An emotional Simunek after the race dedicated to his father. © Bart Hazen

An emotional Simunek after the race dedicated to his father. © Bart Hazen

by Dan Seaton

Gieten, Netherlands – On the first really cold weekends of the 2010-11 season, the world of European cyclocross headed to a snowy Gieten, in the far northern Netherlands, for the fifth round of the Nissan Superprestige Series. Coming a day after a tough race through the sand at the Koksijde World Cup, and a week after the fourth round race on the steep, muddy hills of Gavere, the course challenged racers with the third dramatic change of conditions in a week.

Though the snow was cleared from the course by race time, the track remained slick with a mix of ice and mud – conditions that would prove decisive for a number of racers – over a fast, mostly flat course that featured barriers, a steep flyover, a short set of stairs and an almost uncountable number of tight, technical 180-degree turns.

The early laps featured a host of leaders, each emerging from a group that, at times, included as many as 15 riders. Notably absent, however, was Koksijde winner Niels Albert, who started slowly and never made any real progress in moving forward before dropping out midway through the race. Early leaders included a number of Dutch racers, whose brief time at the front ignited the partisan crowd at the only non-Belgian race of this year’s Superprestige series.

But the race came to life when Belgium’s Tom Meeusen shot off the front two laps in, opening a gap that fractured the field, with Sven Nys, Radomir Simunek and his teammate Dieter Vanthourenhout connecting with Meeusen. Behind them, world champion Zdenek Stybar led a chase that included Bart Wellens, Gerben De Knegt, Kevin Pauwels, Mariusz Gil and a number of others.

With Stybar leading the chase, it looked briefly like the race might come back together, but the world champion had trouble with his bike and had to pit, slowing him and the rest of the chasers down. Then, on the new bike, Stybar bobbled badly and quickly found himself out of the chase, riding ahead of Jonathan Page and several others, some 20 seconds off the lead.

With Stybar gone, his teammate Bart Wellens came to the front and began to reel in the leaders.  Wellens went clear of the chase group near the race’s midpoint, and for a moment it looked nearly certain that he would reach the leaders. But the two-time world champion crashed hard in an icy turn, destroying any chance of a good finish. Wellens rolled on the ground just inside the turn, looking stunned and in pain, before some spectators came to his aid.

Seconds later, American Jonathan Page, whose chase group looked poised to reconnect with the big group up ahead, also went down hard in the same turn. Page got up quickly, appeared to ask Wellens if he needed help, and returned to his bike, but looked uncomfortable for the rest of the day. Page said afterwards he didn’t think he was seriously injured, but it was clear that the hard fall took the wind out of his sails. The American would finish 23rd.

Wellens, meanwhile, finally recovered enough to return to the race, but left the course at the end of the lap and headed to the hospital.

But the drama wasn’t finished there. For several laps the four leaders took turns at the front, slowing the pace when it was clear that the chasers posed little serious threat to reach the front. Then, with one lap to go, Dieter Vanthourenhout attacked while Sven Nys was isolated at the back behind Vanthourenhout’s teammate Simunek. But Nys quickly fired back, and led briefly before Simunek fired a shot. Simunek and Tom Meeusen tangled next, battling for position through several dangerous turns before Nys managed to come around the Czech rider and into second place behind Meeusen.

But just as the race hit the final stretch of pavement and the two Belgians readied for the final sprint, Nys careened from his line and into the barriers, his pedal breaking from the crank and skittering across the road. Nys’ disaster allowed Meeusen to charge, unchallenged, to the line, before Simunek could come around to claim second place ahead of teammate Vanthourenhout.

Nys, meanwhile, tried to pedal one-legged before it became clear that the damage to his bike was more serious than just the broken pedal. With enough time on the chase group, Nys was able to stroll across the line for fourth place.  With so many top contenders in the Superprestige series either out of the race or far back, Nys’ fourth place finish was still enough to extend his overall lead in the Superprestige to 12 points over Kevin Pauwels, who finished fifth on the day.

After the race, Nys told reporters that, although he was disappointed by the fourth place finish, he was fortunate to have avoided serious injury when the pedal broke. “I can’t begrudge Tom Meeusen the victory,” he said, “because he was very strong, but I was sitting in the ideal place to ride for the win. Yet it’s lucky that I didn’t fall. The consequences could have been much worse.”

Meeusen, meanwhile, said the whole race was a surprise for him. “This was a fantastic first major victory, but it’s a pity that Sven Nys couldn’t contest the sprint. Of course, with him around my victory would have been even bigger, as people now will think I only won because of his misfortune. Of course, I don’t know if I could have beaten him, but I still had something left. I never thought that a first victory would come so fast.”

Meeusen, who took his first win as a professional at Nacht van Woerden, also in the Netherlands, joked that he couldn’t wait to race there again. “Apparently ‘crosses in the Netherlands suit me,” he told reporters. “First I won in Woerden, now in Gieten. When will they ride the world championships in the Netherlands again?”

Photo Gallery

Full Results:

1 Tom Meeusen (Bel) Telenet-Fidea Cycling Team 1:02:40
2 Radomir Simunek Jr. (Cze) BKCP-Powerplus 0:00:10
3 Dieter Vanthourenhout (Bel) BKCP-Powerplus
4 Sven Nys (Bel) Landbouwkrediet 0:00:25
5 Kevin Pauwels (Bel) Telenet-Fidea Cycling Team 0:00:45
6 Eddy van Ijzendoorn (Ned) AA Drink Cycling Team
7 Bart Aernouts (Bel) Rabobank-Giant Off Road Team
8 Gerben De Knegt (Ned) Rabobank-Giant Off Road Team
9 Mariusz Gil (Pol) Baboco – Revor Cycling Team
10 Enrico Franzoi (Ita) BKCP-Powerplus 0:00:55
11 Thijs van Amerongen (Ned) AA Drink Cycling Team 0:01:00
12 Klaas Vantornout (Bel) Sunweb-Revor 0:01:20
13 Jan Denuwelaere (Bel) Rendement Hypo Cycling Team 0:01:25
14 Sacha Weber (Ger) Stevens Racing Team 0:01:30
15 Tom van den Bosch (Bel) AA Drink Cycling Team 0:01:35
16 Martin Zlámalík (Cze) Sunweb – Revor
17 Zdenek Štybar (Cze) Telenet-Fidea Cycling Team 0:01:40
18 Mitchell Huenders (Ned) BKCP-Powerplus 0:02:10
19 Ben Berden (Bel) Qin Cycling Team
20 Thijs Al (Ned) AA Drink Cycling Team
21 Ondrej Bambula (Cze) Cyklo Team Budvar Tábor
22 Jan Verstraeten (Bel) KDL-Trans 0:02:25
23 Jonathan Page (USA) Planet Bike 0:02:55
24 Kenneth van Compernolle (Bel) Sunweb-Revor 0:03:55
25 Jordy Luisman (Ned) RSE Cycling Team 0:04:05
26 Christoph Pfingsten (Ger) Van Vliet EBH Elshof 0:04:15
27 Patrick van Leeuwen (Ned) 0:04:25
28 Johannes Sickmüller (Ger) Stevens Racing Team 0:05:25
29 Tim Ottens (Ned) -3laps
30 Michael Stenzel (Ger) -4laps
31 Jorge Cantalicio (Spa)
32 Frank Huisman (Ned) -5laps
33 Jos Feiken (Ned) -6laps
34 Alberto Candelas (Spa)
35 Kaey Van Rij (Ned) PRC Delta