LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (VN) — The Belgians finally scored on Saturday as Sven Nys escaped Klaas Vantornout on the final lap of the elite men’s race to win the crown jewel of the 2013 UCI Elite Cyclocross World Championships.
The two men were locked together in what seemed likely to wind up in a sprint finish, until Vantornout bobbled twice at the limestone staircase — once going into it and again at the top — and Nys leaped at his opportunity. He finally put some daylight between himself and the Belgian national champion, and held his slim advantage to the finish.
“It’s amazing,” said the 36-year-old Nys, who won his first elite world title in 2005. “Last year I said I don’t do it any more, and now I win the world championship in the States. I would say thanks to all the U.S. fans. They create something special here in the States. I’m really happy with my second world title. Now my career is complete.”
Vantornout, meanwhile, counted himself fortunate to have already won the Belgian national title, which is a sort of world championship all its own.
“The season was very good for me,” he said. “I was very close today. I’m lucky to be Belgian champion, and my season was already very good, from beginning to end. … Every week I was good.”
Belgians blast off
The temperatures were dropping as the elite men got under way, and it was a veritable army of Belgians that took the front from the gun, with Lars Van Der Haar (Netherlands) sitting sixth wheel and not enjoying it much.
“I had big problems in the first two laps with the pace,” said Van Der Haar. “It was too hard, I didn’t have the right feeling.”
Vantornout dragged the bunch around during the early stages of the opening lap, then Martin Bina (Czech Republic) took the point and led the way up the limestone staircase, which finally was completely free of snow after three races.
Bina took a bike before tackling the barriers, leading a long line of riders toward the end of lap 1, while Francis Mourey (France) tried to elbow his way into the lead and Ryan Trebon (USA) likewise sought to ease forward.
As the first lap came to an end Bina still led the way, followed by Mourey, Marco Fontana (Italy) and Belgians Kevin Pauwels and Vantornout. American Jonathan Page was sitting ninth after one go-round.
Mourey takes the lead
Riding past pit one Mourey punched it and rode into the lead as it started to snow again. The French ’cross champion had a lead of eight seconds by the second pit, and Pauwels took over the pursuit, followed by Vantornout and Nys.
With seven laps to go Mourey had seized an astounding 13 seconds’ advantage over an all-Belgian chase containing Pauwels, Nys and Vantornout. Defending champion Niels Albert was 25 seconds down, while Page had slipped out of the top 10 and was a half-minute down.
Mourey crashed in a sloppy right-hander but remounted without issue and got back to work.
Behind, what was now a five-man chase — Pauwels, Nys, Vantornout, Bina and Albert — was making no headway; despite his spill, Mourey remained more than a dozen seconds in front at the limestone stairs. And the snow was coming down with a little more authority as he raced past the second pit.
With six to go, Mourey continued to soldier on alone. Pauwels, Nys, Vantornout and Albert remained a dozen seconds down.
Pauwels gives it some gas
Pauwels twisted the throttle a bit, closing to within eight seconds of the mud-covered Mourey at the stone stairs, then to five at the pit. Nys and Vantornout had slipped a handful of seconds behind their countryman at the barriers.
Coming onto the pavement Pauwels had caught Mourey, and his teammates were right behind. With five laps remaining the two had just five seconds on Nys and Vantornout, with Albert at 11 seconds.
Pauwels was content to let Mourey lead as first Vantornout, then Nys latched on. It was now a four-man lead group, with the Frenchman the odd man out. Albert was dangling off the back of the bunch and losing ground. Dutch champ Van Der Haar was chasing, trying to join the leaders.
“I had to believe in myself all race,” said Van Der Haar. Once he hit his stride, the Dutchman said, “he felt good [and] didn’t make too many mistakes.”
On a short paved stretch Vantornout accelerated into the lead, with Mourey second wheel. As they headed into four laps to go the Belgian champ stayed on point, then surrendered the lead to the Frenchman while he exchanged bikes. Meanwhile, Albert fought his way back to just short of the leaders by the stone stairs, while Van Der Haar closed to within seven seconds.
