Niels Albert rode through the mud in Diegem to another win. © Bart Hazen

Niels Albert, shown here running to a win in Diegem. © Bart Hazen

by Josh Liberles

The snowy course may have been the key element in the Belgian National Championship this past weekend, but it wasn’t the conditions that sent reigning world champion Niels Albert (BKCP – Powerplus) sprawling. A drunk spectator, whom Albert believes to be a Sven Nys supporter, yanked Albert off of his bike in the middle of the race.

The incident led to more than just a delay for Albert–he has since realized that he suffered a fractured rib. His team manager Christophe Roodhoft said via a press release that Albert’s participation in the upcoming World Cup in Roubaix, France is in doubt. Although Albert was quick to credit Nys’ riding prowess and superior strength in taking the national title, both he and Roodhoft were clearly dismayed by the fan’s actions.

“With the broken rib Niels cannot race in Otegem,” Roodhoft said. “The World Cup ‘cross in Roubaix on Sunday may be compromised.”

The spectator, Patrick Beniest, admitted to being drunk and told Belgian newspaper Het Niuewsblad that the run-in was an accident. Witnesses who were interviewed believed otherwise.

“It happened very quickly and I did not do it on purpose,” Beniest told Sporza. “It was slippery where we were and I slid away. I tried to keep upright and bumped against Albert…I also encouraged all riders, including Albert.”

Nys was quick to decry the fan’s actions. “Such people should be banished for life,” he told Sports Weekend. “I do not want someone like that to be called a supporter of mine. I want nothing to do with them.”

“I once had a dispute when a man on the course stood with the barriers in his hands and attacked me,” Nys relayed to Het Niuewsblad. “Perhaps the organizers and stewards could work on putting more space between audience and riders. However, the charm of cyclocross must not disappear,” he stated.

Belgian fans, particularly those loyal to Nys, have jeered at Albert on several occasions this year, notably at the Jaarmarktcross in Niel, Belgium, where fans believed Albert deliberately rode Nys into the barriers on a climb.

Two rounds remain in the World Cup Series: Roubaix on Sunday, January 17th and the finale in Hoogerheide, the Netherlands on January 24th. Although Albert still leads the series thanks primarily to his trio of wins to start the season, recently crowned Czech national champion Zdenek Stybar (Telenet-Fidea Cycling Team) has steadily chipped the lead down to 20 points with a recent surge.

It remains to be seen whether the injury will hamper Albert’s performance, or even prevent his participation, in Roubaix, Hoogerheide, or even the World Championships at the end of January. Albert clearly had the best early season form and explained his more recent dip in results as a well-timed build back up to his next fitness peak for Worlds.