The European cross contingent headed to Aigle, Switzerland for another showdown on Sunday, only to watch Zdenek Stybar break away from a star-studded field to take yet another victory. Stybar’s acceleration on lap seven (of eleven) went unmatched and the World Champion strolled across the line alone, 10-seconds ahead of a surprisingly resilient Niels Albert. Kevin Pauwels came in a few seconds later, followed by Klaas Vantornout and Dieter Vanthourenhout. By the end of the day, Belgium took four of the top five positions—except the one that matters most.
Round One provided a fast, technical course, leading to an extremely tactical battle during the first half of the race. Nearly a dozen riders shuffled among the leading and chasing groups, with several men trying to make something happen. Last weekend’s standout, Bart Aernouts, made a few attempts to up the pace early, as did Belgian Champion Sven Nys. Eventually though, both riders dropped to the back of the unusually large chase group—and that’s when Stybar made his move. The Czech powerhouse quickly whittled the lead group down to nothing and putting 20 seconds into his closest competitors.
Behind, former World Champion Niels Albert steadily rode himself to the front of the chase group before dropping compatriot Kevin Pauwels on the penultimate lap. However, no matter how hard he tried, Alberts couldn’t close the gap the Stybar. Behind the first three, Vantornout escaped from Vanthourenhout in the battle for fourth—he came across the line 6 seconds after Pauwels. Sven Nys faded drastically over the last few laps, coming across the line ninth, 43 seconds back.
Perennial fifth-place World Cup finisher, Francis Mourey, rebounded from a poor start to finish sixth, missing fifth by two seconds. Bart Wellens and Bart Aernouts both showed superb form, with the latter taking several huge pulls at the front early in the race. However, both riders suffered major mechanicals and as a result never regained contact with the leaders. The American invasion was a welcomed change in Aigle, but none of the four riders were in contention for a top-ten. Jonathan Page came across the line as the top American in 19th place, over two-and-a-half minuets behind. Jeremy Powers was next finishing 20th. Jamey Driscoll and Tim Johnson finished 24th and 26th, respectively.
Before the fireworks in Aigle, several key players used a mid-week race in Ardooie, Belgium as a warm-up. Stybar equaled Niels Albert’s record of five consecutive wins while wearing the rainbow skinsuit by beating Sven Nys in a sprint finish. Klaas Vantornout escaped a six-man chase group to finish third ahead of Albert and Rob Peeters. While many thought it would be a preview of the racing in Aigle, clearly it was not.
So after another top-notch European showdown and another impressive victory, Stybar’s clearly the best rider in Europe, right? But where does everyone else fall after the first round of the UCI World Cup? Time to find out:
International Power Rankings
1. Zdenek Stybar (1) – Stybar’s season has been stellar thus far—he’s started six races and won six races and now leads every major series and ranking in Europe. However, as we saw last year, the European season is long; it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Niels Albert crushed it in the first half of last year only to be left with nothing after fading midway through the season. Time will tell if Stybar can avoid a similar fate.
2. Niels Albert (7) – In a bit less than two laps, Albert halved Stybar’s gap. Granted, Stybar was playing it safe to ensure a victory, but Albert looked quite good. I’m not going to say he’s back—yet, at least—but after an injury-filled summer coupled with the disappointment from last season, the young Belgian looks ready to pounce.
3. Klaas Vantornout (5) – Vantornout bounced back from last week’s disappointing ninth-place finish by winning the sprint for fourth in Switzerland. If Albert truly is back though, I think Vantornout might have to start settling for third—if he can beat the rest of his Belgian colleagues.
4. Bart Aernouts (2) – A dropped chain in the first half of Sunday’s race ruined Aernouts’ chance at a podium finish. He was one of a select few who even attempted to take over the pace making from Stybar—and he looked very comfortable doing so. After his technical, he rallied to finish twelfth. But if it weren’t for the mechanical, I have no doubt he would have finished on the podium.
5. Kevin Pauwels (6) – Pauwels is definitely one of the top-5 riders in Europe right now. On any given day I feel he can contend for the podium. But I’m not as confident at this point in the season that he can contend for the win. But as I mentioned before, it’s a long season and I still expect Pauwels to pick-up a few big victories. For now he settles into the fifth spot.
6. Bart Wellens (4) – Much like Aernouts, Wellens looked like he was poised for a solid result Sunday. And, much like Aernouts, a dropped chain knocked him out of contention for a podium finish. Wellens battled back though, and within a lap nearly made it back to the lead group. However, the effort proved to be too much as he faded a bit before a last lap surge put him in tenth. Regardless, Wellens looks more and more like the 4-time World Champion we once knew.
7. Sven Nys (3) – I think it’s time to start judging Sven Nys for what he is—not what he was. He used to be unstoppable; he used to obliterate the competition; he used to be a guaranteed victor. Now, Nys is nothing more than one of nearly a dozen riders trying to figure how to beat Stybar. Nys looked solid early on Sunday, but dropped to the back of the lead group midway through the race before slowly drifting out of the picture. His ninth place was a solid result—but far from we have come to expect from the Belgian.
8. Francis Mourey (10) – The French Champion seemed to struggle throughout the entire race Sunday, dangling off the back of the lead group and for a while not even looking comfortable in the chase group. However, he fought through and finished sixth, further proving that when the big races arrive, he finds a way to perform. His impressive US start to the season continues to pay off. With some down time coming, it will be interesting to see how he fares when things heat up again.
9. Steve Chainel (8) – I keep waiting for Chainel to fade—and he never does. Consistently at the front Sunday before things blew apart, Chainel later found himself at the back of a three-man group before coming across the line in eighth. Last year, Chaniel struggled to finish inside the top-10 at World Cup races—clearly he’s stepped it up a notch this year. The real question: can he remain consistent?
10(tie). Dieter Vanthourenhout (n/a) – Vanthourenhout’s fifth-place finish in Aigle was impressive, but hardly surprising. The Belgian has only finished outside the top-10 only once this year (13th last weekend in Ruddervoorde). As with the rest of the riders on this list, consistency is key. Hopefully his fifth-place Sunday means that he’s in the rankings to stay.
10(tie). Tom Meeusen (9) – Meeusen missed-out on the first round of the World Cup only because he’s Belgian. The decision to leave the first year elite rider at home was pretty controversial, but with all but one of the Belgians finishing inside the top-10 (Aernouts finished twelfth), the decision appears to have been a smart one. Unfortunately, it left a big gap in young Belgian’s schedule and his chance to improve has suffered a bit of a setback. It will be interesting to see how he responds—whenever he races.
Although it’s a lengthy season in Europe, there’s no rest for the weary. All eyes will once again be Zdenek Stybar as he returns to his home nation for Round Two of the World Cup in Plzen. While the home crowd will be pulling for the World Champion, the Belgian contingent looks to knock Stybar off the top step of the podium. Belgium’s best hope is Niels Albert, but it’s also a perfect time for Sven Nys to assert his authority in an important event. Following Round Two of the World Cup, there’s a weeknight race in the Netherlands that usually draws top stars, along with another race in the Czech Republic the following Thursday. But for now, it’s all about Plzen.