OUDENAARDE, Belgium — Twice every year, in the spring and the fall, the steep and cobbled Koppenberg stamps its mark on professional cycling.
The thousands of fans who lined its slopes during the early laps of Koppenbergcross, first of the GVA Trofee cyclocross series, could be forgiven if they thought they had turned out for the wrong event.
A week of unseasonably warm and pleasant weather turned what has traditionally been a spectacular and muddy battle of force, will and technical skill into a high speed test of power and group tactics. This racing may be more accurately compared to the spring’s Tour of Flanders more than a Belgian cyclocross race.
In the women’s race, Dutch Sanne van Paassen used the form that earned her back-to-back podium finishes in the first two rounds of the World Cup to power away from defending Koppenberg Champion Helen Wyman on the most difficult section of the climb and claim her first career victory here.
Meanwhile, in the men’s race the soft-spoken Kevin Pauwels stole a hard won victory from Sven Nys, who, with eight Keppenbergcross wins, has all but owned this hillside for more than a decade.
If the Koppenberg is known for anything, it is the damage the muddy slopes that lie beneath its 64 meter high summit have wrought on the professional peloton, both on the road and off. Its frequently slick cobblestones have reduced the Tour of Flanders to a slow, stumbling walking contest more than once.
The muddy pastureland that straddles the cobbles has, during a seven-year winning streak stretching back to 2004, proven all but insurmountable to anyone not named Nys.
Van Paassen Overpowers Wyman
A fast, tacky course greeted the women after a streak of pleasant weather in the Flemish Ardennes. English Nikki Harris was the first to make the hard left turn from the road into the fields, but she quickly surrendered the lead to countrywoman Wyman, who led a group of some 20 women as they made their first trip through the cobbles.
Wyman kept a blazing pace for much of the first lap, reducing the lead pack to just a handful by the time the women topped the hill for the first time, and to just two by the end of the first of six laps. This left Harris to battle for third place with Daphny van den Brand from the Netherlands and the diminutive Czech Pavla Havlikova.
Though van Paassen appeared to suffer less on the climb, British champion Wyman dominated the steep and very fast descent. It snaked its way back and forth across hillside, threading a narrow path through vast crowds who packed the Koppenberg on this first of November holiday.
Wyman’s technical prowess on the downhill proved insufficient to open any lasting gap, and when van Paassen attacked on the third trip up the hill, the Brit could not respond, quickly giving up a gap of more than 10 seconds.
Though at one point Wyman, taking risks in every turn of the downhill trip, managed to close the gap to six seconds, the Dutch rider’s strong early-season form proved too much and by the end of the race van Paassen managed to stretch her lead to more than 20 seconds.
The gap may have been greater had the beaming van Paassen not slowed on her trip across the finish line to absorb the moment and wave to the crowds. She smiled as though this were her first major win, instead of one of a growing list for the rising young star.
“It’s beautiful,” van Paassen said afterwards. “There were so many supporters, people yelling, it’s really so beautiful. The Koppenberg is a classic, and for me it was very important [to win here] because I’ve always known the Koppenberg. It’s a big race, and it’s something really special.”
Both van Paassen and Wyman agreed that, for the time being, the Dutch rider has the edge.
“I think maybe I’m just a little bit stronger at the moment,” van Paassen told VeloNews. “I’m just a small bit more explosive, and she is more steady.”
“This year the course was just too fast,” said Wyman, comparing today’s conditions to the heavy track on which she won in 2010. “You had to ride fast up the hills, as opposed to just powering through it. And Sanne just attacked me at a point when I couldn’t ride any harder and got a gap. I just haven’t really started any speed work yet this year. In a race like this you don’t really think speed will be an issue, but it really was.”
Harris, meanwhile, traded attacks with van den Brand in the race for third before finally pulling away on the last lap, giving Britain two of the three steps on the podium. Belgian Champion Sanne Cant finished fifth.
Amy Dombroski finished ninth in her first race on the Koppenberg. The American had been in striking distance of a top five finish in the race’s first half, but lost ground each trip up the relentless climb during the later laps.
