Marianne Vos wins the Azencross in Loenhout in a sprint from Kupfernagel and van den Brand © Bart Hazen

Marianne Vos wins the Azencross in Loenhout in a sprint from Kupfernagel and van den Brand © Bart Hazen

by Dan Seaton

LOENHOUT, BELGIUM – Though it might have been a gloomy, winter day, the stars of cyclocross shone brightly on the 27th edition of Azencross, delivering – almost – two down-to-the-wire duels to the huge crowds that waded through the snow and mud here in northern Belgium. In the women’s race, world champion Marianne Vos came from behind to take a dramatic sprint finish over Hanka Kupfernagel, while in the men’s race the drama was derailed by a last lap mistake in the pits by Sven Nys.

Vos Outduels Kupfernagel, Van Den Brand for First Win

Vos, whose return to the top of the sport after time spent training for a defense of her Olympic gold on the track, has given her three second-place finishes, but no wins, finally managed to claim a victory.  Vos’ second row start cost her little, and the world champion quickly found herself near the front of the bunch, but British champion Helen Wyman fell into her as the race left the road and plunged into a difficult stretch of half-frozen mud. Though Vos remained upright, the fall cost her several seconds, allowing Kupfernagel to go clear before she herself fell coming off one of the small, man-made hills on the course.

Daphny van den Brand leads Sanne Cant and Sanne van Paassen © Bart Hazen

Daphny van den Brand leads Sanne Cant and Sanne van Paassen © Bart Hazen

Belgian champion Sanne Cant was the next to take the lead, Dutch champion Daphny van den Brand behind her. But by the end of the lap, Vos had connected with the front of the race, and five women – Kupfernagel, Vos, van den Brand, Cant, and series leader Sanne van Paassen battled the heavy course together.

Many racers struggled on the mostly flat track, as the heavy snows that fell during the past two weeks began to melt and the ground to thaw, creating a perfect blend of wheel-sucking muddy slush in several places that only a few women managed to ride cleanly.

Of the front five, Cant bobbled and fell out of contention first, but managed to pass van Paassen when she slowed. But the race remained between the three former (and the reigning) world champions, who made their way around the final lap together. Several times Kupfernagel, who controlled the pace for much of the last lap, attempted to drop the other two, but each time Vos matched her, pulling the powerful German rider back. Kupfernagel’s punches did just enough to break van den Brand, still recovering from illness that sidelined her in Kalmthout. Van Den Brand trailed the two leaders by a few meters as they made the final turn onto the road, and was forced to settle for third.

Hanka Kupfernagel holds off van den Brand © Bart Hazen

Hanka Kupfernagel holds off van den Brand © Bart Hazen

Kupfernagel, meanwhile, did her best to fight off Vos; the two charged through the final 200 meters, heads down, sprinting at full speed. But very few racers could fend off an Olympic gold medalist and world champion on the track in a sprint, and Vos managed to come around in the last 25 meters to take the victory. Sanne Cant and Sanne van Paassen rounded out the top five.

“Of course in the end the speed and my sprint were decisive for the win,” said Vos, whose devastating sprint was too much for the powerful Kupfernagel. “But I struggled a lot in the first few laps to stay on the wheels of Hanka, Sanne, Daphny and the other Sanne. In the end it got better and better, and I got more confident on my bike. I had some changes, I changed three times, and in the end, at the last lap, it was good just in time.”

Kupfernagel, who skipped the World Cup race in Zolder following a hard fall during training, said she felt good today. “It’s a nice feeling to have good legs again,” she said. “I still have some problems [from Zolder] with the technical, in the deep mud. But during the race you have enough adrenaline [to keep going].”

While the Europeans fought for the podium, three American women were battling for spots inside the top 10. Sue Butler spent the early part of the day in a race with the Netherlands’ Sophie De Boer for 10th place, but fell back, finishing 11th, while Maureen Bruno Roy finished just behind her in 13th place.

