Koksijde, Belgium (VN) — Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) carved the fastest line through the Belgian sand on Saturday, winning round three of the 2010 UCI World Cup at Koksijde.
The former world champion escaped a powerful lead group that included world champion Zdenek Stybar (Telenet-Fidea) and rode the final five laps alone to win in 1:06:05.
With Albert off the front and untouchable, the real race was for second. Telenet’s Bart Wellens made a valiant late bid for the runner-up spot but stumbled on a sandy run-up and saw teammate Stybar, Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) and Bart Aernouts (Rabobank-Giant) all slip past him, pushing him completely off the podium and into fifth.
Jonathan Page (Planet Bike) was the top American, finishing 21st at 4:54. American champion Tim Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) finished 32nd at two laps down.
Cold, with a side of sand
By the time the men’s race started, the course had dried out a bit. It was a sunny but chilly day, with temperatures of 3 degrees Celsius (37 Fahrenheit). But there would be plenty of sweat spilled on the 2.95km course, which was peppered with sand — lots and lots of sand — plus a succession of short, steep climbs and sketchy descents. In short, this was no day at the beach.
It was the relatively unknown German Christophe Pfingsten (Van Vliet EBH Elshof) who, for the second time in the 2010 World Cup, shot to the front right from the gun. The German led Stybar over the first short, steep climb of the race, but quickly faded and the Czech took over as the race came into the sand for the first time, with teammates Tom Meussen and Kevin Pauwels.
Aernouts and Rob Peeters (Telenet-Fidea) were chasing at five seconds, with Nys well back in traffic behind Wellens, Francis Mourey (FdJ) and Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor).
As the first lap came to an end Peeters and Aernouts had made it across to the leaders, with Mourey leading Vantornout and Nys at seven seconds.
Peeters had to pit and fell out of the lead group. Nys, meanwhile, left the chase behind and set off in a solo pursuit of the leaders, followed by Peeters and Mourey, who was making lots of little mistakes but still managed to stay in the hunt.
Behind a crash took down Page and delayed a handful of others.
Four men in the front
Going into the third lap it was a four-man group up front — Stybar, Pauwels, Aernouts and Meussen — with Nys, Mourey, Albert, Peeters, Wellens and Gerben De Knegt (Rabobank-Giant) chasing.
Aernouts came to the front at the start of a long sandy stretch with Stybar locked to his wheel. Nys and Albert were dangling just short of a hookup, and as Stybar pitted the chase finally connected — with six laps to go it was a nine-man group out front.
But it wouldn’t stay that way for long. Nys attacked and Stybar chased, then countered. De Knegt followed, as did Albert, and suddenly Nys found himself well off the back with Mourey for company.
Stybar bobbled a dismount in the sand and saw his lead evaporate. Albert came to the front with De Knegt and the two took a slight lead over the world champion with Aernouts just behind.
Albert says adios
Then Albert really gave it the gas — he left De Knegt behind with Stybar and Aernouts, and with five laps to go he had a five-second advantage over a six-man chase led by the rainbow jersey.
Koksijde’s sandy roller-coaster course was a good one to ride and run alone. Albert was free to choose his own lines and never found himself slowed by another rider’s errors, giving him a solid advantage over his pursuers.
With four laps remaining Albert had doubled his lead to 10 seconds. Wellens had emerged from the chase and into second place with Aernouts third a further three seconds behind. Nys led a second chase at 27 seconds.
Before much longer Stybar, Wellens and Aernouts were riding together. But Albert was out of sight, 18 seconds ahead.
Nys and Pauwels made it across to the chasing trio, but despite its horsepower the pursuit was making no headway. With three laps to go Albert had a 28-second advantage and was showing no signs of fatigue, riding smoothly.
Wellens can taste the podium
Nys powered away from the chase in what appeared to be one of his patented late-race bids for victory, attacking into the sandy left-hander that had been giving Stybar trouble and quickly taking a five-second gap. Pauwels was tailed off as Wellens drove the chase.
With two laps to go Albert held firm to a half-minute edge as Wellens and Stybar clawed their way back to the Belgian champion. Aernouts and Pauwels were trailing.
Both Nys and Stybar pitted and Wellens moved into sole possession of the runner-up spot, chased by Aernouts. He was still there, 38 seconds behind the leader, as Albert heard the bell signaling the last lap.
Nys, meanwhile, was just a handful of seconds behind Wellens, chased by Stybar and Aernouts. And when Wellens stumbled on a sandy run-up, Stybar, Nys and Aernouts all took advantage and gave him the slip.
But it was only a race for second. A half minute ahead, Albert took the best kind of victory — all alone in the finish-line photo, with hands in the air.
“I liked the new course,” he told VeloNews at the post-race press conference, “but maybe there are a few little things that need to be changed. Just behind the start there’s a little hill, and if you come there as fifth person, you are already 15 seconds behind. I was 25th there today, so that was a little disaster.”
Albert, who has struggled in his starts all season, said that he was nonetheless confident he could get back into the race.
“I came to the first pit and my manager Christoph (Roodhooft) told me, ‘Don’t panic. Everything is okay,’” he said. “So I just worked a little bit every lap to get closer to the first group, and then in the fifth lap I was away. At Koksijde, the most important thing to do is not panic. For me Koksijde was marked in red. So I’m very happy that it worked out today. I’m really happy with the race.”
World champion and runner-up Stybar shared Albert’s concerns about the new course in Koksijde.
“I think there are still some places where the organization should take some care,” he said, “because the (fans) are very close. On the last sand section before the pit there were two or three spectators who always pushed me on the side from the ideal line. So I always had to ride there in the deep sand. So I think they need to make it a little bit wider on such an important section of the track.”
Stybar added that he was happy with a second-place finish on a day when he was clearly not at his best.
“I didn’t have any power,” he told reporters at the post-race press conference. “It was very difficult and I was not feeling good on the bike. But I could always close the gap, so that was very good.”
For third-place finisher Nys the day was a mixed result. After a month in which he nearly dominated European cyclocross, the Belgian champion found himself overmatched for the first time, but still managed to improve on his relatively disappointing World Cup results in Aigle and Plzen.
“I thought I was good enough to ride for the victory today,” said Nys. “But I had some problems with my bike just when I was really strong. My chain fell off in front, so that cost me a little bit of time, and at that moment Niels was in front and got a gap. I had to wait until I was second again to try to do something. I got 10 seconds closer, but he was also riding for first place, and I realized I had to ride for second or third. For me that was as good as possible.”
For Page, his troubles began with a crash from which he never really recovered. He struggled with cramps in the second half of the race, which slowed him considerably in the race’s final two laps, and wound up finishing 21st.
“I flipped over my handlebars once, so I started well, but then spent three-quarters of the race feeling horrible,” Page told VeloNews. “I started cramping again with almost 40 minutes to go. So I spent most of the race just trying to recover. I was battling myself. I’d like to feel good once, but I’m still waiting for that day.”
U.S. national champion Tim Johnson (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com) struggled early, starting deep in the field, and never really managed to find his rhythm in the sand. Johnson would finish a disappointing 32nd place, some two laps off the lead.
Dan Seaton contributed to this report.