If there’s an emerging theme in European cyclocross ─ at least for the month of November ─ you can express it in a single word: mud. Before today, Belgian Champion Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) had slipped and slid his way to three straight victories. Boosted by his superior technique in bad conditions, Nys had already brought home wins on the cobbled Koppenberg, in a hailstorm in Ronse, and on a saturated track in Thursday’s Armistice Day race in Niel.
And, as the rains that started weeks ago continued to fall across Belgium, flooding streets and driving rivers over their banks in places, Sunday’s third round of the Nissan Superprestige series in Hamme-Zogge certainly seemed to favor Nys to extend his win streak to four. But the rain tapered off just in time for today’s start, leaving racers with a course thick with a soupy mud that looked likely to feature as much running as pedaling, conditions under which Nys’ technical gifts have not always been sufficient boost him over some of the peloton’s more talented runners.
But if Nys struggled today it didn’t show, and the Belgian Champion thrilled the huge crowds that packed the fields here in Hamme-Zogge with a dramatic come from behind victory over Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor) and Niels Albert (BKCP-PowerPlus).
American Jonathan Page (Planet Bike), coming off yesterday’s fourth place finish in Dottingnies, in Belgium’s Walloon region, was the first out of the gate, charging into the knee-deep mud and water just beyond the pavement. But midway through the first lap Page was overtaken by Vantornout, who used his long stride and speed off the bike to quickly gain an advantage of some 10 seconds over the field. Behind him, teammate Sven Vanthourenhout (Sunweb-Revor) and Bart Aernouts (Rabobank) led a huge chase group that included World Champion Zdenek Stybar (Telenet-Fidea), making his return to ‘cross after being sidelined for Thursday’s race in Niel by a training injury, Albert, and a host of other contenders.
Nys, meanwhile, trailed the main chase for much of the first lap, but told Velonews afterwards that his slow start was a strategic decision. “I just wanted to have good speed, but not go over the limit,” he said. “I didn’t want to get nervous and try to go immediately to the front, but relax, stay cool, and try to focus on my own heartbeat.”
The strategy apparently worked and, by the end of the race’s second lap, Nys had reached the front, sitting relaxed in third place while Vantornout continued to drive the pace up front. By the end of the next lap the mud began to take its toll, and the lead group fractured, setting up a three-man race between Nys, Vantornout, and Albert.
While the three leaders traded attacks and worked to stretch their lead over the rest of the field, Stybar came to the front of the chase, leading a group that featured three of his Telenet-Fidea teammates, Bart Wellens, Rob Peeters, and Kevin Pauwels, as well as several others. But Stybar’s efforts proved to be simultaneously too much and not enough: too much for the Czech to sustain, but not enough to reduce the growing gap to the leaders. When Stybar faltered, Wellens took up the charge, pulling away from the rest of the chase group, but gaining no time on the three leaders. The two-time World Champion would go on to finish fourth, while Stybar would fade to sixth behind teammate Peeters, a disappointing result that dropped him from first to second in the overall series classification.
By the time the leaders got the bell it was clear that the winner would emerge from that group, and Nys fired the first shot, attacking as soon as the leaders plunged into the mud again. Albert and Vantornout quickly closed the gap, and Vantornout briefly was able to pull away on one of the course’s several long stretches of running, but the three came back together and Nys again went clear when he bypassed pits while the other two switched bikes. The chasers closed the gap, but the effort was costly, and Albert fell off the pace with half a lap to go.
In the end, Nys managed to power away from Vantornout, who said that he simply lacked the power to match Nys on the final stretch of pavement.
“It was hard today,” the lanky 2010 World Championships runner-up told VeloNews later. “It was very heavy, very muddy, and your own tempo was very important. And that was good for me. I’m a good runner. This is cyclocross, I love it, all the mud.
Vantornout added that, despite the falling short in the race’s final moments, he was very happy to be back on form after a series of difficult weeks. “Today is a very important race for my team,” he said. “The weeks before I was a little bit ill, and my results were not so good, but I was really working hard for (this race), and here I am.”
Albert, who would cross the line some 40 seconds behind the two leaders, said that he was happy to find himself on the podium yet again, albeit off the top step. “It was a really tough day,” he said. “We had lots of rain the (past few days). The field was like a big swimming pool. You can train for running, but after I had my knee problems (earlier in the season) I couldn’t run, so I was happy with the third place. At this top level, it’s not so easy to close the gap on Sven or Stybar. Today the gap was a little bit smaller than the last two weeks. Every week it’s a little smaller, so hopefully in a few weeks I am in the front.”
Nys, for his part, said he was gratified to win a race that did not completely suit his strengths. “Today it was closer (than the last few races), but it was a race that’s not so good for me. It’s too much running, I think. This running is not what I’m used to doing, and I’m not the best runner of the whole peloton. But my shape is really good and so I can do everything. For this race, mentally you must be really strong, and try to motivate yourself and stay really focused. I put everything into the last lap.”
Jonathan Page, for his part, couldn’t sustain his strong start and faded to 19th place by the end of the race. “I was tired from yesterday,” he said, “and I’m still not in great shape yet.” Page, who has struggled to regain his form since a back injury in the Plzen World Cup last month, said he was nonetheless optimistic about his prospects for the second half of the season.
Canadian Craig Richey (CyclocrossRacing.com), in his first career start in Belgium, finished 28th.