In conditions more like late August than early October, with bright sunshine and temperatures reaching well into the 70s, European cyclists kicked off the first of their major cyclocross series, the Trofee Gazet van Antwerpen, at the Cyclocross de Namur Citadelle. But the summer-like conditions extended only so far, as a week of rain in Belgium turned an already challenging course — featuring a series of steep, technical descents and often unrideable climbs — into a course that many racers described as one of the hardest they had seen.
In the women’s race, Dutchwoman Sanne Van Paassen (Brainwash) stretched an early-season win streak to three, riding to an impressive solo victory over two national champions, the Netherlands’ Daphny Van Den Brand (ZZPRNL) and Belgium’s Sanne Cant (BKCP-Powerplus).
Van Paassen, who recovered from an early fall to take the lead part way through the second lap, was able to quickly whittle a group of five, including Van Den Brand, Cant, British champion Helen Wyman (Kona-Bongo Bongo) and the diminutive Czech rider Pavla Havlikova (APB), down to three before striking out on her own.
Behind her, Van Den Brand and Cant battled for most of the race before a bobble by Cant on the final lap allowed the Dutch rider to open a gap just as the two reached the stairs at the top of the course. The misstep cost the rising Belgian star any chance at second place, as Van Den Brand pulled steadily away, eventually opening a nearly 30-second gap over Cant. Havlikova, who proved herself a skilled climber with a win at last year’s Koppenbergcross, held off Wyman for fourth.
Van Paassen, who, with a 21-second lead over Van Den Brand, had plenty of time to celebrate the best season start of her career, told VeloNews that the race had gone according to plan.
“You don’t have to do very much in the beginning because later on it will be very, very hard,” she said. “I think I didn’t do too much in the beginning, I relaxed, and later on I was able to go. That was my plan.”
American Christine Vardaros (Baboco-Revor), who finished 17th, told VeloNews that, having changed teams this week, she was satisfied with her race. “I was just happy to be on my bike and feeling good about the team I race for,” she said. “This was easily the heaviest course we’ve ever done. Like nothing we’ve seen before. The only rest was the pavement.”
If there was any doubt about Vardaros’ assessment of the course, the men’s race erased it. Before the start it appeared the race would boil down to a contest between two riders, Belgian champion Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet-Colnago), who has been unmatched in both form and technical flair in early season races, and the 24 year-old world champion, Czech Zdenek Stybar (Telenet-Fidea). Stybar is making his return to Belgian cycling after racing the first weeks of the season at home.
But from the gun it was clear it was not Nys’ day, as the perennial favorite suffered mechanical trouble that left him stranded deep in the field while Stybar jumped immediately to the front of the race. The world champion set an aggressive tempo in the early laps that only 2010 worlds runner-up, Belgian Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor), Bart Aernouts (Rabo Offroad Team) and his own teammate Kevin Pauwels (Telenet-Fidea) could match.
Aernouts was the first to lose contact with the leaders, dangling while many of the racers took advantage of the UCI’s rule change to allow racers to take feeds in the pits this season. Behind him, two-time world champion Bart Wellens (Telenet-Fidea) recovered from a slow start, launching a dramatic chase that eventually netted him a fifth-place finish. Though Aernouts would hold off Wellen’s charge, he never managed to reconnect with the leaders, finishing just off of the podium in fourth place.
For Nys, meanwhile, nothing seemed to go right, as the Belgian only faded further, eventually abandoning with a gap of more than two minutes to the leaders. Nys was not alone, however, as a dozen riders walked away from the race, defeated by the heat and heavy terrain.
Up front, the group of three was cut to two when Pauwels lost contact after a flat tire. Though Pauwels fought his way back to within a handful of seconds of the leaders with two laps to go, the effort was costly, and he faltered in the final lap, finishing in third, 31 seconds off the lead, while Vantornout and Stybar continued to spar at the head of the race.
Several times it looked like the tall and lanky Belgian Vantornout, whose relaxed climbing contrasted with Stybar’s more physical riding, had pulled clear, but each time the world champion closed the gap again. In the end, the more technically skilled Stybar was able to come around Vantornout, making a very tight pass on a difficult off-camber. The Belgian hit the brakes and the Czech attacked, powering through the final climbs to take an eight-second victory, stamping his name as the clear favorite for the GVA Trofee title.
“It’s always very difficult at the first race,” Stybar told reporters afterwards. “You don’t know your real position in the group. I felt OK, but you know if you ride too fast the first lap, you could pay it for at the end.
“I wanted to try to really go deep on the last lap and know where my limit is. I was just trying to go really hard for the last part of the race. Normally Klaas is faster on the climb, but I think I proved that this time I was the fastest.”
Vantornout, for his part, said he simply couldn’t match the Czech’s form or technical skills.
“My condition is very good,” he said, “I was riding for the victory, but I’m second today, so it was just not good enough. Stybar was technically a little bit stronger than me, and he was faster on the downhills on the last lap. Before the big climb he had fifty meters on me and it was over.”
American Jonathan Page (Planet Bike), who made his return to Europe after a few weeks in the United States, said he was still tired from the trip. Page told VeloNews that he was mainly focused on getting a good workout.
“I just wanted to finish the race today and not go too incredibly deep,” he said. “But it’s just hard to ride around this course. It’s very hard, very steep hills, still really muddy, even though it’s a beautiful day.” Page finished 23rd on the day.
The GVA Trofee resumes in a month on the storied slopes of the Koppenberg.