by Dan Seaton

Igorre, Spain – On a deeply rutted course, equal parts slick and slow with mud, Zdeněk Štybar was able to capitalize on his rivals’ run-in with a lapped rider to extend a narrow lead to a decisive victory in the fifth round of the UCI World Cup in Igorre, Spain.  Štybar’s victory over World Cup leader Niels Albert and Sven Nys, his second in two weeks, brought him to within five points of the overall lead in the World Cup series.  Meanwhile, American Jonathan Page, who has made no secret of his disappointment in his early season results in Europe, rode perhaps his best race of the season with an eight place finish.

After his breakthrough win in Koksijde that capped a three race win streak, all eyes were on Czech national champion Zdeněk Štybar. Was Štybar, who had found his way onto the lower steps of the podium repeatedly in 2009, finally finding his legs? Or was his first World Cup victory just the result of good luck while early season favorite Niels Albert was struggling through a difficult patch?  The relatively low-key start offered few clues, as a series of relative unknowns led the race while the favorites slowly worked their way up from deep in the field.

Erwin Vervecken, powered by both his running and skills in the difficult conditions, fired the first shot when he shouldered his bike and surged off of the front of a large group.  But Belgian Sven Vanthourenhout quickly countered, latching on to Vervecken’s wheel and staying there. Vervecken ceded the lead to Radomir Simunek as the race rounded out the first lap before Vanthourenhout surged and took control of the race while the favorites, Nys, Albert, and Štybar made their way through the traffic at the front.

As the race came through the pits for the second time, Štybar finally hit the front and, in a handful of seconds, gapped Vanthourenhout and started the race in earnest. Štybar’s initial surge was so strong that despite a couple of bobbles on the series of short but treacherous rises on the course none of the other early leaders could come close to matching him. However, Štybar wasn’t just racing the early leaders—and after only a few minutes alone at the front both Albert and Nys had connected with him, once again setting up a battle between the three men who have, in different permutations, dominated the podium this season.

At the same time as Štybar, Albert and Nys were consolidating their lead at the front, American Jonathan Page was working his way from deep in the field to a position close to the top ten. First he connected with Enrico Franzoi in 13th place, then came around Franzoi, Francis Mourey, and Gerben De Knegt and onto his own inside the top ten.

Back up front, Nys pushed the pace and led Štybar and Albert through one of the fastest laps of the race. Štybar stuck like glue to Nys’ wheel, but Albert faltered a bit, looking momentarily like the Albert of the past few weeks, who couldn’t match the strength and speed of Nys and Štybar. But even Nys himself couldn’t sustain the effort and on the short section of road in the middle of the course, the pace slowed, allowing Albert to rejoin the fight.

The hard effort, however, put space between the leaders and the chase, which was led by Bart Wellens, showing that despite a long layoff due to an infection with cytomegalovirus he was back to top form.

For the next several laps Nys and a resurgent Albert tag-teamed Štybar, taking turns in front while the Czech rider hung back. But it was Štybar who launched the decisive attack early on in the final lap, powering through one of the course’s most difficult sections of mud and opening a small gap between him and the two Belgian riders.

Nys and Albert appeared to be just about to rejoin Štybar when they hit a short, slippery rise. Štybar powered up most of the climb on his bike, just hopping off to run the final few steps of the climb. But a lapped rider, walking up the climb with his bike on his shoulder, unaware of the drama unfolding behind him, found himself directly in the path of the chasers. Nys collided with him; Nys went down and both he and Albert were forced from their bikes.

The two lost only a few seconds, but it was enough to make the difference. Štybar cruised alone through the pits and onto the final stretch of pavement, while Albert and Nys made a desperate attempt to undo the damage. But the two simply couldn’t do the job—a few hundred meters from the line Nys sat up, and Albert despite a valiant effort at the end of the race, could only watch as Štybar threw his hands in the air and claimed his second World Cup of the season.

Nys rolled across the line in third, clearly disappointed. Behind him, Klaas Vantornout rode out of a chase group that had worked together for most of the race to take fourth place over Bart Wellens. A pair of Rabobank riders who have often worked together this season, Bart Aernouts and Gerben De Knegt, rolled across in sixth and seventh, with Page holding off Simunek for eighth. Vervecken rounded out the top ten.

Štybar, who clearly benefitted from Nys and Albert’s trouble on the final lap, told reporters that he wasn’t trying to take advantage of the accident. “I didn’t know what happened behind me,” he said. “I only learned what happened on the stage. But such things are a part of ‘cross. Next time something like that could happen to me.” Nonetheless, Štybar was thrilled with his second World Cup victory. “I’m very happy with this win. Slowly I’m showing that I’m good on every course, after Koksijde, now Igorre.”

Nys, for his part, was philosophical about his misfortune. “Who was the strongest of us three, I can’t say,” Nys told reporters. “But I know the incident cost me double. It’s a missed opportunity.”

Albert, however, took satisfaction in a return to good form. “I felt much better than I did the past few weeks and I am really happy,” he said. “It was hard in the first half of the race, but in the end I came back.”

Page told us that he was satisfied to finally reach the top ten in a World Cup this season, “I feel really good about today’s result. I’m happy things came together. It’s stressful to get down here and then organize the whole family to get here… I just had to put it together today.”

In addition to a difficult start, Page had to overcome limited support and equipment—both the result of the long transfer to Spain just before an even longer trip to America. Page had just two bikes for the difficult conditions and his pit crew on the day was Cori, his wife, and their two kids.  “Team Page really worked out today,” he said. “Cori in the pits and the kids did a hell of a job. It was good to go back to the roots: getting the rental car, slamming things in the trunk. Knowing that it was all up to us and myself to pull it together, and it worked out and was good.”

With his strong finish coming just a week before the U.S. Nationals, Page is now clearly marked as a favorite for the championship. But Page said that the race in Bend, Oregon, will be a challenge. “It’s a different continent and a lot of travel,” he told us. “And I think it will depend a lot on the conditions. If it’s a really fast race, it will be difficult to control the guys who have teammates. But if there’s any technique involved, or crappy weather, or snow or mud, that would be great for my chances.”

But for now Page is still reflecting on his own breakthrough after a tough start to his European season. “Breaking into the top ten was what I’ve been looking for,” he said. “I truly believe that this is the start of my season now. All my hard work and my family’s hard work and the people around me, it’s just good to show them all that I can ride my bike.”

Brief Results

1. Zdeněk Štybar (Cze)
2. Niels Albert (Bel)
3. Sven Nys (Bel)
4. Klaas Vantornout (Bel)
5. Bart Wellens (Bel)
6. Bart Aernouts (Bel)
7. Gerben De Knegt (Bel)
8. Jonathan Page (USA)
9. Radomir Simunek (Cze)
10. Erwin Vervecken (Bel)