Niels Albert waves to the crowd from the podium. © Bart Hazen

Niels Albert waves to the crowd from the podium. © Bart Hazen

by Dan Seaton

Diegem, Belgium – In the shadow of Brussels International Airport—in fact, just a few hundreds of meters from the end of the runway—the Nissan Superprestige Series met again today for one of its more unique races. Starting just after sunset, the race ran under the lights and featured a mix of narrow city streets, a winding trail through the woods, and a dose of slick, sloppy mud fueled by both rain showers early in the day and melting snow from winter’s brief visit to Belgium last weekend.

And the mud would play a decisive role in the outcome today, clogging former series’ leader Sven Nys’ drivetrain and destroying his derailleur just as he headed into the final lap.  Benefitting from Nys’ woes were World Champion Niels Albert, who took a solo victory over Zdeněk Štybar and, further back, Kevin Pauwels.The early race, on a narrow and slick track, went from simply crowded to completely chaotic as soon as riders hooked off of the pavement and into the sloppy mud that covered a large portion of the course.  Štybar traded the early lead with Klaas Vantornout, while behind them the race fell apart as one rider after another came off their bikes in the mud.  In the middle of the mess, American Troy Wells went down and was swarmed by the riders behind as he tried to collect himself and his bike.

Up front, however, a group of four— Štybar, Vantornout, Kevin Pauwels, and Gerben De Knegt—took control, stretching the race out single file through the streets of Diegem, and, perhaps, bringing a bit of order to the chaos, if only by reducing the numbers in the lead group. Just behind them, Albert, Nys, and Radomir Simunek led the chase. Albert reached the lead group first, while Nys and Simunek dangled before catching on themselves when the leaders came through some deep mud and water just before the course hooked left into the woods.

But Štybar, riding right at the front, bobbled in the mud and only Albert managed to come around him cleanly. Given an opening, the World Champion did not let it escape. Albert surged as he hopped a set of barriers and passed through a very tight series of 180-degree turns. The effort earned him a gap of several seconds before Nys charged out of the chase group in pursuit.

Nys’ effort opened things up behind, stretching the whole field as they reached end of the first lap. When Albert pitted just after the beginning of the second lap, Nys briefly looked poised to take advantage. But Albert tore out of the pits, still holding a gap of several bike lengths, while, at the same time, reinforcements arrived from behind: Štybar joined Nys several seconds ahead of the rest of the pursuit.

But Albert, who has been almost unstoppable with an early lead this season, did not back down. Again he surged, putting more time into the chase. As Nys and Štybar came through the mud and woods where Albert made his escape on the previous lap, it was the Belgian’s turn to falter, which set Štybar free to bridge to Albert on his own.

The two connected when Albert slowed a bit on the streets near the end of the lap, and Štybar and Albert traded a series of attacks as the course wound around the city, crossing a track on the outside of a soccer field and blazing back into the muddy middle section.

Behind them it was only Nys who marked the leaders, holding off a group of perhaps ten riders, but gaining little ground on the two at the front of the field.

Stybar cornering with care. © Bart Hazen

Stybar cornering with care. © Bart Hazen

Then, as they pedaled relatively slowly through a paved section in the middle of the lap, Albert went on the attack again, gapping Štybar for a third time, just as they began to make their way through lapped traffic.  Perhaps 20 seconds behind Štybar, Nys was also encountering a few lapped riders, deftly avoiding one who began to topple head first over the bars as he struggled in the mud, and continuing his pursuit.  But Albert refused to be reigned in, pouring it on in an effort to stretch the gap to Štybar, and treating fans to a mud-soaked reenactment of his World Championship victory in Hoogerheide last year, when he also held off both Štybar and Nys to take the solo win.

But other riders refused to stick to the script.  A small chase group, with Enrico Franzoi, Kevin Pauwels, Bart Wellens, and Gerben De Knegt, bore down on Nys.  Finally, De Knegt powered away from the other three, reaching Nys with about a lap and a half left. Nys, however, did not welcome the company, and quickly pulled away from the Dutch rider before suddenly coming to a screeching halt.  Nys dismounted and bent over his chain, spent several seconds attempting to fix the problem, then shouldered his bike just as he was caught from behind by Pauwels and Wellens.

While Albert powered his way to an eight second victory over Štybar, Nys walked down the homestretch, broken bike over his shoulder, while the fans who lined the finishing straightaway pounded on the course barriers and called out to the Belgian Champion. Nys’ walk, framed by the dramatic lighting in the benighted streets of Diegem and punctuated by the flashbulbs of the scrum of photographers who followed him, was a slow funeral procession for a season in which he has seen one goal after another slip away.