Sue Butler had a strong ride on her way to 11th © Bart Hazen

Sue Butler had a strong ride on her way to 11th © Bart Hazen

“It was good. It was a typical European crazy start,” said Butler, muddy at the finish for the fist time in an otherwise snowy trip to Europe. “We got to the mud, and of course people were going down in the corners and finally I had to get off my bike and just run, which I hate doing. But it turned out that it was faster to run. I probably should’ve run more, but I’m one of those people who knows I can ride it, and it was good practice.”

Mo Bruno Roy shows the effort © Bart Hazen

Mo Bruno Roy shows the effort © Bart Hazen

Bruno Roy said she was satisfied with the day’s efforts on a tough, heavy course, especially after a dry racing season at home in the US.  “Today was ok,” she told Cyclocross Magazine. “Today I kind of felt like I had one speed. I didn’t feel really snappy, and it was very flat today. It definitely took a lot of power, and I was feeling just a little bit flat. I was holding my position, but I wasn’t really challenging for the next few spots. I really just stayed where I was today, and felt pretty consistent, but not really punchy yet.”

Fellow American Christine Vardaros looked strong early before injuries from a fall in Zolder forced her to abandon.

Nys’ Fall in the Pits Hands Victory to Albert

Niels Albert takes the win in Loenhout © Bart Hazen

Niels Albert takes the win in Loenhout © Bart Hazen

The Men’s race followed a similar storyline, with Niels Albert battling from a terrible first lap to the front of the race. But it started with a fall: Gerben de Knegt, far on the right side of the field, apparently stepped out of his pedal just a few meters past the start line, falling head over heels and taking several riders down with him. Of the riders who emerged unscathed it was Zdenek Stybar, in only his second race since a knee injury forced him off the bike in November, who took the lead with Sven Nys and Lars Boom just behind.

But de Knegt wasn’t the only one with trouble at the start, as Albert also stepped out of his pedal a few hundred meters down the road. The Belgian managed to avoid a fall, but it cost him precious time, and he left the road some 20 riders from the front.

Sven Nys was on a great ride until a mishap in the pits ruined his shot at the win © Bart Hazen

Sven Nys was on a great ride until a mishap in the pits ruined his shot at the win © Bart Hazen

By the end of the first lap, Albert had begun to pick his way forward, and Nys had taken over the lead, opening a gap over world champion Stybar and Boom, who, despite showing top form in Zolder on Sunday, couldn’t match the pace of the leaders, falling back through the bunch while Bart Aernouts took the lead of the chase behind Nys.

Meanwhile, American Jonathan Page missed the early selection, but found a place at the front of a group of about 10, some 20 second behind Nys – a group that also included Albert at the end of the first lap. As the chase fractured, Boom fell further off the pace while Albert started to move up. The Belgian gapped the Page group and headed straight to the front, leaving the American dangling behind him as he rode the fastest lap of the day to connect with the group chasing Nys by the middle of the third lap.

Albert took matters into his own hands when Boom bobbled in the deep mud near the front of the lap, narrowly avoiding a collision with the big Dutchman as he came off the back of his bike, and going to the front of the chase for Nys. Only two riders could match Albert’s charge: German champion Philipp Walsleben and Stybar. The trio was joined by Kevin Pauwels as Walsleben drove the group back to Nys on the road at the end of the lap.

Zdenek Stybar is back on the podium © Bart Hazen

Zdenek Stybar is back on the podium © Bart Hazen

With a pat on the back from team captain Albert, Walsleben fell back, allowing Albert to come to the front and, when Stybar bobbled in the deepest mud of the lap, the race was the same two-man duel that thrilled the enormous crowds last year in Loenhout. Even a major mistake by Albert in the mud didn’t slow the 2009 World Champ for very long; he closed the 10-second gap to Nys by the middle of the next lap.

In the end it was Nys’ last lap mistake that proved decisive. The Belgian champion, in an apparent miscommunication with his pit crew, ended up taking a hard fall as he took a new bike. Nys, who expected his crew to be elsewhere in the pit, tumbled when a crew member grabbed the bike before he had fully disengaged from the pedals.

