by Christine Vardaros

Klaas Vantornout with Tom Meeusen in the Tour of Belgium. © Jonas Bruffaerts

A Telenet-Fidea jersey tucked in behind Tom Boonen’s Quickstep jersey in a sprint. A BKCP-Powerplus jersey wedged between Philippe Gilbert and André Greipel’s Omega Pharma-Lotto jerseys while shooting through a tight turn at over 30mph. These rarities can only be found in one professional cycling event – the Tour of Belgium, a five-day stage race that weaves its way through Belgium’s countryside.

Since 2006, cyclocross racers have been taking the start of this event. Back then, it was only a handful of ’cross riders such as Sven Nys, Richard Groenendaal, Lars Boom and Sven Vanthourenhout. The ’cross racer count has since grown to about twenty coming from four teams: BKCP-Powerplus, Sunweb-Revor, Landbouwkrediet and Telenet-Fidea.

While some of the ’cross racers are there to battle it out for glory, the majority of the them have an agenda that has nothing to do with podium dreams.

The five-day professional stage race started off last Wednesday with a 5.6 kilometer time trial. The standout ’cross racer (who is indeed shooting for glory) was Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus). He finished 11th, eight seconds behind the winner. More impressive was that this former World Cyclocross and current Belgian Champion had the exact time as powerhouse road riders Boonen and Greipel. Although victorious in the prologue, Albert lost all chances for a high overall ranking the following day but remains determined to show himself in the remaining stages.

Albert tells Cyclocross Magazine, “I lost 17 minutes in the first stage. I was sleeping a little bit behind and I wanted to eat before the final, but the final started while I was eating so it was a little disappointing. Today is a hard race and I think we all know that Gilbert is the man we need to beat. But I think it’s not possible [to beat him]. [Editor’s note: Albert was correct; Gilbert won. And Albert did show himself.] No matter the outcome, this is only my first round with the season preparation.”

The second highest cyclocross finisher in the prologue was current Cyclocross World Champion Zdenek Stybar, who recently signed with Quickstep. He plans to transition to being a full-time road racer, similar to what Lars Boom had done a couple of years ago. Stybar’s second stage of the race was a real breakthrough in this direction. At a crucial moment of the race as the riders headed up the challenging Kemmelberg (a typical Tour of Flanders-style hill) for the last time, Gilbert delivered a vicious attack that blew apart the field. Stybar was the only rider to match Gilbert’s authority on the pedals.

“It was really fun!” exclaims Stybar, adding, “ I was also surprised because I was on the wheel of Tom [Boonen] and he lost the wheel [of Gilbert] , then [Björn] Leukemans was behind Gilbert and he also lost the wheel. So I had to first close the gap then I could follow him. It gave me a really nice feeling, especially because the first stage was really bad for me. I was two times in the wrong place when the front group rode away. That was a real pity.”

Modestly, Stybar admits he still has work to do before he is confident on the road scene. “It’s quite fun to be here because now I really know what it’s like to ride with guys like Tom [Boonen]. When I can learn from them, it’s a really big advantage for me because they have the experience. Yesterday I could feel that you could save a lot of energy when you have lots of experience.”

As for his cyclocross plans, Stybar adds, “Normally I hope I can do almost the whole season. I think that I will just skip some races. But I will see how I am in the series classifications before I decide. I want to really go for the spring classics next year – directly after the cross season, so I can’t ride a full season of 45 races. Otherwise I will be really completely dead after the season – like every year. I just have to take it a little easy to make sure I am not empty at the end.”

Another cyclocrosser standout at this event is Tom Meeusen. In the first stage, he was one of only a few ’crossers to infiltrate the lead group, although an untimely flat tire caused him to lose a little time. On the second stage, he crossed the line in eighth place just behind Tom Boonen. What is especially impressive about these performances is that he did not train for road racing and didn’t even expect to be at this event. Meeusen explains, “First stage I had a flat tire ten kilometers from the finish. Otherwise I was standing now top twenty in the ranking. Stage two was really nice for me, especially if you know I actually prepared instead for the two mountain bike World Cups here in Europe. But in the first one in Dalby Forest my rear derailleur broke off. I had to quit the race. I was so angry that I called to the team to say that I’m going to start in the Tour of Belgium.

