From the Line, Mourey Makes His Bid
Although the course had dried significantly since yesterday’s muddy affair, it was still sloppy enough to keep racers on their mud tires. As the light turned green, it was Frenchman Francis Mourey who took the holeshot, setting off with the hopes of repeating his solo performance in Namur, and essentially repeating his fast-starting performance at last year’s World Championships in Louisville.
Close at hand were Nys, Czech racer Martin Bina, Dutchman Thijs van Amerongen, and local favorite Lars van der Haar. Well behind were Belgian hopefuls Niels Albert – who would never factor today – and Kevin Pauwels. America’s Tim Johnson had a strong start off the line, but crashed after the first turn and fell far back into the field. He would not finish the race.
As traffic slowed the lower racers to a near standstill, especially at the first flyover, Mourey drove the pace at the front. An aggressively fast, soft downhill swooping turn – one that would nearly prove decisive later on, and caught many riders out during the race – took out Bina, who in turn sent Van der Haar sailing over his bars. The crash gave Mourey some daylight, and the French national champion set off with Van Amerongen and Nys in pursuit. Behind, Štybar was quickly making up ground from his fourth line start, a result of only racing six cyclocross events this season.
Mourey’s script, however, had not been revised since last year’s World Championships in Louisville: A bobble brought him back to Nys, and though Mourey first led, and then held on to to the lead group for the next few laps, his star faded slowly throughout the race. He crossed the finish line in eighth place.
Štybar Came to Play, Nys Takes Up the Challenge
As a large group of racers came into the finishing straight for the first time, Štybar showed that his preparation for the Spring Classics is right on track as he rocketed out of the group and blitzed alone down the opening dirt descent.
A few days previous, Nys had said that there was nothing left he could do to prepare, that his condition was perfect and he would be entering these championships at his best. As Štybar sailed through the opening parcours, Nys proved his legs were as good as his word, and smoothly bridged up to the Czech champion, leaving Mourey, Van der Haar and Van Amerongen to claw their way back on.
As Štybar pounded his way across the fields, it was clear that all but Nys were being put in difficult straits. As Van Amerongen fell off the pace, Mourey and Van Der Haar began to yo-yo behind the power of the two world champions. A botched remount in the pits saw Van der Haar lose contact briefly, but the Dutch star dug deep, and pulled his way back to the three ahead.
Behind, Klaas Vantournout led the Belgian chase, with Rob Peeters and first-year Elite Wietse Bosmans in tow, along with German Philip Wasleben and Czech Radomir Simunek. Kevin Pauwels was further behind, making up ground after a poor start. Though none would come in contact with the sharp end of the race, the final podium spot was far from settled.
And Then There Were Two
Over the next two laps, Štybar and Nys traded leads and tested jabs, each feeling out the fitness of the other. Though the two stayed as close as dancers, the process of sizing each other up slowly dissected the hopes of Van der Haar and Mourey.
Mourey was the first to fold, falling off near the opening of the fourth lap. As the remaining three leaders wound the course, Nys – perhaps noticing that the chasers had pulled to within 12 seconds – opened the throttle and put the rest on the ropes. Štybar responded, and a significant bobble by Van der Haar on a tight, off-camber U-turn put an end to any dreams the young Dutchman had of taking home a gold medal. He never saw the leaders again.
Nys’ efforts expanded the gap to the chasers, and from that point on, the race turned into a tense, dramatic duel between the two world champions.