned from the pavement onto the dirt, the World Champion found himself deep in the field, riding behind the United States’ Tim Johnson around 30th place. While Albert steered through the crowds in the back of the pack, Belgians Erwin Vervecken and Sven Nys, and Dutch rider Thijs Van Amerongen set a blistering pace through the mud, trailed closely by a large group that included Kevin Pauwels, Klaas Vantornout, Gerben De Knegt, American Jonathan Page and series leader Zdeněk Štybar.

The course, though sloppy and slick throughout, remained fast, quite the opposite of last weekend’s slog through the heavy mud in Roubaix, with average speeds approaching 25 km/hr. A number of racers traded the lead through the second lap, including Page (with perhaps his hottest start of the season), Pauwels, Nys and others.

Albert corners hard to keep Nys at bay. © Bart Hazen

Albert corners hard to keep Nys at bay. © Bart Hazen

By the end of the third lap, Albert had reached the group at the front of the race, finally coming to the front when Štybar slowed and waved him up into the lead group as the race came along the road leading to the finish. But Albert didn’t wait long before making his move; he dropped the hammer during the next round, breaking up the race further back. For a moment it appeared the race would feature a battle between the three men who have dominated international competition all year, Nys, Albert and Štybar. But Nys popped around the half-way point of the race, first just coming off of Albert’s wheel, then fading dramatically to as far back as eighth place.

Nys would never recover or reconnect with the head of the race, and he eventually finished fifth, his worst World Cup finish of the season.

In front, Štybar, Albert and Pauwels were in a dogfight, attacking one another repeatedly, but to no avail, until Štybar made an error on a slippery turn, allowing Albert to go clear and putting the Czech rider on the spot, forcing him to chase the leader or risk losing his first place standing overall. Then, with three laps to go, Pauwels fell hard and found himself chasing the other two, trailing Albert by over ten seconds.

While Pauwels tried to minimize the damage from his fall, Klaas Vantornout broke free of the chase, which now included Nys, De Knegt, Vervecken and Page, all of whom had slowed somewhat after the fast start. Vantornout would not reach the leaders, but the chase never touched him, and the Sunweb rider would end up fourth on the day, good enough for fourth overall in the World Cup standings.

With a single lap to go, Štybar and Albert rode together with Pauwels just behind them, but a minor bobble by the Czech rider was all it took to give Albert enough distance to take the win alone.  Just a handful of seconds behind him, Štybar rolled over the line just ahead of Pauwels, taking a second place finish and locking up the World Cup points standings as well.

After the race, Štybar thanked his teammate Pauwels for his help in securing the white leader’s jersey for a final time. “It was a tough race,” he told reporters afterwards. “Niels was very strong: a night-and-day difference from last week. I didn’t feel well today and made a number of mistakes. Fortunately Kevin was there. I must thank him for all of his help. I told him I definitely had to be second—he’s earned a bottle of champagne.”

Nys told reporters that he was simply tired after racing yesterday as well. “There was nothing wrong,” said the Belgian Champion, “Niels just went too fast. My legs were fatigued and I rode into the red. I couldn’t maintain the pace.”

Albert said that he saw the win as vindication, especially after a difficult and disappointing month on January.  “If you know how I’ve lost the World Cup,” Albert told reporters, referring to the broken ribs he sustained at the Belgian Championship, “it’s very unfortunate. But I’m glad I feel good enough to hold on today.”

The season’s top riders also took time to do a little Worlds handicapping after today’s race. Štybar gave Nys the nod, telling reporters that he considers him the favorite for Tabor. “Nys is the main favorite for me there,” said the Czech racer. “He drives the best on ice.”

Nys, on the other hand, pointed to Albert as a top threat. “It’s clear that Albert is also a favorite in Tabor,” he told reporters. “He’s very strong, but I hope I will play a role. It will be an exciting championship.”

Jonathan Page, meanwhile, the top American finisher, matched his World Cup best with an eighth place result. Page told Cyclocross Magazine in a live internet chat that he didn’t have a magical race, but was happy to find himself feeling strong one week before Worlds. “It was good,” he said. “I didn’t have any major problems, but I definitely had to dig deep. There were some sections where I wasn’t the best and others where I could gain time and relax somewhat.”

Page added that he was excited about his chances in Tabor. “I’ve been training the whole season for these two weeks,” he said. “People think I’m full of it sometimes, but this is my focus.”

