by Robbie Carver
KOKSIJDE, BELGIUM—In a historic display of dominance, the Belgian team took the top seven spots today at the 2012 Cyclocross World Championships in Koksijde, Belgium, led by an incredible solo victory by Niels Albert. Neither defending champion Zdenek Stybar – nor any other rider– had a response for a Belgian team, racing on Belgian soil, bearing the weight of a country demanding that its riders regain the crown as the ‘world center of cyclocross.’
From the first lap, the Belgian juggernaut completely owned the race, with Czechs Zdenek Stybar and Radomir Simunek quickly strangled out of the front group. With Niels Albert flying free off the front, proving himself the best of the best, the rest of the Belgians were free to battle among each other without risk of disobeying team orders that banned infighting at the expense of the title. Early rumors coming out of Belgium indicated that the team might ride for Albert. Whether that was the up-front intention or not, that’s how the race quickly unfolded.
An early two-up battle between Kevin Pauwels and Sven Nys for second developed, but was swallowed up by the rest of the Belgians after three laps, and the rest of the race was an exciting shuffling among compatriots battling for pride of place on the most dominant team in the world. A strong, well-timed acceleration by Rob Peeters, the lowest rank rider in the Belgian armada, earned him silver over a clearly exhausted Kevin Pauwels, followed by Tom Meeusen, Bart Aernouts, Klaas Vantornout and, finally, a completely hammered Sven Nys. Top American honors went to a resurgent Ryan Trebon, who came in 18th place and salvaged his season after a mid-season leg injury.
With over 60,000 fans lining the barricades today in Koksijde, it was clear the people of Belgium were making a statement about their commitment to the sport and to the history of this technical course. The Belgian team took notice and rose to the occasion. The capacity-filling turnout of fans couldn’t have been more desperate for a good Belgian showing, after the first three rainbow jerseys of the weekend landed on Dutch shoulders.
It began as it finished: the front line dominated by the blue jerseys of the Belgians, united by the pressure to bring the title back to their country after Stybar’s impressive two-year reign. Niels Albert took command after France’s Steve Chainel grabbed the holeshot; from then on, although Pauwels would come tantalizingly close to making contact, it was a race for second. “The start was perfect,” said Albert. “My legs were very, very good. I’m very happy. When you are riding alone, you can choose your own road in the sand, which was very good for me. I saw Stybar in the first round, and I knew it was everything or nothing.”
Behind him, Stybar did his best to claw onto, and hold, Albert’s wheel, with Chainel in the mix as well, surrounded by a sea of Belgian blue. Americans Jonathan Page and Ryan Trebon both looked to have gotten off to a good start, with Page quickly moving up to seventh position, and Trebon only a few spots behind. Page, though he had hoped to repeat some of his incredible Worlds rides, was racing with a broken hand and fractured rib. Still, it didn’t deter him from giving it a go, and his start was reminiscent of his ride at the 2011 Cyclocross World Championships in Saint Wendel, when he rode in the lead group for the early laps.
As the deep sand – which officials claimed was as deep as eight inches in some places – separated the wheat from the chaff, it looked to be a battle between the Belgians and the Czechs, with Stybar and fellow countryman Radomir Simunek Jr. acting as the sole defenders against the Belgian phalanx. But with eight laps still to go, Albert had already distanced himself from the rest of the field, with Nys and Pauwels giving chase and the rest of the Belgian contingent having squeezed the Czech riders out the back. Though Simunek and Stybar continued to put up a valiant fight, the Belgians had completely eradicated them with six laps to go. By the end of the race, the closest rider to the lowest placing Belgian was over a minute behind: Simunek, in eighth.
And the crowd roared.
