Fortune finally smiled on Bart Wellens during a spectacularly muddy GP Rouwmoer at Essen on Saturday.
The Telenet-Fidea rider seemed assured of a podium finish in the GVA Trofee race, sitting second behind Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) with just over a lap to race.
But Nys blew up his drivetrain just short of the bell lap and trudged off the course, disgusted, his day done.
That’s when Wellens rode past and into the lead. He led Belgian champion Niels Albert (BKCP-PowerPlus) by 15 seconds going into the final lap and kept churning through the muck to victory.
As he hit the paved finishing stretch Wellens was shaking his head in disbelief. He scraped some of the mud from his jersey, then kissed his fingertips and threw both hands in the air as he coasted across the line.
A weary Albert took second at 25 seconds down, a solid result in his comeback following an extended absence due to injury. Rob Peeters (Telenet) crossed third at 39 seconds. Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor) finished fourth at 1:05 with Tom Meeusen (Telenet) fifth at 1:12.
Jonathan Page (Planet Bike) was the top American in 15th at 3:33.
Into the soup
Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor) led the men off the line and into a soupy bog that quickly set the field afoot. Once back on the bike, world champion Zdenek Stybar (Quick Step) briefly took the lead before Vantornout slipped past. It was the last time the rainbow jersey would be seen near the front — Stybar finished 14th and said via Twitter that he was “shamed” by his performance.
There was plenty of running on the 2.7km circuit, which was rich in obstacles —deep bogs, small lakes, several Z-shaped hairpin sections, a couple of staircases and short, steep, barely rideable climbs. Some riders were pitting twice each go-round, and anyone standing too close to the course tape got sprayed.
Vantornout led Wellens, Albert and Stybar by four seconds after the first trip up the long staircase. Going into lap two he had six seconds over Albert and Wellens, with Meeusen leading a big chase at 15 seconds. Nys was 20 seconds down but moving up.
Just past the start-finish Albert and Wellens joined Vantornout and promptly shelled him. Albert set the pace and Wellens caught his wheel.
Nys emerged from the chaos behind to slot into third, and at the end of the second lap was just a handful of seconds behind the two leaders. He caught them going into the Z-sections, but Albert accelerated and briefly left the Landbouwkrediet man dangling. Behind, Peeters and Pauwels had formed a two-man chase.
With four laps to go Wellens led Nys and Albert through the start-finish with Pauwels and Peeters some 17 seconds behind.
Then the Telenet rider punched it, leaving Albert and Nys to chase. All three men pitted and Albert came off worst in the exchange, as Wellens led Nys by four seconds going into the Z-sections with the Belgian champion a few seconds further back.
With three laps to go, Albert was six seconds down on the two leaders. Peeters was at 16 seconds with Pauwels at 22.
Then Nys laid down what appeared to be the winning move. He quickly took eight seconds over Wellens going past the puts. All three men could see each other — or they could, if Nys chose to look back. He did not.
As usual Nys seemed to get stronger as the race wore on. Neither Wellens nor Albert would surrender, though, and with two laps to go Wellens was six seconds down, on Nys and four seconds ahead of Albert.
From leader to DNF
Nys appeared to be heading toward yet another victory — and then disaster struck. In a soupy section he glanced down at his drivetrain, dismounted for a closer look at what proved to be irreparable damage, and then strode off the course, not bothering to watch Wellens ride past and into the lead.
When he got the bell for last lap Wellens had a comfortable 15-second advantage over Albert with Peeters chasing solo at 38 seconds.
He stayed focused, made no mistakes, and hit the finishing stretch alone, grinning and wagging his head in disbelief.
It was an emotional victory for the former world champion, who said afterward he never dreamed of taking the top step on the podium.
“I must thank many people — too many, really,” Wellens said. “The team, my family — everyone believed in me.”
Belgian champion Albert likewise was happy with his runner-up finish after four weeks away from racing with an injured wrist and was looking forward to Sunday’s World Cup in Namur.
Albert said he had hoped for a place in the top 10, and dreamed of finishing top-five, and thus was delighted with second — “well, actually third, because Nys was unfortunate,” he said. “But I’m very content with my performance.”
Pauwels continues to lead the GVA Trofee series with 98 points. Stybar is second with 77 and Meeusen third with 67.
Vos takes women’s race
Marianne Vos (Nederland Bloeit) soloed to victory in the women’s race, taking the win in 42:17.
VZW Telenet-Fidea teammates Sophie De Boer and Nikki Harris finished second and third at 1:00 and 1:22 down.
Maureen Bruno Roy was the top American in 10th at 5:50. Countrywoman Christine Vardaros (Baboco-Revor) finished 13th at 7:15.
- 1. Bart Wellens, Telenet-Fidea
- 2. Niels Albert, BKCP-Powerplus
- 3. Rob Peeters, Telenet-Fidea
- 4. Kevin Pauwels, Sunweb-Revor
- 5. Tom Meeusen, Telenet-Fidea
- 1. Marianne Vos, Nederland Bloeit, 42:17
- 2. Sophie De Boer, VZW Telenet-Fidea, 43:17
- 3. Nikki Harris, VZW Telenet-Fidea, 43:39
- 4. Helen Wyman, Kona-FSA, 44:17
- 5. Daphny Van Den Brand, AA Drink-Leontien.nl, 44:50