“It was heinous,” she said afterwards. “It was like going out and doing intervals with the climb and the descent, and then the climb and descent again. I was good the first lap or so, I finally had a pretty good start and was up there. I just lost contact with [the leaders] on the climb, I couldn’t match their power. I think it’s time for me to take a little rest.”
American Christine Vardaros finished 21st.
Pauwels Profits from Nys’ Tire Trouble
Though the women finished their race under still sunny skies, in Belgium, there is little dependable about the weather, and by the time the men rolled out, darkening clouds were rolling in.
Belgian champion Niels Albert managed to fend off the 41 other starters, leading the race as it plunged from road into fields. But he quickly surrendered the lead to a group of less familiar names including Tom van den Bosch and Belgian amateur champion Stijn Huys, who led the essentially intact peloton up the first stretch of cobbles.
But by the second lap, under the pressure of a surging pace, the big group in front had fractured in two. In the front group nearly all of the top contenders jockeyed for position on the smoothest cobbles that line the right side of the road — and in the race for series bonus points on offer at the top of the hill.
In a bit of foreshadowing, Pauwels charged out of the bunch to grab three points while Nys took the two points for second place.
Only a few riders managed to hang on under pressure of that early effort and by the end of the lap, a group of five, Nys, Pauwels, Tom Meeusen, World Champion Zdenek Stybar, and Klaas Vantornout had pulled away.
Behind them Dieter Vanthourenhout mounted a furious chase up the hill that set up his BKCP-Powerplus teammate, Albert, to connect with the leaders by the midpoint of the race. Joined by Bart Aernouts, Albert’s arrival meant the lead group was up to seven riders.
At about the same time, the still darkening skies opened up, and a light rain began to fall. Nys, sensing that the balance of power in the race was shifting in his favor as conditions deteriorated, tried to strike out alone. His effort blew up the lead group, but wasn’t enough to shake Stybar or Pauwels, and the three continued on together.
As the rain fell harder, several riders dipped into the pits to pick up bikes with more aggressive tires for the deteriorating conditions, Nys and Stybar among them. But as the pair rolled out to rejoin Pauwels, disaster struck for Nys, who realized just outside the pit that one of the new tires was flat.
Though he would switch bikes again at the pit at the bottom of the course, that singular misstep was enough to give Pauwels an insurmountable gap. By the time they started the next lap, Stybar was racing for second, with Nys significantly behind.
The rain continued to wreak havoc. Moments later, Stybar misjudged a slippery corner and careened into a house on the side of the course. Though the World Champion managed to stay upright, he lost enough time to hand over second place to Nys.
Nys, however, never managed to close the final gap and extend his winning streak on the Koppenberg by another year. Pauwels crossed the line alone, taking his third victory of what has become something of a breakout season for him. Stybar would settle for third ahead of Aernouts and Meeusen, who rounded out the top five.
“I think that I was the fastest,” Pauwels, always a man of few words, told reporters afterwards. He added that his gamble not to swap bikes paid off for him. “I heard that Nys had flatted, and I didn’t know where Stybar was, he was just suddenly gone. I kept looking back, but there was nobody on my wheel.”
Nys, meanwhile, was disappointed to miss out on the chance at his ninth win on one of cycling’s most famous climbs. “I think the feeling was really good, and my condition was really good. I think I could have won the race, but I had this equipment problem,” he told VeloNews. “The flat tire three laps before the end, of course was the place where I lost the race.”
Nys explained that the problem began even before he left the pit with the new bike. “I changed my bike because it was starting to rain,” he said.
“I thought I could take some risks on the downhill with Rhinos, but I jumped on the bike and thought immediately, ‘Damn! That’s not the pressure that I want.’ And ten meters farther I realized it was a flat tire and I had to go as fast as possible to the pits. But my legs blew completely and then all I could do was to try to have a good spirit in my mind and good speed after changing bikes again. But twenty seconds on a fast track like this is [too much].”
American Jonathan Page, who has been mired in streak of misfortunate and disappointing results for several weeks, finished a distant 40th place.