Sven Nys would end the day carrying his broken bike across the line. © Bart Hazen

Sven Nys would end the day carrying his broken bike across the line. © Bart Hazen

The rider Nys had been attacking when things went wrong, however, now had a problem of his own. Kevin Pauwels, boosted by the efforts of his Fidea teammate Bart Wellens, reached De Knegt and came around him as they reached the final stretch of pavement. De Knegt launched a furious sprint, but too late.  Pauwels held on for third by just inches, while teammate Wellens, spent from the effort of bringing Pauwels up to battle for third, rolled across the line for fifth, ten seconds behind.

Planet Bike’s Jonathan Page was the top American in 15th, while Jeremy Powers finished 25th. Euro ‘Cross Campers Troy Wells, Brian Matter, and Justin Lindine finished 33rd, 35th, and 38th, respectively.

After the race, Nys told Flemish TV that he simply couldn’t match Albert today. “After the fall on Saturday, my knee was not good today. Purely on character I went for third place. With only De Knegt near me it was still possible, but when the derailleur hit my wheel it was all over.”

Nys said that, with the busy holiday race period at hand, he simply didn’t want to risk a run for the pits. “True, the pits weren’t so far away, but the finish here is slightly downhill.  If I had kept running, I might have blown my legs completely. Given the busy period, I just couldn’t afford that. It’s too bad, because it looked like I could have limited the damage.”

Albert, for his part, said he was pleased with the weekend’s work, but recognized that nobody is immune to the trouble that hurt Nys, “I did some good things in the World Cup on Saturday, and I did the same at Superprestige. Slowly things are coming together for me, but I can always have a mechanical too.”

Photo Gallery

Elite Men (Belgian unless otherwise noted)

1.      Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) 1:00:56

2.      Zdenek Stybar (Cze) 0:08

3.      Kevin Pauwels 1:36

4.      Gerben de Knegt (Ned)

5.      Bart Wellens 1:47

6.      Klaas Vantornout 2:07

7.      Erwin Vervecken 2:11

8.      Enrico Franzoi (Ita) 2:23

9.      Bart Aernouts 2:37

10.  Radomir Simunek (Cze) 2:47

11.  Philipp Walsleben (Ger) 2:54

12.  Rob Peeters 3:05

13.  Martin Zlamalik (Cze) 3:18

14.  Steve Chainel (Fra) 3:37

15.  Jonathan Page (USA) 3:41

16.  Thijs van Amerongen (Ned) 3:54

17.  Tom Van den Bosch 4:26

18.  Wilant van Gils (Ned) 4:29

19.  Mariusz Gil (Pol) 4:32

20.  Thijs Al (Ned) 4:45

21.  Ben Berden 5:22

22.  Fabio Ursi (Ita) 5:28

23.  Quentin Bertholet 5:42

24.  Marek Cichosz (Pol) 6:00

25.  Jeremy Powers (USA) 6:12

26.  Tommy Nielsen (Den) 6:14

27.  Stijn Huys 6:39

28.  Jody Crawford (GBr) 6:43

29.  Mike Thielemans 6:51

30.  Milan Barenyi (Svk) 6:57

31.  Christoph Pfingsten (Ger) 7:24

32.  Eddy van Ijzendoorn (Ned) 7:29

33.  Troy Wells (USA) 7:59

34.  Marco Ponta (Ita) 8:11

35.  Brian Matter (USA) 8:20

36.  Robert Glajza (Svk) 8:28

37.  Keiichi Tsujiura (Jpn)

38.  Justin Lindine (USA) at 1 ronde

39.  Martin Haring (Svk)

40.  Lukas Kloucek (Cze)

41.  Yu Takenouchi (Jpn) at 2 laps

42.  Gareth Whittall (GBr) at 3 laps

43.  Boldbaatar (Mgl)

44.  Masashi Matsui (Jpn) at 4 laps

Nissan Superprestige Classifications (after 6 races)

1. Niels Albert 84 points

2. Zdenek Stybar (Cze) 81

3. Sven Nys 71

4. Klaas Vantornout 66

5. Kevin Pauwels 64

6. Bart Aernouts 52

7. Gerben de Knegt (Ned) 42

8. Erwin Vervecken 40

9. Radomir Simunek (Cze) 38

10. Enrico Franzoi (Ita) 34

11. Sven Vanthourenhout 31

12. Dieter Vanthourenhout and Rob Peeters 22

14. Philipp Walsleben (Ger) 19

15. Jan Verstraeten 12

16. Bart Wellens 11

17. Françis Mourey (Fra) and Martin Zlamalik (Cze) 7

19. Wilant van Gils (Ned), Thijs van Amerongen (Ned) and Mariusz Gil (Pol) 3

22. Ben Berden, Jonathan Page (USA) and Steve Chainel (Fra) 2

25. Eddy van IJzendoorn (Ned) and John Gadret (Fra) 1