OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) cracked Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) on the final muddy climb to win the brutal Koppenbergcross on Thursday.
The two men were locked together going into the bell lap, but when Nys finally made his move it was decisive.
“I knew that I could win the race.” he said. “I felt that I was stronger on the hardest part of the climb. But I waited for the last climb because there was a lot of wind at the finish line, and it seemed better to wait and keep your legs fresh for the last lap and then do an acceleration that he couldn’t follow.
“That was my plan from before the race, and I did it during the race. It’s really a nice feeling to win a race like that.”
Albert took second at 13 seconds while Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor) proved best of the rest, escaping a shattered chase group to finish third at 1:03.
His teammate Kevin Pauwels had a race to forget, falling off the pace in the late laps to finish outside the top 10, nearly two and a half minutes down.
American Jonathan Page (Planet Bike) finished 18th, four minutes off the pace.
“I didn’t have super legs right at the beginning, and I didn’t want to overdo it and blow myself out for the rest of the race, but then I started coming back,” he said. “I had some trouble with the bike and was a little disappointed because I basically made a disadvantage for myself, but regardless, I finally started riding better. I tried to sit on when I could and go hard up the hill each time.
“It’s not rocket science — you just have to have a bit of luck and just try to stay with people and beat them at the end.”
Chilly weather, chilling descent
The weather had been expected to be foul, but the hilly, 2.8km course was serviceable, if soupy and slippery in spots. The harrowing, switchbacked descent was so sketchy that even fearless riders like Nys were forced to dismount and tiptoe around one off-camber right-hander.
Rob Peeters (Telenet-Fidea) pushed the pace early, still stinging from his DQ on Sunday at the World Cup in Plzen. Teammate Tom Meeusen was there, too, as was Albert. Nys was hovering in the top 10 during the early part of that first lap.
Meeusen led the way down the slimy plummet from the upper pit, chased by Aurelien Duval (UV Aube), who briefly grabbed the lead next time up the Koppenberg and onto the steep, greasy meadow ascent to the summit. He pitted and Meeusen retook the front.
Going into lap two Meeusen led a group of six that had a bit of daylight over a chase led by Albert. The two groups fused and all the usual suspects were out front — among them Albert, Nys, Pauwels and Vantornout, and Bart Aernouts (AA Drink).
Nys shows his strength
Nys put in a big attack next time up the Koppenberg, leaving Albert and the Sunwebs to chase five seconds back, while Thijs Van Amerongen led a second pursuit.
The Belgian champ pitted for a fresh bike and that gave Albert and the Sunwebs their chance to latch back on.
With six laps to race a four-man lead group had formed, containing Nys, Albert, Pauwels and Vantornout. A six-man chase followed at 18 seconds back.
Nys led into the early part of the lap, and Vantornout seemed to be struggling. Then Albert took over and he and Nys traded attacks, distancing the others as Pauwels found himself forced to dismount on the muddy ascent to the upper pit.
As Albert led down the other side, Pauwels took charge of the chase.
Latched onto Albert’s wheel, Nys glanced over one shoulder to gauge their advantage as the two hit five laps to go, the chase at 14 seconds.
Nys took the front early in the lap and put in little digs on every climb, trying to put Albert into difficulty. But the world champion hung tough, taking back on the descent whatever he surrendered on the climbs.
A half-hour into the race, with four laps to go, Albert resumed the lead. The chasers were losing ground, a half-minute down, and it seemed likely that the Koppenbergcross had become a two-man race.
Inexplicably, Pauwels fell out of that chase, clearly on an off day.
Once again Nys led on the steep pitches, glancing back now and then to see if he was doing any damage to Albert. Up top he bypassed the pit, but Albert did not, and Nys finally had a workable gap, perhaps four seconds.
But when he pitted at the bottom Albert caught back on, took the lead and accelerated. Nys stayed with him.
Three laps to go. Nys led through the start-finish while Duval headed a five-man chase, still more than a half-minute down. Wide-eyed and struggling, Pauwels was at 1:20.
Again Nys led the way up the climbs until he waved Albert through on the steepest pitch leading to the upper pit, perhaps to gauge his rival’s remaining strength. As the world champ pitted, Nys once again rode past and onto the trash-strewn, sketchy descent.
Behind, Peeters came to grief on one slick corner and briefly disrupted the chase. Meeusen also fell, sliding right under the course netting and into the crowd.
Again Nys pitted at the bottom, and again Albert caught back on.
A two-man race
Forty-five minutes into the race with just two laps to go the two leaders were out of sight, 45 seconds ahead of the pursuit.
As the expected rain finally began to fall Nys and Albert traded punches on the climbs, neither man able to land a decisive blow.
Going down the other side Nys power-slid through the same corner that claimed Peeters and Meeusen, but kept the rubber side down, as did Albert. Both men pitted at the bottom, neither gaining an advantage.
Bell lap: A tiring Albert finally made a little mistake, bobbling in a muddy patch, and Nys immediately took advantage, grabbing a small lead. But the world champ fought back up to him once again.
Nys kept attacking, taking little gaps here and there on the deteriorating course. But Albert clawed his way back each time.
The effort was showing, though. And as Nys gassed it going onto the Koppenberg, Albert cracked. The Belgian champ then gave it his all with a massive attack and Albert was shattered, completely unable to respond — as he hit the upper pit he was already 12 seconds down.
Nys rode gingerly down the other side while Albert took more aggressive lines. But it was too late for a strong descent to make a difference. Nys was powering away to the victory, and Albert would have to settle for second.
Albert said afterward that he felt they were evenly matched, save for tire choice.
“I started the race with Rhinos, but because the weather was sunny and windy, the track had dried out since my preride this morning,” he said. “So I chose to ride with a 30 (mm) Rhino, but in the last lap there was a lot of rain and so when we went up my back wheel kept slipping.
“Sven was riding a 33 (mm) Rhino and that made a big difference on the uphill. At the top of the hill I was 15 seconds behind him, and on the finish line I was 13, so I think we are evenly matched. But the uphill with the wrong tire made a difference today.”
Regardless of whether it was tire choice or tenacity that won the race, Nys was delighted at having pulled off his ninth victory in the Koppenbergcross.
“For me it really is like a world championship,” he said. “You see the amazing crowd, the press and media all talk about the Koppenberg, the first of November is a really big day for cyclocross. Everybody follows the race, and when you can win it nine times, that’s a really special feeling.
“And not just win, but win with different generations: first there was Mario de Clerq and Erwin Vervecken, then Bart Wellens, Lars Boom, Stybar, and now we have Niels Albert. I’m 36 now and I do it the same way as 10 years ago, and for me that’s perfect.”
Editor’s note: Dan Seaton contributed to this report.