No doubt the pressure to bring home a Belgian victory quieted Nys’ and Pauwels’ pursuit of Albert, but regardless of tactics, Albert was storming across the course, riding clean lines and suffering only a few minor bobbles. As soon as it became clear that a Belgian victory was all but assured, the Belgians again assumed their roles as rivals. Nys showed a strong technical dominance over Pauwels, often gapping his season rival in the long sand sections, but he was never able to dislodge the World Cup champion. The effort from both men clearly showed, as Nys began to flag and Pauwels took the finishing straight to stretch his back.
Team USA: Page and Trebon Avoid Traffic, the Others Get Stuck
While the Belgians massed at the front, Page was having an inspired ride, and halfway through the first lap was inside the top 10, and completed the first lap in 12th, with Trebon just behind in 15th. Trebon would remain steady in the stand, and remain in the top 20, while Page, in pain from his recent crashes last week in Hoogerheide, would fall further off the pace and did not finish.
Tim Johnson, perhaps the only racer on disc brakes, pedaled his disc-brake-equipped Cannondale Super-X to 34th place by the end of lap one, with Jeremy Powers, Jamey Driscoll and Chris Jones fighting to break into the top 40, crossing the line just one lap in in 44th, 47th and 48th place. National Champion Powers, who had a disastrous first lap, had to make his way back from nearly the back of the field after a ninth-place (second row) call-up.
It was a tough day at work for the Americans. Like many racers, Johnson struggled in the sand, and described the conditions, “This is like golf. This is like St. Andrews, and not every golfer can play St. Andrews to their potential.”
Infighting for Second
While Albert surged in the lead, and Pauwels and Nys traded attacks, the remaining Belgians set about the task of reeling in their compatriots and battling for the podium. It took a few laps, but by three to go a strong surge by Rob Peeters saw him, Klaas Vantornout, Tom Meeusen and Bart Aernouts make contact with Nys and Pauwels, leaving some to wonder if we would see a six-up Belgian sprint for the line.At that point, Stybar and Simunek, over a minute down, were nowhere to be seen.
Stybar later said, “The Belgians were way too good and I was too bad. I had a little cold – that can happen. Because of that I knew before the race already that I would not reach the level that I would need. After two, three laps I felt that the podium was gone and after that the legs got worse and worse.”
As Albert improved on his lead, the Belgians traded attacks, with Nys showing the cost of his earlier effort, trailing the other chasers by a few bike lengths. He ultimately finished in the final spot among the team, in seventh. A savage attack by Meeusen on the last lap splintered the group, but Pauwels and Peeters quickly answered. In the last sand section, Meeusen went over his handlebars. “Maybe I went a bit too crazy. My morale was maybe too high. I had a very good feeling – that I was one of the best riders after Albert. The last days I felt that the form was coming up but I kept it quiet.”
So it was Rob Peeters – the only Belgian not to start on the front row – who launched the final, successful move, surging ahead of Pauwels to take the silver. “I have always been cycling for someone else,” said Rob Peeters. “We will see if they take more notice of me in the future. I knew it was possible to be on the podium. Last week [in the Hoogerheide World Cup] I was really good but had a bad start. A week later my condition is not gone. I wasn’t nervous before the start because I saw in the other races in the World Championships this weekend that the strongest were on top. When your condition is good you always expect more of yourself.”
King Albert Again
But that was over a minute after Niels Albert, fist in the air, reclaimed the World Championship jersey for himself, for Belgium, and for the 60,000 roaring fans beating their hands against the barriers. The Belgians had dominated the only Championship race left, on one of the hardest courses in the sport, bringing the most-coveted jersey back to Belgian soil.“This is the most beautiful World Championship win for me, as it’s in Belgium” said Albert. “For me, it’s a legendary parcours. I made mistakes and lost my focus a few times. It wasn’t until the last stretch when I realized I’d won it. I went into the race very relaxed. I didn’t even set my alarm this morning. When I went downstairs a bit after 9a.m. I saw only one bread left and everyone was already gone training.”
