By Jason Sumner
What a difference a week makes — especially when it’s spent in the Spanish sun. Seven days after a lackluster eighth-place finish at the World Cup stop in Roubaix, a rejuvenated and recovered Niels Albert blitzed to his fourth series win at the finale on Sunday in Hoogerheide, the Netherlands.
In Roubaix Albert claimed he was slowed by a cracked rib, the result of an altercation with a fan at the Belgian national championships on January 10. But after spending the week training in Spain, and then getting a pain-killing injection before the Hoogerheide race, the BKCP-Powerplus rider was back to his powerful self, beating back the one-two punch of Telenet-Fidea teammates Zdenek Stybar and Kevin Pauwels, who ended up second and third respectively.
“Last week I was down and had lost some confidence,” said Albert, who had gone so far as to tell the Belgian media he no longer considered himself a contender for next Sunday’s world championships in Tabor, Czech Republic. “But I went to Spain this week and trained well. Right now the condition is good. The power is there. I’m ready to win worlds again.”
Standing in his way will be Czech native Stybar, who gave the Belgian all he could handle Sunday, claiming the overall World Cup crown in the process. The pair ended the season separated by just four points.
“It was an unbelievably hard race for me. I didn’t feel as good as last weekend,” said Stybar, who won convincingly in Roubaix, but was seven seconds off the top spot in Hoogerheide. “But I fought to the end because I couldn’t give up or I would lose the jersey.”
Indeed, anything less than second, and Albert — not Stybar — would have claimed the coveted title.
“To be honest I never expected this,” continued Stybar. “It’s something very special, because from beginning to end of the season you have to be very good. This was a super hard race, the hardest of the year.”
Despite claiming to feel a bit off, Stybar had the lead early on until Albert gave it the gas on lap three, followed by Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago). Stybar chased with a group that included Pauwels, Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb), Gerben De Knegt (Rabobank) and American Jonathan Page (Planet Bike).
Going into lap four Stybar had caught back on, with Pauwels, Vantornout and De Knegt. Meanwhile Page, after riding as high as second, dropped back to Belgian Erwin Vervecken.
“I was on the rivet the whole day,” said Page, who ended up eighth, 1:06 back.
Albert attacked once again, taking a five-second lead into lap five. Stybar was chasing in second with Pauwels third, Vantornout fourth and De Knegt fifth. Nys, winner of Saturday’s Kasteelcross Zonnebeke, was clearly not at his best and losing ground.
“Today Albert was really strong,” confirmed Stybar. “He was riding from beginning to end. After his injury, I think we were all surprised. Even Nys had to ride a smaller gear just to recover for a half lap after trying to go with him.”
Soon it was a three-man group up front — Albert, Stybar and Pauwels — with De Knegt, Vantornout and Nys chasing at seven seconds. But Albert punched it again, leaving his companions behind.
Then Nys crashed in a slippery 180-degree corner, briefly disrupting the chase. Up front, it was once again a three-man race until Pauwels hit the deck just as Albert once again upped the pace, riding a dicey section the others were running. Pauwels hit the pits for a fresh bike and fell behind as Albert drove on with a four-second gap over Stybar.
Going into the seventh lap Pauwels was 12 seconds back. Stybar tried his luck but couldn’t shake the world champ, and soon Albert was at the front again. Stybar regained the front as Albert pitted, and a determined Pauwels was closing in on the leaders. Vantornout was a solo fourth with Nys back in a small group with Page, Vervecken and De Knegt.
As the two leaders began the final go-round Pauwels was right on their heels. Stybar attacked in the mud, gapping Pauwels but not Albert. The world champion was next to attack, and he and Stybar were banging bars in a hairpin corner, a tussle the larger Stybar won.
Then Stybar bobbled in the same corner that took down Pauwels a lap earlier, and again Albert took advantage, first opening a four-second lead, then doubling it. And that was the race — Stybar hung on for second at seven seconds back with Pauwels third in the same time.
Now they’ll all turn their attention to Tabor, which will likely feature far different conditions than the wet but fast track in Hoogerheide. “I have the advantage because I have done a race there and will be riding in front of my fans,” said Stybar. “But that will also bring more stress and pressure.”
Stybar said the organizers have cleared away most of the snow, “but there will still be some ice, I think. It will be very slippery because right now they are expecting that it will stay cold during the week. But if it does go above (freezing) and the sun comes out, everything will change.”
Page, who called his Hoogerheide effort his best of the year, is hoping it stays cold in Tabor. “I like the snow,” he said. “I should be able to go top 10 again; top five would be exceptional.”
Race notes: Americans in Hoogerheide
The U.S. sent six riders to the start line Sunday, with Jonathan Page producing by far the best result, finishing eighth.
“I was the weakest guy in the (chase) group,” admitted Page, after finishing fourth of four in what amounted to a battle for fifth place between Sven Nys, Erwin Vervecken, Gerben De Knegt and Page, who finished in that order. “I had to take a late bike change, and then had to switch back because it had too little air in it. At this level one switch makes a difference.”
U.S. national champion Tim Johnson was the next American across, slotting into 32nd, 3:59 behind Albert. “It was actually an awesome day for me,” said Johnson. “I proved to myself that I could ride the whole hour without dying. I knew the fitness was good but I wasn’t sure how I’d go. I knew I needed to prepare to get my ass kicked and not give up, and that’s what I did today.”
Johnson said he started the race in the fourth row, but wasn’t willing to use that as an excuse.
“I had a bad start today and couldn’t get my pedal,” he said. “But it’s possible to make it up. Albert was actually behind me at the start. He tanked it really bad but came flying by me. I mean I was in the 30s when he passed me.”
Jamey Driscoll was 40th, Jeremy Powers was 51st, and Ryan Trebon and Troy Wells were both DNFs.
“It was hard,” lamented Powers at the finish. “But I’ve just got to work through it a day at a time. This is Euro racing so I’m not going to get down on myself.”
• Click here for Jason Sumner’s photos from the men’s race.