Before the fall, Nys appeared to have the upper hand, controlling the pace while Albert suffered behind him, but even though Nys popped up immediately, the fall came so close to the end of the race that Nys never had a chance to recover. While Albert celebrated his second victory over Nys in just three days, the Belgian champion rolled across the line with his head hung low, clearly disappointed by the turn of events at the end of the race. Stybar held on for third place.

Further back, there was still some drama, however, as Jonathan Page rode a blazing final lap to come around Bart Aernouts and Lars Boom, sprinting his way into ninth place, perhaps his best European result this season.

A disappointed Sven Nys rolls in for second © Bart Hazen

A disappointed Sven Nys rolls in for second © Bart Hazen

“Today (was more disappointing) than in Diegem, because in Diegem I felt that Niels was maybe a little bit too strong,” said Nys after the race. “Here I felt myself really strong, and I think I was really prepared to do a really strong sprint. I took a bike with hard tires, so it was for me an important sprint, two weeks before the Belgian Championships. It didn’t happen because I crashed.”

Nys explained that he had asked his mechanic to stay in the last row of the pit, but the team stayed near the middle and he had not expected to take a bike so soon. “I still had one foot on my left pedal at the moment he took my bike away,” he continued, “and so I lost my balance and I crashed. Of course the stress is really high, and this has happened a lot the last two or three weeks. For (my mechanics), everything is even more stressful than for me, so it’s not so easy.”

Albert, meanwhile, said he was thrilled with the come-from-behind win, despite Nys’ trouble at the end of the race.

“Today I missed my start,” he told Cyclocross Magazine. “I was on the first lap I think 25 second behind Sven, so I didn’t panic, and I just kept on riding and riding. I saw that I closed the gap in two or three laps, so then I was thinking about the victory; but not in the first lap. It was difficult, and the legs weren’t [very well recovered] from Diegem and Zolder, so I’m very happy with the victory now.”

Stybar, who finished third, said he was also pleased to be able to stand on the podium so soon after his layoff because of the knee injury.

“It’s great, I’m very satisfied,” said Stybar. “Of course, when you are third and you know that you are not so far behind, you want more and more, but I have to stay realistic. I’m still missing some competition rhythm and I’m also missing some power, and [top end for] maximum efforts. It’s just a pity that I flatted today. In Diegem I fell, but when I can be two times third, it means I’m not so far from the top, and with that I’m satisfied.”

Jonathan Page cracked the top ten in Loenhout © Bart Hazen

Jonathan Page cracked the top 10 in Loenhout © Bart Hazen

The best American of the day and, in fact, owner one of the best results for an American man in Europe this season, Page said he was very happy with how the race went, especially considering a minor wardrobe malfunction that left him without leg warmers or an insulated skinsuit just minutes before the race.

“We did a little last minute presto-chango,” laughed Page. “We put a bunch of hot stuff on my legs and hair gel. We didn’t have any vaseline.”

Page, who has been dogged all season by bad luck and disappointing results, but has shown strong form in the past few weeks, said he was pleased to finally crack the top 10.

“I did pretty well today,” he said. “I didn’t make the first selection, which was probably the key to even a better race, so I had to come back to that second group. I could see some people in front of us, and Sven Vanthourenhout and I worked well together and just worked really hard to try to get there. If I can make the first selection, I think I can do even better. But regardless of that, I’m really happy.”

For North American fans on the course, the back of the race may have looked more like a USGP race than a GvA Trofee race, as a number of Americans and Canadians battled for top North American honors behind Page. The bearded Brian Matter, who recovered from a crash in the pits with Martin Zlamalik and Brit Jody Crawforth, took the top spot behind Page, with 45th place. Euro Cross Camp participant Mitchell Hoke took 52nd, while Canadian Craig Richey held off Americans Mark Lalonde, Ryan Iddings and Sean Babcock for 54th. American Ryan Knapp was 61st and Canadian Shaun Adamson was 64th.

