Zdenek Stybar took his seventh-straight win of the season in his home country, at Round Two of the World Cup in Plzen. As usual, Stybar crossed the line alone after riding virtually everyone off his wheel. The race started fast, with all of the usual names going straight to the front on the first lap. Niels Albert set the bulk of the pace on the first lap before Stybar took over. By the beginning of the second lap, the duo had created a small gap.
Behind these two, several riders made attempts to bridge across to the leaders. The best of these, Sven Nys and Kevin Pauwels kept the leading duo in sight with Pauwels eventually bridging acrossâ€”Nys blew-up, unable to follow. At that point, everything looked good for the leading trio until Stybar put in a vicious attack with two laps to go. Albert completely exploded, but Pauwels was able to hang-on before puncturing on the penultimate lap. Stybar elected not to wait for his teammate.
The decision gave Stybar a solo victory in Round Two of the World Cup while wearing the rainbow jersey in front of his home fans. Behind, Pauwels was able to hold-on for second ahead of Albert, while Francis Mourey posted his best World Cup result in years after outsprinting Nys for fourth. The only real surprise was Germanyâ€™s Philipp Walsleben who finished seventh and may be his countryâ€™s best hope for a world title in January.
With the World Cup on hold for another month (Round Three is November 27th), riders will now focus on goals. As a result, many big names skipped Tuesdayâ€™s race in the Netherlands, the Nacht van Woerden, where Tom Meeusen soloed to his first professional victory ahead of Bart Aernouts and Gerben de Knegt. Clearly, Meeusen is trying to prove that leaving him off the Belgian team for the first two rounds of the World Cup was a mistake.
(One final note: yesterdayâ€™s race in the Czech Republic (won by Radomir Simunek, Jr.) does not count towards this weekâ€™s rankings since it occurs after this column was posted. I will cover it in next weekâ€™s column.)
In the rankings, Stybar remains #1 of course, but will a resurgent Niels Albert and another impressive ride from Pauwels mix-up the rankings? Letâ€™s see:
European Power Rankings – Week 5
1. Zdenek Stybar (1) – At this point in the season, thereâ€™s not much left to say about Stybar. Heâ€™s won (almost) every race heâ€™s started this year and doesnâ€™t appear as if heâ€™s going to slow down any time soon. The most impressive thing is how heâ€™s winning: shortly after the start, he takes over the pace-making and then simply rides everyone else off his wheel.Â Incredible!
2. Kevin Pauwels (5) – Itâ€™s hard to imagine but if Pauwels didnâ€™t puncture Sunday, he would have had a shot at winning. Stybar was seemly that unbeatable but, Pauwels was able to bounce back from his puncture to finish second with a very impressive ride. He bridged to the leaders virtually by himself and was able to hang on to each of Stybarâ€™s attacks. Should Stybar falterâ€”or have a bad dayâ€”perhaps Pauwels can ride himself onto the top step of the podium.
3. Niels Albert (2) – Albert has finished inside the top-10 in four races so far this year and his worst result seventh place in his first race back (Superprestige #1). After last weekendâ€™s second place in Aigle, I had Albert picked as the man most capable of beating Stybar at this point. However, racing in his home country gave Stybar a huge boost. This weekend, everyone heads back to Belgium this weekend where Albert could be the spoiler.
4. Bart Aernouts (4) – Aernouts has struggled, relatively speaking, at both World Cup rounds this year. In non-World Cup races, he hasnâ€™t finished worse than fourth. His second place at the Nacht van Woerden race on Tuesday further proves my point. I think Aernouts will score a major win this year, I just donâ€™t think it will be at the World Cup. He needs to be careful though, the battle for the last two spots on the Belgian World Cup squad is a tight battleâ€”he needs to remain consistent to hold his place.
5. Klaas Vantornout (3)Â – Itâ€™s hard to believe that someone could be disappointed with a sixth-place finish in a World Cup race, but thatâ€™s the case with Vantornout. Heâ€™s steadily improved over the course of the season and looks poised for a breakout victory. Itâ€™s about time a Belgian wins a cross race, especially one in Belgium.
6. Francis Mourey (8) – The French National Champion moves up two spots to sixth this week after an impressive fourth-place finish in Plzen. Mourey has been a bit of a slow starter in the first two rounds of the World Cup. However, he definitely knows how to finishâ€”just ask the CrossVegas crowd. Perhaps if he started stronger, he wouldnâ€™t have to work so hard to get to the front.
7. Sven Nys (7) – For a while Sunday, it looked like Nys was going to get across to Stybar and Albert. However, the Belgian National Champion had a bad moment at the worst possible time and was unable to follow Pauwels across the gap. With Round Two of the Superprestige this weekend, Nys is focusing all his energy on the race. The odds for victory are stacked against him right now, but if anyone could pull-off an upset, itâ€™s Nys.
8. Tom Meeusen (10tie) – I refused to leave Meeusen off the list last weekend due to the fact that he hasnâ€™t been racing after being left off the Belgian World Cup squad. Needless to say, heâ€™s angryâ€”he won Tuesday night in dominating fashion. With a month to prove he deserves a spot on the Belgian roster for World Cup Round Three, heâ€™s clearly out to prove that heâ€™s one of Belgianâ€™s best.
9. Dieter Vanthourenhout (10tie) – One of those racers whom Meeusen hopes drops off a bit, Vanthourenhout picked-up a pair of top-10â€™s this past week. Vanthourenhout has been very consistent so far. While I donâ€™t expect a podium finish out of him any time soon, I do expect him to finish inside the top-10 in just about every race he enters.
10. Bart Wellens (6) – Just when it looked like Wellens was back, he finished 27th in Plzen. Yes, everyone has a bad race once in a while, but 27th is really badâ€”especially for someone who hasnâ€™t finished outside the top-10 all season. Look for Wellens to bounce back with a vengeance this weekend.
Dropped-out this week: Steve Chainel (9).
Obviously, the big race this weekend is Round Two of the Superprestige in Zonhoven, Belgium on Sunday. Many of the riders contested Thursdayâ€™s race in Tabor, home to last yearâ€™s World Championships, before heading back to Belgium.Â Thereâ€™s another race in the Czech Republic on Saturday, but most of the big names will skip that race to avoid an overnight trip. For the few not competing at the Superprestige, there are three other races in Europe on Sunday. Nys desperately wants a tenth Superprestige title, but, like everyone else, heâ€™ll have to beat Stybar to have any chance at getting it.Â Maybe Mondayâ€™s traditional Koppenbergcrossâ€”an important race that Nijs has won 7 times.
And thatâ€™s it for this weekâ€™s rankings.Â What are your thoughts?