BRUSSELS (VN) — The 2012-13 cyclocross season ended under cloudy skies and steadily falling snow in Oostmalle, Belgium, on Sunday, perhaps a fitting finale for a season in which racers endured one of the longest stretches of bad weather in Belgian history. December 2012 broke the nation’s monthly rainfall record and January, meanwhile, nearly tied the record for the most days with snowfall. It was a grueling season, a season of mud and of cold — and of spectacular, thrilling racing.
On Sunday, racers looked back at the highlights of what may be soon remembered as a golden year for international cyclocross.
Among those who landed on the podium on Sunday, more than one pointed to the fifth round of the bpost Bank Trofee series, in Loenhout, Belgium, as a season highlight. Both the day and series’ men’s and women’s winners, Sanne Cant (Enertherm-BKCP) and Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) called the massively attended Kerstperiode race in Loenhout their best of the year.
“(Katie) Compton and (Marianne) Vos were both there,” said Cant, referring to the two most successful female riders of the season — if not all-time — both of whom struggled in Loenhout. “And I beat them. I think it was the biggest victory of my career.”
Albert, who earned 13 victories on the year, chose the race because of the presence of a different rival, two-time world champion Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who made a brief return to cyclocross in December and January after shifting his focus to the road in 2012.
“(Loenhout) was in the last lap a very hard race between me and Stybar,” said Albert. “It was a nice race, and it’s one that I like. Maybe that’s one of my biggest wins of the year.”
For fans, however, Loenhout may be remembered for another singular image: then-Belgian champion Sven Nys’ (Crelan-Euphony) foray into the crowds that packed the course to confront a fan who had repeatedly thrown beer at him. Nys, hit by a half-empty cup of beer on the course’s heaviest stretch of mud, made a U-turn and stepped off his bike. Laying it down at the side of the course, he ducked under the tape and calmly spoke to the offender before returning to the race. The dramatic turn sparked an earnest discussion among promoters, racers, and fans about rider safety in races that are sometimes mobbed by rowdy, beer-drinking fans, and triggered modifications to barriers along a number of popular courses to minimize the chances of a repeat.
Despite the attention it earned him, for Nys, Loenhout — the beginning of a week of illness that eventually forced him to forego the start of his namesake race in Baal — was perhaps the only forgettable stretch of a remarkable season. The 36-year-old owned men’s elite cyclocross, claiming 18 individual wins, the Superprestige overall, and his second world title. But Nys picked the race that effectively launched his remarkable run, in Oudenaarde, as the highlight of his season.
“The Koppenberg,” Nys said without hesitation, when asked about his best moment of the season. “The acceleration the last lap against the world champion at that moment, that’s the moment I liked the most this season.”
Nys and Albert rode a vicious duel at the Koppenbergcross, battling up and down the slopes of one of Belgian cycling’s most infamous hills and through a freak thunderstorm that hit during the final laps. Though the two had been equally matched for most of the race, Albert could not maintain traction on the rain-slick final climb, and Nys roared away from him on his way to his ninth career win on the Koppenberg.
Nys’ win on the first day of November was the beginning of an 18-race stretch that netted him 11 victories and only two missed podiums, once again cementing his reputation as the greatest active ’cross racer in the world. It also persuaded him not to walk away from the sport quite yet. Nys, who had planned to retire at the end of next year, announced on Sunday that he would continue for at least another season beyond that. And cyclocross fans around the world rejoiced.
Nonetheless, Nys’ success is nothing new. So, it was the man who finished third on the Koppenberg — Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Napoleon Games) — who might have earned the award for the biggest breakthrough of the season.
Vantornout, a perennial podium contender with few major wins on his palmares, rode to his first Belgian title with an explosive race on the sandy shores of Zilvermeer in Mol. Vantornout won with a lightning surge on the final climb of the race, earning a gap of several seconds that nobody could answer. He might have taken his streak of impressive form further, but a minor bobble on the final lap of the world championship race in Louisville, Kentucky, cost him any chance at a world title as well; instead he would settle for his second worlds silver.
Not surprisingly, Vantornout marked the Belgian championship race not just as a season highlight, but the highlight of his career.
“It was my best season ever, but my championship jersey is the top — it’s a dream come true,” he said.
But for the Americans — at least two of them who spend most of their time in Europe — it was an American moment that stole the season. Both Amy Dombroski (Telenet-Fidea) and Jonathan Page named the Louisville world championships as the best moment of the season.
Page, who won a fourth national title in Verona, Wisconsin, in January said that race was certainly a highlight, but nothing could match the support he got from the home fans at Eva Bandman Park.
“Nationals was great,” he said, “but the crowd at the world championships was even that much better. It was awesome.”
Dombroski, who recently signed a contract extension with Telenet and will remain based in Europe for at least two more years, said she would have to find new goals after years of singular focus on the 2013 worlds.
“Louisville was, by far, the highest point,” she told VeloNews. “In my life it’s the highest. Not everyone gets to race a world championships in their own country, and from the date it was announced it’s been a build to that. Starting three years ago, every day I woke up it was like, ‘This is training in the bank for Louisville,’ and all the pain and suffering and emotion and everything… has been for Louisville. It was really special.”