ZOLDER, Belgium (VN) — For a guy just dabbling in cyclocross this season, Lars Boom is making a pretty good impression.
The 2008 world champion, who has since focused most of his attention on the road, had only returned to cyclocross this month, insisting that he is racing in the mud as preparation for the road and “ to entertain myself, no more than that.”
On a snow-covered World Cup course in Zolder, Belgium, on Sunday, one would have to say that Boom looked pretty darn entertained as he overcame early mechanical troubles and rode away from a field featuring the world’s best.
Pauwels’ quick start … and fade
Two weeks of nearly nonstop snowfall have turned this into what may be Belgium’s snowiest and coldest December since the Allies repelled the final German offensive of the Second World War in the Battle of the Bulge.
That pivotal moment in WWII took place in the frozen hills of the Ardennes, just about 100km southeast from the Formula 1 circuit at Zolder where there was a decidedly more festive atmosphere to the sixth round of the UCI Cyclocross World Cup.
With temperatures hovering near freezing, fresh snowfall on Christmas added extra challenge to an already technical course, which wound its way around the low hills at the center of the racetrack.
Afternoon temperatures warmed enough to allow all of the snow on the small paved sections of the Zolder course to be cleared, leaving only a sheen of water on the asphalt. Starting on the race track, the course made a quick left turn on to a narrow dirt section, forcing a bottleneck just seconds after the gun went off.
Kevin Pauwels (Telenet-Fidea), second in the World Cup standings, took advantage of his prime starting position and took an early lead as other riders battled traffic, leaving many to run on the slippery snow-covered surface.
Despite his relatively bad starting position, Boom navigated the early traffic jam, caught and then passed Pauwels midway through the first lap. Tight on the Rabobank rider’s wheel was World Cup leader Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus). Pauwels struggled to hang on but soon found himself drifting back to a large group led by Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) and Czech star Radomir Simunek Jr. (BKCP-Powerplus).
Strong ride … with early troubles
Boom quickly established an early lead, ending his first lap alongside Pauwels with nearly a half-minute on the third-placed Nys.
Boom went to work on lap 2, building a lead by taking advantage of his superior strength on the straight sections and bounding up the steep sections of a run-up that saw Albert struggling. Indeed, Boom looked set to solo the entire event, were it not for the fact that he had troubles on the sandy downhill sections with tight, off-camber turns.
“I dropped my chain every time I came to the downhills,” he said.
On the third lap, Boom dropped his chain on two tight corners and soon found himself chasing to close a 13-second gap to Albert.
After a quick bike change on lap 4, Boom steadily narrowed the gap, passing Albert for good just after the start of lap 6.
Behind, Simunek, who had been fighting Nys and Gerben De Knegt (Rabobank) for the final podium spot, crashed into a barrier, leaving the race with what appeared to be a broken collarbone.
Over the final two laps, Boom appeared to be riding a conservative race, hoping to avoid a fate similar to that of the Czech rider. That caution gave Albert an opportunity to close the gap, but it never got closer than four or five seconds.
Boom hit the final run-up at full speed and then extended his lead to 10 by the time Albert picked his way up the climb.
The big Dutch rider only let up when he rounded the final turn, cast a glance back over his shoulder and realized that he was on his way to the win.
“It’s nice to win in Zolder and it’s great to come back after so much time away from cyclocross,” Boom said.
‘I had in mind to try to win’
“Before the race, before I saw the track, I had in mind to try to win today,” Boom told VeloNews after the race. “But then I saw the track and was like, ‘No way!’ And I didn’t know what would happen today because I was on the fifth row in the start. So you have to see if you have a good start; when you’re in 10th position you’re already screwed, you’re too far away.”
Boom, of course, did have a good start despite the poor position on the line. The big Dutchman quickly took control, powering away from a largely Belgian contingent of chasers. Boom’s early attack — perhaps surprisingly — was a hit with crowds who once regarded him as the only serious threat to Flemish supremacy in cyclocross, and, therefore, a despised rival.
“Today was really good,” he said. “All the Belgian people like that I came back to do some races, and they get to see some nice cyclocross races and some nice competition. Of course, two years back we had a bit of a fight between Niels and Sven Nys and me — and the Belgian people were against me also in the (2009) world championships in Hoogerheide. But it’s normal.”