“I felt better and better all week,” he continued. “I was even relaxed behind the motorbike. I must be very realistic, you can’t compare the old days with now. In the old times a Belgian can have seven or eight World titles, but that is not really possible any longer. I find it a real pity that Nys wants to stop with racing World Championships.”In response to a comment that Belgians finished top seven today, Albert responded, “When it is in our land, we will be super motivated. When we started racing at the small events, we all rode heavy sand courses. Our courses here are often heavy sand – even the small races have sand, sand, sand. The fact that there were seven Belgians in the top seven is not our fault. You can’t change the competition.”
A Tough Round of Golf
By the time Albert was celebrating, there was just one American left out on the course to finish on the lead lap—Ryan Trebon. Earlier, Jeremy Powers had gathered himself after his first lap problems, and surged through the field to break into the top half of the 64 person field, and by the time he was pulled, three laps short of the final, he would be placed 26th.
As for the Americans, Jamey Driscoll said of his race, “Everything was normal until I got tangled up in the first long sand section and that effectively ended my race because I was unfortunately too far to come back from that – just too many people – even though I was riding in the sand well.”
Trebon, the top placing American, was pleased with his result: “I had a chance to come in the inside and take the holeshot, but I backed off a little bit to play it safe. I had a decent race, had good legs, but I made a lot of mistakes. I’d gain time then lose it. When I’m riding hard to bridge back up to the guys, I’m already at my limit when I enter the sand sections. You make small mistakes and you have to get off and run. I just wasn’t as proficient at this as these guys. Those guys were f***in’ haulin’! It was unreal. I was aiming for a top 15 today, but just didn’t have it. If you have good fitness you can race well, but you’re burning matches on a course like this. At the end, I didn’t have any thing left.
Like Johnson, Trebon compared the day and course to golf. “For me, the hardest thing today was that I wasn’t really able to walk for two months [due to a mid-season injury] so the running just really hurts. It puts me over my limit when I am already at it. I’m happy though! I love racing in the sand! It’s so different. Those guys who are good are so controlled in the sand and that’s all you need to be smooth. It’s always a challenge. The course is never the same every lap. I compare it to playing golf. You hit one swing good, straight on the fairway. Next time you hit it the same way, you’re off in the rough.”
After the race, Johnson was reflective on his race. “I would consider this a non-result,” he explained. “I’m lucky enough to be able to race ‘cross and this is like the biggest venue, the biggest stadium to race in. Truly, this was a f#@#ing awesome race.”
While the sandy course didn’t suit the Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld.com rider, he appreciated the magnitude and uniqueness of the venues. “We don’t do this kind of course every year [at the Worlds],” he said. “I’ve been racing as an elite since 2000, and we’ve done this race [course] once. One time out of 12 is ok. If we have a race like this once in my career, it’s fine. You can’t have the same races all the time. This is totally to an extreme, and that’s awesome. It’s a spectacle and an absolute success on every level of the sport. So if it’s not my kind of race, oh well. I can deal with that. It’s like if you’re a sprinter, and you do road worlds every year, every six years you’re going to get a course where you can win. And this is like that kind of race for ‘cross.”
Every Elite male racer participating in the race in Koksijde, except for those from the host country, would probably agree.
View the full men’s start list here, and don’t miss our complete coverage of the 2012 UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Koksijde, Belgium on our Full Coverage page.
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UCI Cyclocross World Championships 2012: Elite Men
|17||Gerben DE KNEGT||NED||37||1:09:49|
|20||Jos Antonio HERMIDA RAMOS||ESP||34||1:10:13|
|21||Twan VAN DEN BRAND||NED||23||1:10:14|
|23||Thijs VAN AMERONGEN||NED||26||1:10:47|
|35||Isaac SUAREZ FERNANDEZ||ESP||33|
|41||Javier RUIZ DE LARRINAGA IBANEZ||ESP||33|
|52||Aitor HERNANDEZ GUTIERREZ||ESP||30|
|56||Karl Heinz GOLLINGER||AUT||29|