Twice a year the Koppenberg wreaks havoc on professional cycling: once in the spring when the Ronde van Vlaanderen crosses its cobbled slopes, and once in autumn, when cyclocross fans crowd this hillside in the Flemish Ardennes to watch riders do battle with its legendary mud.
And the Koppenberg did not disappoint this year, as some 16,000 fans who turned out for a special holiday edition of the Koppenbergcross, the second race of the 2010 Gazet van Antwerpen Trofee series, were treated to two of the most dramatic victories of this cyclocross season.
In the women’s race, British national champion Helen Wyman (Kona) powered away from Belgian champion Sanne Cant (BKCP-Powerplus) to claim perhaps the biggest victory of her career, while in the men’s race, Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) dominated an impressive lineup, winning his seventh straight, and eighth career, Koppenberg title.
Even before the race, it was clear that victory Monday would demand a special balance of power, technique, and fearlessness, as the day’s early races ground the already steep and technical track into a thick soup of grass and sticky mud that clogged bikes, snapped derailleurs, and sucked up wheels and shoes alike.
And from the first moments of the women’s race, it was clear that Wyman, who lives in nearby Oudenaarde and finished second here last year, meant to win, opening an early gap by seemingly floating across a course that the rest of the racers, except for Sanne Cant, were forced to run.
Though both women had their share of bobbles and falls on the almost impossibly muddy course, Wyman was able to capitalize when Cant had mechanical trouble near the bottom of the cobbled section of the climb near the race’s halfway mark. While nearly two minutes behind, Dutch champion Daphny Van Den Brand (ZZPR.nl) and GVA series leader Sanne Van Paassen (Brainwash) battled for third, Wyman used superior handling and some good luck to pull away from Cant, eventually riding to a 30 second win.
“This was a massive win,” a beaming Wyman told VeloNews in a post-race interview. “This is my adopted hometown now and it’s an awesome race. The Koppenberg is just so famous, it’s amazing to do it.”
Wyman added that conditions were so bad that she may have actually benefitted from a mid-race flat. “The descent today was unbelievably difficult. It was just ridiculous … Actually, I had a flat tire coming into the uphill,” she explained, “and I actually got more traction because it was so flat.”
American Christine Vardaros (Baboco-Revor), who was sidelined much of this week by a serious stomach virus, rode to her best finish of the season, 12th place, just behind defending Koppenberg champion Pavla Havlikova (APB).
“I was really happy today. I saw quite a few racers during the race whom I haven’t seen in three or four years,” said Vardaros, who has been steadily improving since she started receiving treatment for a thyroid problem last year. “It felt like I was back to normal. The ironic thing is that my weakest skill is my running, and the smartest thing I did was run even when I could ride. Because otherwise the wheels don’t even turn (later on in the lap).”
In the men’s race it was another Oudenaarde resident, American Jonathan Page (Planet Bike) who shot to the front, driving the pace on the first ascent of the cobbles while the race favorites sorted themselves out behind.
Though world champion Zdenek Stybar (Fidea-Telenet) led the chase through much of the first half lap, it was Belgian champion Sven Nys who took over from Page, running past the American on one of the course’s most unrideable sections, just below the top of the hill.
Nys stormed down the steep, slick descent, while Page was slowed when he slid out into the tape on one of the descent’s many switchback turns. Only Stybar could match Nys on the descent, but Nys, buoyed by the huge, partisan crowd, hit the gas again, going clear on his way through the saturated field near the end of the lap at the bottom of the hill.
Nys, who cut through the mud with such finesse that, at times, it appeared he was racing on a different course than the rest of the riders, simply pulled away, gaining more than a minute in the course of the race’s seven laps. Behind him, a chase group of Stybar, Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus), Gerben de Knegt (Rabobank), and Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor) could do nothing to close the gap. The chase group quickly fractured on the descent, as Niels Albert used his superior handling to pull away from Stybar — who looked particularly uncomfortable in the mud all day and fell several times — and the rest of the bunch.
While Stybar went backward, his teammate, the unflappable Kevin Pauwels (Telenet-Fidea), was making his way forward. Pauwels came around Stybar in the pits near the end of the second lap, and quickly worked his way past de Knegt and Vantornout.
Though Albert mounted a valiant attempt to catch Nys, Nys showed that he remains the sport’s most technically gifted athlete, riding easily to his first major victory of the season, dispelling any suggestion that at 34 he could no longer match his younger rivals.
“I’m really excited,” Nys told VeloNews after the race. “This is a really hard race, it’s my favorite race, and when you can win for the eighth time here, it’s really fun. And with all the (supporters) who were standing along the course, it’s fantastic.”
Nys credited both his technique and the risky strategy of running his tires with next to no pressure in them with helping him to the win.
“I have a lot of technical skills,” he said, “but I think the tires are really important, the pressure that you put in them. Of course it’s dangerous to ride a flat tire, but when you don’t do it you crash every time.”
Albert, who went on to finish second on the day, told VeloNews that he was more satisfied with the day’s result after illness and injury hampered his early season.
“After (the race in Zonhoven) yesterday I was a little bit tired,” said the 2009 world champion, “and now on the season my condition is not very good. I didn’t train for two weeks, and now I’ve trained for four weeks. So for me, second place today is OK.”
Despite his strong showing in the first half of the race, Jonathan Page faded to a 25th place finish. The race’s sole American, he told VeloNews that he had planned to attack from the gun. “I took advantage of the line I had directly,” said Page, “then tried to recover and go up the hill fast. Year after year I’ve gotten caught after the cobbles section— it’s a bottleneck — and I didn’t want to deal with that anymore, so I went for it and it worked out. It’s just after that, I’m not recovering quite as well as I hope. But I’ll figure that out and eventually that will come good again.”
Page added that he thought the unique combination of skills the race demands — both power and finesse, often at the same time — make it a favorite for a lot of competitors. “You really have to pick your efforts,” he said. “Not only is it a huge effort to get up the hill, it’s a huge effort to get down without falling on your face. But that’s what makes ‘cross fun.”