Elite Men’s Photo Gallery:

Elite Women’s Photo Gallery:

U23 Photo Gallery:

Full Results

Elite Women

1 Marianne Vos (Ned) Nederland Bloeit 0:41:36
2 Hanka Kupfernagel (Ger) Itera-Stevens
3 Daphny van den Brand (Ned)
4 Sanne Cant (Bel) BKCP-Powerplus 0:00:30
5 Sanne van Paassen (Ned) BrainWash 0:00:55
6 Pavla Havlikova (Cze) APB Cycling Team 0:01:42
7 Helen Wyman (GBr) Kona
8 Nikki Harris (GBr) APB Cycling Team 0:02:14
9 Gabriella Day (GBr) The ChainStay-RENNER 0:02:20
10 Sophie de Boer (Ned) 0:02:40
11 Susan Butler (USA) Hudz-Subaru 0:03:25
12 Reza Hormes-Ravenstijn (Ned) 0:03:40
13 Maureen Bruno Roy (USA) Bob’s Red Mill p/b Seven Cycles 0:04:20
14 Ellen Van Loy (Bel) 0:04:35
15 Arenda Grimberg (Ned) 0:05:11
16 Martina Mikulaskova (Cze)
17 Tessa Van Nieuwpoort (Ned) 0:05:30
18 Joyce Vanderbeken (Bel) 0:05:40
19 Nancy Bober (Bel) Style & Concept Cycling Team 0:05:45
20 Nicole De Bie – Leyten (Bel) APB Cycling Team
21 Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (Fra) 0:06:16
22 Gertie Willems (Bel) 0:06:20
23 Katrien Thijs (Bel) Edegem Bicycle Club V.Z.W. 0:06:30
24 Anja Geldhof (Bel) 0:06:45
25 Katrien Aerts (Bel) 0:06:50
26 Nikoline Hansen (Den) 0:06:55
27 Anne Arnouts (Bel) Redsun Cycling Team 0:07:00
28 Ayako Toyooka (Jpn) 0:07:05
29 Lana Verberne (Ned) 0:07:20
30 Nathalie Nijns (Bel) 0:07:40
31 Elke Riedl (Aut) 0:07:45
32 Katrien Vermeiren (Bel) Emversport International C. T. VZW 0:08:34
33 Hannah Payton (GBr) -1lap
34 Karen Verhestraeten (Bel)
35 Marijke De Pauw (Bel)
36 Iris Ockeloen (Ned)
37 Anja Nobus (Bel)
38 Suzie Godart (Lux) Fenixs-Petrogradets
39 Monique van de Ree (Ned)
40 Caren Commissaris (Bel) -2laps
41 Ilse Vandekinderen (Bel)
42 Claire Thomas (GBr)
43 Anouk Rockx (Ned)
44 Sharon Defoor (Bel) -3laps
45 Béatrice Godart (Lux)
46 Maaike Lanssens (Bel) WC De Molenspurters Meulebeke
47 Christine Vardaros (USA) Baboco – Revor Cycling Team
48 Linda van Rijen (Ned)
49 Sabrina Schweizer (Ger)
50 Kristien Nelen (Bel)

Elite Men

1 Niels Albert (Bel) BKCP-Powerplus 0:56:22
2 Sven Nys (Bel) Landbouwkrediet 0:00:11
3 Zdenek Štybar (Cze) Telenet-Fidea Cycling Team 0:00:47
4 Kevin Pauwels (Bel) Telenet-Fidea Cycling Team 0:00:52
5 Philipp Walsleben (Ger) BKCP-Powerplus 0:00:59
6 Bart Wellens (Bel) Telenet-Fidea Cycling Team 0:01:12
7 Klaas Vantornout (Bel) Sunweb-Revor 0:01:21
8 Tom Meeusen (Bel) Telenet-Fidea Cycling Team 0:01:27
9 Jonathan Page (USA) Planet Bike 0:01:28
10 Bart Aernouts (Bel) Rabobank-Giant Off Road Team 0:01:29
11 Lars Boom (Ned) Rabobank 0:01:45
12 Sven Vanthourenhout (Bel) Sunweb-Revor 0:02:23
13 Christian Heule (Swi) Champion System LBS 0:02:25
14 Nicolas Bazin (Fra) Auber 93 0:02:28
15 Petr Dlask (Cze) Telenet-Fidea Cycling Team 0:02:33
16 Marco Bianco (Ita) 0:02:41
17 Kenneth van Compernolle (Bel) Sunweb-Revor 0:02:47
18 Enrico Franzoi (Ita) BKCP-Powerplus
19 Marcel Wildhaber (Swi) Scott-Swisspower MTB-Racing 0:02:48
20 Mariusz Gil (Pol) Baboco – Revor Cycling Team 0:03:09
21 Gerben De Knegt (Ned) Rabobank-Giant Off Road Team 0:03:13
22 Dieter Vanthourenhout (Bel) BKCP-Powerplus 0:03:24
23 Eddy van Ijzendoorn (Ned) AA Drink Cycling Team 0:03:33
24 Egoitz Murgoitio (Spa) 0:03:39
25 Thijs van Amerongen (Ned) AA Drink Cycling Team 0:03:43
26 Jan Verstraeten (Bel) KDL-Trans 0:03:44
27 Ben Berden (Bel) Qin Cycling Team 0:03:50
28 Thijs Al (Ned) AA Drink Cycling Team 0:04:03
29 Patrick van Leeuwen (Ned) 0:04:27
30 Wilant van Gils (Ned) CX Nederland 0:04:29
31 Kevin Cant (Bel) Van Goethem Prorace Cycling Team 0:04:34
32 Ian Field (GBr) Hargroves Cycles 0:04:40
33 Patrick Gaudy (Bel) 0:05:33
34 Rob Peeters (Bel) Telenet-Fidea Cycling Team
35 Tom van den Bosch (Bel) AA Drink Cycling Team 0:05:36
36 Rene Birkenfeld (Ger) Harvesterhude Rv 0:05:42
37 Robert Gavenda (Svk) Telenet-Fidea Cycling Team 0:06:06
38 Marek Cichosz (Pol) Legia-Felt 0:06:10
39 Mitchell Huenders (Ned) BKCP-Powerplus
40 Keiichi Tsujiura (Jpn) 0:06:22
41 Rikke Dijkxhoorn (Ned) Van Vliet EBH Elshof -1lap
42 Stijn Huys (Bel)
43 Isaac Suarez (Spa)
44 Bart Verschueren (Bel) Champion System LBS Team
45 Brian Matter (USA) Gear Grinder
46 Martin Zlámalík (Cze) Sunweb – Revor -2laps
47 Jody Crawforth (GBr) Hargroves Cycles/Trant/Next/Scott/GSI
48 Tom De Kort (Bel) APB Cycling Team
49 Yu Takenouchi (Jpn)
50 Sebastien Le Naour (Fra)
51 Florian Le Corré (Fra) Flers Cyclisme 61
52 Mitchell Hoke (USA) Clif Bar Development Team
53 Tim Van Nuffel (Bel) Van Goethem – Prorace
54 Craig Richey (Can) Cyclocrossracing.Com p/b Blue -3laps
55 Mark Lalonde (USA) Cal Giant-Specialized
56 Ryan Iddings (USA) Redline
57 Sean Babcock (USA) Kona
58 Fernandez Suarez (Spa)
59 Gianni Denolf (Bel) Baboco – Revor Cycling Team
60 Jimmy Tielens (Bel) Team Saeco Heist O/D Berg -4laps
61 Ryan Knapp (USA)
62 Hikaru Kosaka (Jpn)
63 Davy Yeater (USA) River City Bicycles-Cannondale
64 Shaun Adamson (Can) Cycle-Smart
65 Gareth Whittall (GBr) -5laps
66 David Andrew Quist (USA) Team Clif Bar Cycling