Nys pitted and briefly lost contact, but quickly got back on as he rode the barriers while the others dismounted. Mourey slipped to fourth — and then Pauwels jammed his chain on a slight rise, struggled to remount it, and dropped out of the lead group.
Pauwels plummets out of contention
Vantornout and Nys shed Mourey, who fell victim to a puncture, as Pauwels fumbled with his drivetrain. Albert sat third at eight seconds as he chased the leaders past the pit, with Van Der Haar moving into fourth and closing on the defending champion.
Nys put a few bike lengths on Vantornout racing away from the stairs, but the Belgian champ hung tough, closing the gap. Albert clung to third at the barriers, but Van Der Haar was inching ever closer.
With two to go, Nys was first onto the pavement, but Vantornout was just two seconds behind. Albert and Van Der Haar followed 22 seconds later.
The lanky Vantornout stayed behind Nys early in the lap, biding his time. After both men pitted, Vantornout came to the fore, but the two seemed evenly matched, each awaiting an opportunity to attack the other. Behind, Van Der Haar took a slight lead over a fading Albert.
The Dutch champ said Albert “was mentally down” when he made his bid for third, thinking, “I have to go now, get a gap. …”
“I went for it before the technical section, got a gap and had to hold it for two laps,” he added.
Then Nys rode the barriers and laid down an attack. Vantornout quickly responded, briefly kept his rival on the front, then slipped past on that short paved section.
Vantornout led Nys into the final go-round. Behind, Van Der Haar had shed Albert and was firmly in third place at 17 seconds down.
The snow began falling with a vengeance as the two Belgians made their way around the course for the final time. No bike changes — Vantornout stayed on the front, with Nys awaiting his chance.
He got it when Vantornout fumbled a dismount at the foot of the stone stairs and then hooked a pedal into the course fencing at the top. Nys pounced, quickly taking three seconds as he drove away, full throttle.
Nys still had three seconds’ advantage last time past the pit and sailed smoothly over the barriers, collecting another second or two.
One quick look over his left shoulder on the short paved stretch and Nys went back to work, hot after his second world title.
And he would not be denied — Nys was first onto the finishing stretch and first across the line, just two seconds ahead of a surging Vantornout, who banged his bars in frustration. Twenty-five seconds later Van Der Haar added a final medal to the Dutch collection, finishing third.
The new world champion said his plan had been to wait until the second part of the race, when he typically comes on strong.
“Try to stay calm, don’t make mistakes, and wait until Mouray makes mistakes — we know he’s a strong rider, but he also makes mistakes — you need to stay calm and wait until two, three laps before the end. And then I thought, I can win this race,” said Nys.
It was a near thing, though.
“It was very close,” said a rueful Vantornout. “The last lap I made two little mistakes, pedal clipped the fence. But Sven was also good, he was winning, that’s it.”
American Tim Johnson (USA) cracked the top 20, finishing 19th at 3:20. Page, who finished 22nd at 3:42, fell victim to the same drivetrain issue that took Pauwels out of the running.
“My chain shifted into the spokes, it got stuck and I just couldn’t get it out,” said the U.S. national champion. “It came off the front and then came off in the back again. I was trying to be calm, and I was fairly calm — I just couldn’t make it work.
“I’m a little disappointed, yeah, but I wasn’t Superman today. I still could have had a good race. I still wanted to see how far I could go, everybody was just cheering so hard for me out there.
“It was really fun to have the fans’ support. I didn’t want to disappoint anybody, I tried as hard as I could. I just had a little bad luck, that’s for sure. I tried to get going again and I slid out, and then I was going over my limit. I actually got a rear flat too, so I just didn’t have the best of luck today. But I fought and fought. I’m disappointed, but stuff happens.”
Racing in front of a home crowd “was awesome,” Page added. “It was absolutely great. I had some bad luck, but I had a lot of fun doing it. I think the United States definitely came out here with great support.”
Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more from Louisville.