By Jason Sumner
For the rest of the world, Monday’s cyclocross headlines focused on Zdenek Stybar’s Roubaix World Cup win and subsequent ascension to the top of the World Cup standings. But in Belgium, motherland and epicenter of elite level ’cross, Niels Albert grabbed front-page attention.
Following a lackluster eighth-place performance in the penultimate round of the World Cup, the reigning world champion called his chances to repeat at the 2010 world’s two Sundays from now in Tabor, Czech Republic, slim and none. The 23-year-old broke a rib two Sundays ago at the Belgian national championships, and was far off his game in Roubaix.
Albert claimed the injury was bothering him throughout the race, and while he was able to ride with the frontrunners for the first half hour, he faded badly in the second 30 minutes, finishing 1:32 behind Stybar. That pushed Stybar ahead of Albert in the World Cup standings with just next Sunday’s World Cup final in Hoogerheide, Holland, left on the series calendar.
As compelling as the result of Albert’s injury was, intrigue surrounding the cause remains the hot topic at the BKCP team compound. Depending on who you believe, a fan along the side of the course at the Belgian national championships intentionally or accidentally pulled Albert off his bike, sending the 23-year-old slamming into his handlebars, and cracking a rib in the process.
After that race, Albert said he was certain it was on purpose — and that the fan in question was a supporter of top rival Sven Nys. But when members of the press tracked down the allegedly drunk fan, he claimed it was an accident — and he was sporting a Niels Albert supporters hat.
No one knows when the hat was actually purchased, but that was ample ammunition for Nys to fire back that the fan was definitely not one of his. Meanwhile, Albert’s handlers said they initially considered taking legal action against the fan, figuring correctly that the injury would greatly impact the final month of Albert’s rainbow stripes season.
Two days before the Roubaix World Cup, Albert was still visibly angry about the situation, but said he was ready to put the whole brouhaha behind him.
“I don’t know who the guy was or what his intentions were,” said Albert in an exclusive interview with VeloNews at his team’s training base in Morkhoven, Belgium. “The Belgian press thinks he was just some drunk guy, so what I think doesn’t really matter I guess.”
What Albert does claim to know is what happened. “There was a leading group of three or four riders, and then a gap of about 10 seconds to the chase,” he said about the critical moment at the Belgian national championships held Jan. 10 in Oostmalle, and won for a seventh time by Sven Nys. “When we come into the woods some guy pull on my arm and I fall off my bike. And I know this was not an accident. Because when it is an accident, maybe someone brushes you because they are trying to take a picture, you know what it feels like. And when someone grabs your arm, that is a different feeling.”
Prior to Sunday’s World Cup, Albert said that while he was resigned to the fact that his grip on the World Cup title would soon slip away, he figured he’d be okay come world’s time in Tabor. “Right now it is hard to breathe or even lift my arm high in the air,” he said. “But my training is still okay, and I think I will be okay by then.”
He also figured that the race in Tabor would be a much more wide-open affair than in 2009, when the Belgians raced more as a team in order to assure the rainbow stripes didn’t end up on enemy shoulders as was the case with Dutchman Lars Boom in 2008.
“Tabor will be a different race than last year,” Albert predicted. “This year there are three or four Belgians who want to win, plus Stybar. But the Belgians will not ride like last year. We will all ride to win. Sven will not leave a gap for me this year, like last year. Still, I think the winner this year could be a surprise, maybe someone we are not expecting because the others are watching each other.”
After Sunday’s World Cup, though, it sounds like that rider will not be Niels Albert.