U23 Men

1 Wietse Bosmans (Bel) BKCP-Powerplus 0:49:31
2 Vincent Baestaens (Bel) Telenet-Fidea Cycling Team 0:00:16
3 Tijmen Eising (Ned) Sunweb-Revor 0:00:18
4 Micki van Empel (Ned) 0:00:20
5 Jim Aernouts (Bel) BKCP-Powerplus
6 Lars Van Der Haar (Ned) Rabobank-Giant Off Road Team
7 Karel Hník (Cze) Telenet-Fidea Cycling Team
8 Floris De Tier (Bel) Baboco – Revor Cycling Team
9 Matteo Trentin (Ita)
10 Michiel van der Heijden (Ned)
11 David van der Poel (Ned) BKCP-Powerplus 0:00:27
12 Corné van Kessel (Ned)
13 Kobus Hereijgers (Ned)
14 Matthieu Boulo (Fra) Roubaix Lille Metropole 0:00:31
15 Kevin Eeckhout (Bel) Sunweb-Revor 0:00:36
16 Kenneth Hansen (Den)
17 Kristof Cop (Bel) APB Cycling Team 0:00:41
18 Ole Quast (Ger) Stevens Racing Team 0:00:47
19 Zach McDonald (USA) Rapha Focus 0:01:02
20 Vinnie Braet (Bel) Sunweb-Revor
21 Jirí Polnický (Cze) Sunweb – Revor
22 Stef Boden (Bel) Sunweb-Revor
23 Geert van der Horst (Ned)
24 Matthias Bossuyt (Bel)
25 Ramon Sinkeldam (Ned) Rabobank-Giant Off Road Team
26 Jens Adams (Bel) BKCP-Powerplus
27 Ruben Veestraeten (Bel)
28 Michael Schweizer (Ger) Stevens Racing Team
29 Michael Boroš (Cze) Cyklo Team Budvar Tábor
30 Sven Beelen (Bel) Sunweb-Revor
31 Marcel Meisen (Ger)
32 Irwin Gras (Fra) CC Etupes
33 Radek Polnicky (Cze)
34 Moreno Hofland (Ned)
35 Stijn Mortelmans (Bel) Palmans-Cras
36 Camille Thominet (Fra) CCVSA
37 Daan Meijers (Ne)
38 Enno Quast (Ger)
39 Joeri Hofman (Bel)
40 Daniel Ruiz (Spa)
41 Ingmar Uytdewilligen (Bel) Koninklijke Hoboken W.A.C. VZW
42 Jelle Brackman (Bel) MTB dreamteam
43 Niels Koyen (Bel)
44 Jonathan Bervoets (Bel)
45 Dany Lacroix (Bel) L’ espoir Condruzien
46 Matej Lasák (Cze) Max Cursor
47 Simon Geets (Bel)
48 Ritchie Denolf (Bel) Baboco Cycling Team
49 Glenn Le Queau (Fra)
50 Ivo Plevák (Cze) Max Cursor
51 Chris Hurst (USA)
52 Raf Risbourg (Bel)
53 Miguel Fillaut (Fra)
54 Jelle Cant (Bel)
55 Tomáš Paprstka (Cze) Scott Cycling Team Kolín
56 Cody Kaiser (USA) California Giant-Specialized
57 Bart Barkhuis (Ned) WV Meteoor Assen-Roden
58 Steve Fisher (USA) Rad Racing Nw-Hagens Berman Llp
59 Robin Poelvoorde (Bel)
60 Robert Watson (GBr) Paul Milnes RT/Bradford Olympic
61 Allan Veenstra (Ned)
62 Jeffrey Mellemans (Bel)
63 Joseph Schmalz (USA) KCCX/Verge p/b Challenge Tires
64 Nick van Dijke (Ned)
65 Ioris Tursi (Ita)
66 Mike Van Aken (Bel)
67 Matthias Boetens (Bel)
68 Vincent Van Hooste (Bel)
69 Kris Vermeir (Bel)
70 Tom Payton (GBr) Cult Racing
71 Roman Sedlmair (Ger)
72 Bert Vermeiren (Bel)
73 Andrew Hargroves (GBr) Hargroves Cycles/Trant/Next/Scott/GSI
74 Bruce Dalton (GBr)
75 Rutger La Haye (Bel)
76 Aurelien Gizzi (Fra)
77 Sieën Veestraeten (Bel)
78 Arnaud Grand (Swi) Telenet-Fidea Cycling Team