ST. WENDEL, Germany (VN) — After suffering a mid-season knee injury, Zdenek Stybar decided he wanted to concentrate solely on a single race. It paid off on Sunday in St. Wendel as the Czech successfully defended his elite men’s world cyclocross title, finishing well ahead of Belgium’s Sven Nys.
Stybar crossed the line all alone, arms flung wide and punching the air. Seventeen seconds later Nys followed for second, waving to the crowd.
“Whatever race, it’s very difficult to win,” a smiling Stybar said afterward. “They say the most difficult to win is the first one, and the second one is a little bit easier. It’s really unbelievable. It’s really great.”
Great isn’t exactly what Stybar had been feeling in December when he decided to cut his World Cup campaign short, stop competition and then spend time recovering and training to regain form on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca.
“No one really expected that could put my whole focus on this one race … and then do well,” Stybar said. “No one really believed me when I put on my Twitter account how many hours I’d been doing on Mallorca, but I was motivated.”
Not being a Belgian is reason enough to go fast
Stybar’s motivation was evident from the start as he quickly moved to the front and led the field of 59 starters through the running track and onto the dirt of the 2.8km course around Sankt Wendel.
“I wanted to keep the pace as high as I could,” he said. “I was afraid that we would ride this race in too big of a group and that doesn’t suit me.”
Stybar’s efforts strung out the field almost in single file, with a small group forming up front. There at the front of a gaggle of black-red-and-gold-striped Belgian team kits was Stybar driving the pace with a small selection of others in the mix. American Jonathan Page appeared to be solidly in contention, ending the first lap in fifth, right there with Stybar, Nys and fellow Belgians Kevin Pauwels, Klaas Vantornout, Gerben de Knegt and Bart Wellens.
Local fans were thrilled to see young German phenom’ Phillipp Walsleben there, too, with France’s Francis Mourey and Italian Marco Fontana.
While still driving the pace at the front, Stybar looked around and decided he wasn’t too happy with the make-up of the lead group.
“Too many Belgians,” he said. “I didn’t like that.”
He continued to ride aggressively and the group was whittled down to more manageable levels. At the same time, Page suffered a flat and a rider who could have been a contender found himself chasing hard after a long ride back to the pits for a new bike.
Stybar and the Belgians continued to winnow down the field and after four laps the leaders included just the defending world champion, Nys, Pauwels, Vantornout, Walsleben and Fontana.
The six already had a comfortable gap on a rather sizable 10-man chase group that included Mourey and American Tim Johnson. However, Johnson’s chances evaporated just the group crossed the line at the end of lap four. Another rider caught a pedal in Johnson’s front wheel, the wheel collapsed and Johnson hit the deck. He was transported to a local hospital and Johnson said he suffered no major injuries in the mishap.
“I was just getting ready to move out of that group when the dude moved in from the left and drove me to the right,” Johnson told VeloNews. “There was no chance to save it … I dumped it hard. I guess — as the Germans say — I had a painful ausfahrt (exit) from this one. I was seriously ausfahrted.”
Johnson said he has major bruising around his ribs and “a couple of hairline fractures,” but he’s not too concerned about the long-term consequences of the crash because “hey, season’s over now.”
Meanwhile at the front, two more laps into the 11-lap event, Stybar decided to really test his legs.
“With three Belgians out there, I didn’t want to wait around and see which one of them would attack,” Stybar said. “I attacked once and only Sven stayed with me. I was comfortable with that.”
Not even Nys could hold Stybar in check. By the end of lap 7, the Czech rider had a six-second advantage, one that steadily grew to 18 seconds by the finish.
“No, that’s not a lot, but my only worry was making a mistake or having a mechanical problem,” Stybar said. “I felt good and I felt the kind of pain I felt when doing intervals on Mallorca. The knee was fine.”
Behind, Walsleben tried an attack with two laps remaining and succeeded only in shedding Fontana from the group. The young German was left with a two-on-one battle with the Belgians, the situation Stybar did his best to avoid.
The attacks came first from one and then the other, as the two Belgians played cat-and-mouse with their rival. The gamesmanship — some call it “argy-bargy” — slowed the pace enough so that Mourey joined up from the next chase group.
At the finish, 1:15 behind the winner, Pauwels surged onto the track, held off a charge from Mourey and earned the usual powerhouse of cyclocross only its second medal of the weekend.
Nys was somewhat philosophical in having been defeated on a course on which he’d won the world title in 2005.
“I’m happy,” he said. “The strongest man won here today. He earned it. I’m 34 — almost 35 — and I rode the best I could … it just happened to be second-best today.”
Indeed, Nys said missing a worlds gold is no reason for him to consider retirement.
“I’m committed to racing through the 2014 season,” he said. “I love what I do. I am still pretty good at it — I only missed the podium in five races this season — and I enjoy my job.”
Stybar, meanwhile, will be joining the Quick Step team this coming road season and may change his focus from here on out.
“I want to try to see what I can do on the road,” he said. “I am young and the one thing I do not want to do is to look back and wonder if I could have done it. It’s a good thing to try. I just need to focus on that for a while.”
And you know what can happen when Zdenek Stybar decides to focus on a goal. Stay tuned.
—Online editor at large Patrick O’Grady contributed to this report.