The European cross contingent remained in Belgium this past weekend for the first round of the Superprestige series in Ruddervorrde. As most people expected, Zdenek Stybar rode away from the competition, bringing his undefeated streak to four, and earning maximum series points for the day. The first surprise of the day was the return of Niels Albert, who mmissed the start of the season due to a knee injury. The dayâ€™s second surprise came from Bart Aernoutsâ€”the only man able to stick with Stybar after the World Champion took-off midway through the first lap.
Stybar and Aernouts worked well together all day, with Stybar setting the bulk of the pace. On the penultimate lap though, Aernouts took off. Unfortunately for the Belgian, Stybar promptly chased him down and responded a few moments later with an attack of his ownâ€”and it stuck. Behind the leading duo, Sven Nys looked to be the strongest rider in a fairly large chase group. (A broken spoke and the resulting pit stop, cost him a shot at overall victory.) Nys would eventually shed the rest of the chase group and cross the line in third, over 40-seconds behind Aernouts.
Niels Albertâ€™s return was a solid one for the former World Champion. He lost contact with the Nys group, but held on for seventh place. American Jonathan Page was one of nearly a dozen riders who ended-up in the second chase group, partially due to a first lap crash in the first turn. Page faded to the back of the group and ending-up fifteenth. The rest of the top-10 contained the usual cast of characters, with Steve Chainel (the winner of a stage in this season 3-Days of DePanne) the only other surprise, finishing fourth. Tom Meeusen rebounded from last weekâ€™s DNF to finish tenth.
Clearly, Zdenek Stybar is in the driverâ€™s seat ahead of the first seasonâ€™s first World Cup race in Aigle, Switzerland. Where does everyone else fall? Time to find out:
1. Zdenek Stybar (1) – Stybar continued his fabulous start to the season, with a victory even more impressive than his last. Stybar has won every race he has entered this season. As a result, he now leads the GVA Trophy, Superprestige, and has the most UCI points. While itâ€™s too early to discount anyone, the competition is clearly a step behind the Czech.
2. Bart Aernouts (4) – Aernouts was only one man who was able to stick with Stybar for the majority of the race on Sunday. However, it was clear from the start that he was just along for the ride. Had Nys made it across the gap, Iâ€™m not sure Aernouts would have been able to beat him. Regardless, it was an impressive ride by the young Belgianâ€”he deserves #2 for now.
3. Sven Nys (5) â€“ The weekend prior to this one, Nys looked much like he did last year: sad, defeated, and full of excuses. He desperately wants to win a tenth Superprestige titleâ€”his third-place finish keeps him in the running. If Nys podiums on Sunday, Iâ€™ll regain full confidence in the Belgian Champion. If he drops out, Iâ€™ll have to wonder about his dedication to the sport that has made him an icon.
4. Bart Wellens (6) – Wellens rode to an impressive fifth-place in Ruddervoorde. His post race comments questioned Nysâ€™ tactics and he placed a lot of the blame for Stybar staying away on his fellow countryman. If Wellens keeps up the hard work and maintains his good fitness, he may end up dropping Nys all together. Either way, I expect little cooperation from these two this weekend in Aigle.
5. Klaas Vantornout (2)Â – Itâ€™s hard to believe that ninth-place can be considered a poor result, but considering how well Vantornout has raced this year, Iâ€™ll call it a bad day. Â His first lap crash pretty much determined his fateâ€”it will be very interesting to see how he rebounds this weekend.
6. Kevin Pauwels (3) – Pauwels was part of the large chase group that eventually splintered on the final few laps. Still, it was clear he didnâ€™t have the legs, as he never moved to the front, and was easily dropped when Nys and Wellens upped the pace. I still hold high hopes for the young Belgian though; perhaps heâ€™ll surprise everyone on Sunday.
7. Niels Albert (n/a) – Albertâ€™s return was a welcome surprise as the former World Champion didnâ€™t expect to be back until this Sundayâ€™s World Cup race. Although Albert was never a key player in Ruddervoorde, he stuck with the chase group until the very end. A podium finish Sunday would be a surprise, but I expect Albert to be back in full force within a few weeks time.
8. Steve Chainel (n/a) – Last year Chainel competed primarily in World Cup races. He finished ninth in three rounds (Treviso, Roubaix and Zolder). His fourth-place finish in Ruddervoorde shows that heâ€™s ready for Round 1. It will be interesting to see how he fares should he decide to race in Belgium a bit more.
9. Tom Meeusen (10) – Meeusen rebounded from last weekâ€™s disappointing round of the GVA Trophy with a solid tenth-place finish Sunday. Itâ€™s hard to believe that itâ€™s his first year racing as an elite professional. At this point in time, itâ€™s clear heâ€™s not going to jump ahead of the learning curve. However, heâ€™s strong enough to surprise a lot of people, maybe even myself.
10. Francis Mourey (7) – Mourey had a disastrous race on Sundayâ€”he wound-up crossing the line 19th. Heâ€™s still in the rankings for two reasons. First, heâ€™s had a phenomenal start to the season and is allowed to have a bad race once in a while. Second, Mourey always does well in the World Cup, as he will likely prove this weekend.
Dropped this week: Dieter Vanthourenhout (8) and Gerben de Knegt (9).
By now, it should be pretty clear that all eyes will be on UCI Headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland for Round 1 of the World Cup this Sunday. I have full confidence that Stybar will pick-up the victory, but the rest of the results could surprise a lot people. This weekendâ€™s round of the World Cup is especially interesting for those of us in the US, as for the first time in a long time, there will be a full US contingent for the World Cupâ€™s first round.
On Friday look for some insight into how UCI points workâ€”and why thereâ€™s a flood of US riders heading to the race. (Their reasons will surprise you.) It should also be noted that there was a race today (Thursday) in Belgium, the Kermiscross in Ardooie, to provide a nice midweek form check for the bulk of Sundayâ€™s riders. Â This could be a good predictor of whoâ€™s hot and whoâ€™s notâ€”unless some savvy riders keep their cards close to their chests.
Enjoy the weekendâ€”and share your comments below.