Other Americans racing included National Champion Tim Johnson in 32nd, Jamey Driscoll in 40th and Jeremy Powers in 51st. Ryan Trebon and Troy Wells also took the start but were unable to finish the race.

Full Results

Rank Name Nat. Age* Result PaR PcR
1 Niels ALBERT BEL 24 1:02:37 300 300
2 Zdenek STYBAR CZE 25 1:02:44 260 260
3 Kevin PAUWELS BEL 26 1:02:44 220 220
4 Klaas VANTORNOUT BEL 28 1:03:19 190 190
5 Sven NYS BEL 34 1:03:26 170 170
6 Erwin VERVECKEN BEL 38 1:03:29 150 150
7 Gerben DE KNEGT NED 35 1:03:32 140 140
8 Jonathan PAGE USA 34 1:03:43 130 130
9 Bart AERNOUTS BEL 28 1:03:59 120 120
10 Radomir SIMUNEK CZE 27 1:04:06 110 110
11 Sven VANTHOURENHOUT BEL 29 1:04:07 100 100
12 Martin ZLAMALIK CZE 28 1:04:08 90 90
13 Dieter VANTHOURENHOUT BEL 25 1:04:09 80 80
14 Christian HEULE SUI 35 1:04:11 75 75
15 Petr DLASK CZE 34 1:04:12 70 70
16 Nicolas BAZIN FRA 27 1:04:24 65 65
17 Francis MOUREY FRA 30 1:04:37 60 60
18 Enrico FRANZOI ITA 28 1:04:46 57 57
19 John GADRET FRA 31 1:04:51 54 54
20 Lukas FLÜCKIGER SUI 26 1:04:59 51 51
21 Thijs VAN AMERONGEN NED 24 1:05:05 48 48
22 Marco Aurelio FONTANA ITA 26 1:05:18 46 46
23 Bart WELLENS BEL 32 1:05:37 44 44
24 Martin BINA CZE 27 1:05:47 42 42
25 Steve CHAINEL FRA 27 1:06:08 40 40
26 Thijs AL NED 30 1:06:17 38 38
27 Wilant VAN GILS NED 31 1:06:23 36 36
28 Marco BIANCO ITA 28 1:06:29 34 34
29 Marcel WILDHABER SUI 25 1:06:30 32 32
30 Mariusz GIL POL 27 1:06:30 30 30
31 Jérome CHEVALLIER FRA 36 1:06:34 29 29
32 Timothy JOHNSON USA 33 1:06:36 28 28
33 David DEREPAS FRA 32 1:06:37 27 27
34 Laurent COLOMBATTO FRA 32 1:06:41 26 26
35 Magnus DARVELL SWE 28 1:06:46 25 25
36 Christoph PFINGSTEN GER 23 1:06:56 24 24
37 Jean-Pierre DRUCKER LUX 24 1:07:11 23 23
38 Kamil AUSBUHER CZE 35 1:07:15 22 22
39 Bram SCHMITZ NED 33 1:07:16 21 21
40 James DRISCOLL USA 24 1:07:16 20 20
41 Fabio URSI ITA 24 1:07:26 19 19
42 Luca DAMIANI ITA 26 1:07:34 18 18
43 Joachim PARBO DEN 36 1:07:42 17 17
44 Patrick VAN LEEUWEN NED 25 1:07:46 16 16
45 Jody CRAWFORTH GBR 30 1:07:49 15 15
46 Johannes SICKMUELLER GER 28 1:07:54 14 14
47 Keiichi TSUJIURA JPN 30 1:08:12 13 13
48 Ian FIELD GBR 24 1:08:28 12 12
49 Paul OLDHAM GBR 33 1:08:32 11 11
50 Ivar HARTOGS NED 23 1:09:06 10 10
51 Jeremy POWERS USA 27 1:09:15 5 5
52 Eddy VAN IJZENDOORN NED 25 1:09:25 5 5
53 René LANG SUI 24 1:09:55 5 5
54 Andreas MOSER SUI 26 1:10:07 5 5
55 Mike GARRIGAN CAN 29 5 5
56 Gusty BAUSCH LUX 30 5 5
57 Peter PRESSLAUER AUT 32 5 5
58 Erik BOX CAN 26 5 5
59 Ariunbold NARANBAT MGL 30 5 5
60 Boldbaatar BOLD-ERDENE MGL 27 5 5

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