The popular appeal of Boom’s return to the sport might be linked to the fact that he will not contest the worlds in St. Wendel, Germany, next month. The Dutch racer continued to emphasize that while he was happy to see he still has the legs to match the sport’s best on its biggest stage, he still regarded ’cross as nothing more than preparation for his blossoming road career.
“This is my fourth race this season,” said Boom. “I’ve been away for most of two years — last year I only did two cyclocross races — I had two years on the road. Some of (my road teammates) are training in Girona in Spain. I did that last year and it didn’t feel good for me. I’ve had a lot of fun in cyclocross, and it was fun to be home in November and December to train in the woods and on the road. For me, this is better preparation for the road season than doing long hours on the road in Spain.”
Albert keeps World Cup lead
Albert, Boom’s one-time foe, was vanquished again today. Nonetheless, he continued to benefit from his consistent showings in World Cup races, and extended his overall lead in the series to 66 points over Nys, who himself moved into second position, five points ahead of Pauwels.
Albert, however, told reporters that he will continue to take his racing one day at a time.
“I’ve never ridden cyclocross with an eye on the classifications, and I’m still not doing that, because it could all be over in one day,” said the one-time world champion. “I might be well positioned for the World Cup, but if I have a mechanical (in the next round) in Pont-Château and finish 25th, it could all be over.”
Meanwhile, while Boom’s return to form may have been the headline of the day, third place may have represented an equally significant breakthrough for Bart Wellens (Telenet-Fidea), who endured an eight-race streak of near misses — finishing either fourth or fifth each time — in November and early December.
“This season I’ve been every week fourth place,” Wellens told VeloNews, explaining that a crash early in the race actually helped him relax and ride better. “Sometimes that was my fault, I made mistakes, but sometimes it was just bad luck. Today, I had again bad luck on the start. In the first two corners I crashed. So I was like 16th or 17th place. But then the feelings were good, and I found the good tracks, and I felt like I didn’t need to push, so I felt good.”
Wellens said that he didn’t really understand just how well he was riding until just before he connected with the group battling for third.
“One time my father was yelling, ‘Yeah, you can go for third place!’” he said. “Then I saw Sven Nys and Simunek up ahead, and the moment that I got to them, they crashed. So it was just full gas to the finish. And it was good enough.”
Tough day for the North Americans
Despite the large North American contingent in the race — 10 riders — only Jonathan Page (Planet Bike) managed to finish on the lead lap. Ryan Trebon (Kona-FSA) opted not to take the start, while his teammate Sean Babcock looked strong all day, but was pulled along with the majority of the race’s entrants who were simply outmatched by the technical prowess of Boom and company.
Babcock finished 36th, while the United States’ other entrants, Mark Lalonde, Ryan Iddings, Ryan Knapp, Mitchell Hoke and Brian Matter finished 48th, 53rd, 58th, 59th, and 61st, respectively. Craig Richey led the Canadian contingent in 49th, while countrymen Mike Garrigan and Shaun Adamson finished 52nd and 60th.
Page, meanwhile, finished the day in 19th, and may have had a chance for a significantly better result had he not fallen several times during the race’s early laps. Once he got going, the New Hampshire native, looking more comfortable in the snow than many of his European competitors, passed more than a dozen people during the later laps.
“It was just mayhem at the start,” Page said. “There were guys who would get caught in ruts and then they would get thrown sideways and everybody else would pile up behind them. I spent the first part of the race just bouncing off people.”
Page, who is still recovering from an ankle injury during last weekend’s Scheldecross race in Antwerp, said he considered dropping out in order to protect it after the first couple of laps.
“I asked (my mechanic) Franky if I should just stop the race and be safe, but he said keep going and just start picking off people,” Page explained. “And that’s what I did the whole day.”
Page and his compatriots return to action Monday in the sixth round of the Nissan Superprestige Cyclocross series in Diegem, just outside of the Belgian capital Brussels. The World Cup, meanwhile, resumes in three weeks time in Pont-Château, France.
Dan Seaton and VeloNews.com senior editor Charles Pelkey contributed to this report.