It’s my first road race and it’s going really well especially considering I trained really for the mountain bike – not long but more explosive riding and I worked on climbing. I also trained a lot in the gym so I got a little more power. I think that is helping me today. Since the last training camp three weeks ago, I stopped with the gym since it’s hard to combine it with cycling.”

When asked if his taste of success will take him off of the dirt, Meeusen responds, “I think I can better start with being a good cyclocrosser because I am not yet at the top there. But I know now that I can ride on the road as well. But I can’t ride every week on this level; I don’t think I have the engine for it. I like cyclocross the most – mountain bike also, but ’cross is my goal and I like it the most.”

Bart Wellens, who recently announced he’ll start cyclocross season in the US, adds that Meeusen has yet another talent that keeps him at the front of the road race – elbows! “If you see [Niels] Albert or Tom Meeusen; they are also not afraid to push. If you are scared to ride at the front and don’t try to push with your elbows, you’re toast. Then if you can turn onto the Kemmelberg in twentieth position and the peloton breaks, then you are automatically in the front group.”

As for Wellens’ personal journey so far, he explains, “Most of us ’cross racers just don’t have the experience for a race like this. We need to know when to sit in the front. Yeah, I know we sit in the front when the Kemmelberg starts. But it is so difficult to get there. One hour before we were at the climb, the peloton was already at full gas to get in the front. After working hard for one full hour, I turned on the Kemmelberg only in 50th position.

It’s much harder than last year where it was the easiest race of the whole summer. We were with a group of 200 riders, no wind, weather was pretty good and you can ride on a wheel in the peloton – it was no problem. But this year it has been incredibly hard. So far I have ridden more in the grass on the side of the road than on the road [due to the heavy winds]. Yesterday we were with eighty people. Almost every cyclocross racer was there but also good sprinters – lots of guys from [Omega Pharma] Lotto and from Quickstep. The first day you can’t count because it’s a prologue of only five kilometers. So after two [stage] days I am totally done!”

Going into the race, Wellens had already completed a bit of pre-season workout sessions. “Directly following ’cross season, I went to the gym for one and a half months. Three weeks ago we returned from a good three-week training camp in Spain. Since then I’d done three small road races and a mountain bike race – that one was for fun. I ride my mountain bike only for races. I don’t actually train with it. I train only with the road bike. But I race mountain bikes strictly for fun. I don’t expect to be on the podium – it is for something else to do. After road nationals at the end of June, I will take about seven to ten days of rest then it’s full preparation for cyclocross. But at the moment I am not yet thinking about cyclocross,” quips Wellens.

Yet another ’crosser who is feeling the tempo of a top level road event is 21-year-old Landbouwkrediet rider Vincent Bastaens. It is also the first road stage race for this standout U-23 cross rider. “It’s good to be here but it’s very hard of course; in the peloton there are very good riders so the race is a high level. I am not yet as good as I expected but we will see how the rest of the race goes. But…it’s good training for the winter. I like the field racing more; I find cyclocross is more honest because it’s one hour and usually the best rider wins. But on the road you need a lot of luck.”

After last year’s ’cross season filled with crashes and spills, Radomir Simunek appears to be off to a good start with solid health. Simunek explains, “This year I think I am better – so far crash-free. Still this race is very difficult for me with so many good riders here like Boonen and Gilbert. But I think for myself it is good training for the winter season. I may be finishing with the last group but I am thankful for the training.”

On the podium for pre-race sign-in, Klaas Vantornout shared a few words with his ’cross fans. “I am here to get faster and prepare for the upcoming ’cross season. My most important training month for cyclocross is August – with two big altitude training camps.”

Considering the sheer amount of ’crossers at this top road event, are the full-time road racers affected by their presence? All curiosity was squelched when André Greipel himself gave his opinion to Cyclocross Magazine. “It’s great to have them here. They are very talented riders. I expect it will be hard to shake them on a [climbing] stage like today.” He was right. At the 50 kilometer mark, in a twenty-man break, the cyclocrossers were well represented with Stybar, Meeusen, Albert, Vanthourenhout, and Philip Walsleben. They were finally shaken off by eventual winner Gilbert … but not without a fight.

Photo Gallery: