HOOGERHEIDE, Netherlands — Zdenek Stybar won won a thriller of a battle with Sven Nys on Sunday to claim a third elite world cyclocross title.
The two men were off the front with four to go and working each other over, while home favorite Lars van der Haar battled with Belgians Klaas Vantornout and Kevin Pauwels for the final spot on the podium.
It was strength against strength, and in the end it all boiled down to who would make the fewest mistakes. This year, it was Stybar, who powered away from the defending champion on the final lap as Nys found himself afoot in a muddy section.
In an instant the Czech had a seven-second lead, and while Nys fought to close it down, he couldn’t get it done. As a grinning Stybar posted up to salute the crowd, a beaten Nys dipped his head briefly, waved one hand to the fans, and coasted in 12 seconds later for a silver medal.
Pauwels followed at 40 seconds for the bronze.
Jonathan Page was the top American, finishing 18th at 2:55. U.S. champion Jeremy Powers crossed 24th at 4:06.
Now a road racer, and having raced only six cyclocrosses this season, Stybar says the change in disciplines has cost him some of his explosiveness. Still, he thought the Hoogerheide circuit would suit him, and he was right.
“From the beginning I thought, ‘Let’s make the race hard.’ I had nothing to lose,” said Stybar. “It was a really, really very hard race. I crashed one time and thought, ‘Now it’s over.’”
It wasn’t, as things turned out. Asked how his third victory stacked up against his first, Stybar said there was no comparison.
“It was in front of my home crowd in the Czech Republic, my first one,” the Czech explained.”Now this one is of course really very nice … but it’s not the same as the first time.”
As for Nys, he tipped his hat to Stybar, saying he “is a great champion and it’s no shame to lose to him.”
“He also had the mental advantage that he had nothing to lose and maybe he was a little fresher,” Nys added. “But tomorrow, for me it’s the Belgian jersey and I can live with that.”
A fast start, a crash and a solo escape
Van der Haar and Francis Mourey diced for the hole shot, and as the field dove into the mud for the first time a crash took down American Tim Johnson and a number of others, leaving a parade of Dutch and Belgian riders chasing the Frenchman Mourey. Word came afterward that Johnson might have broken an arm in the pileup and was on his way to the hospital.
Then van der Haar suffered his first of what would be several strokes of misfortune, hitting the deck as Czech Martin Bina slid out in a greasy corner, and Mourey was off the front and riding his own race.
He wouldn’t stay out there for long — a bobble in a left-hand corner saw Nys, van der Haar and Stybar join the party, and by the end of the first lap there were perhaps a dozen riders in the lead group.
Stybar applies the pressure
Stybar went straight to work, pounding along at the head of affairs, forging what became a four-man lead group with Nys, Mourey and van der Haar.
The Frenchman was first to fade, and then Stybar and Nys rid themselves of van der Haar, and with four laps to race the duel began in earnest.
With three laps remaining Stybar bobbled dropping from the start-finish straight and into the mud, skidding up against the fencing, and Nys opened a gap. The first chase, down to van der Haar and Pauwels, was 20 seconds down.
Stybar fought back up to Nys, and after a tangle in a muddy stretch Pauwels attacked and dropped van der Haar.
With two to go Stybar accelerated as the two leaders raced back into the mud only to slide out in a fast corner. Nys never missed a beat — he dismounted smoothly, hurdled the fallen Czech and was off on his own.
Attack, chase and counter
Nys pushed ahead, but Stybar brought him back, though the Belgian seemed to have the advantage of him in the slippery sections.
Then Nys went full gas coming out of a muddy bit, taking a three-second lead, only to fall rounding a corner with one hand on a barrier, and just like that the two were back together again.
Stybar was next to strike out, taking a couple of bike lengths. Nys shut him down, and going into the bell lap it was anyone’s guess who might emerge triumphant.
Stybar goes for broke
The defending champ stayed on point, hoping Stybar would make a mistake. Instead, the Czech attacked, rocketing up and across the flyover, and then again, on a short muddy rise. He dismounted to run a stretch, forcing Nys into an awkward dismount, then accelerated again.
When Nys once again found himself afoot on a muddy section, Stybar gave it the gas and in an instant pried open a seven-second gap as the two men raced past the pits.
Nys gave it his all, smoothly carving a corner that Stybar chose to run, but it would not be enough. The Czech hit the pavement with an insurmountable advantage, on his way to a third rainbow jersey.
Perhaps anticipating criticism of the state of the discipline following a world-championship victory by a road racer, Nys cautioned the press to keep Stybar’s background in mind.
“The only thing I want to say is that you guys all now have the opportunity to show the world that it’s not a road racer who won the world championships and the level in cyclocross is not so high. The level in cyclocross is high. I hope that Stybar is going to say the same,” he said.
“For us it’s important for the world to see that we’re doing these races on a really high level. And it’s not only a road racer who won. So we can say it, but it’s also the press who can bring it to the world.”
Addressing the question, Stybar said he found it difficult to assess the state of cyclocross. He did say that as a road racer he was no longer capable of racing the first two laps flat out (“I’m not that rider anymore. I can’t do that. I’ll just blow out.”) and quipped that the 37-year-old Nys, nearly 10 years his senior, might tackle the one-hour record as a centenarian, “because he will be still the same professional as now.”
The new champ added: “I sometimes think that the other guys are not as strong or maybe not as focused as Sven, because what he’s doing is just amazing. Actually, I have really a lot of respect for Sven, what he’s doing. But it’s really difficult to say where the real level of cyclocross is.”
That said, with the stripes on his shoulders once again, will Stybar toe the start line more often next season? Bronze medalist Pauwels seems to hope so.
“It is perhaps unfortunate that the rainbow jersey will not be seen in the field much next season,” said Pauwels. “But I have to give it to Stybar — if you win the worlds three times, you earn respect.”
• Page called the race “the most fun world championships ever,” save for the 2007 edition, when he finished second.
“I came off of the pavement okay, and then I had a little bad luck here in the first mud bog. I got held up so I said, ‘Okay, patience, come through again.’ Then I got going again and someone crashed on the darn bridge and I stopped and got hit from behind a couple of times and got tangled up in someone’s frame. But then I rode a strong race throughout the day, trying to use guys where I could. I really had a good day. I had a great day for the world championships.
“I know that I can still have really great days. Honestly, the place that I got today was bad for how good I was feeling. That’s just the way it played out for me. I had bad luck at the start. So I gathered myself. I haven’t had a great season, and despite my placing today I was good when it counted.”
• The race was less good for compatriot Ryan Trebon, who finished 31st at 4:56 after getting gouged in a leg on the first lap. Afterward he tweeted: “Someone filleted my left calf the first lap. Anyone want to guess the # of stitches to close it? I’m going for 50.”
• As for Johnson, he also took to Twitter afterward to say his X-ray found no broken bones, adding: “Disappointed in the race finishing without me. Hurts deep to hear the crowd noise from the ground and not while riding…”
Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more from Hoogerheide.