The annual Christmas week festivities started of with a boom as the World Cup headed to Heusden-Zolder, Belgium for the sixth round of the series. Lars Boom rode away from Niels Albert late in the race to capture the victory in his only World Cup apperance this year. Albert dominated the bulk of the race, but got bogged down in one of the extremely snowy sections on the course, allowing Boom to get away. Both riders emphasized their displeasure with the course conditions and the promoters lack of snow clearing.
Behind Albert and Boom, veterans Bart Wellens and Gerben de Knegt picked up their best results of the year finishing third and fourth. Sven Nys crossed the line in fifth after riding a pretty unimpressive race. After the race, Nys complained of lower back pain after a crash earlier this week while training. With Albertâ€™s second place, he now holds a 60 point lead in the World Cup standings, which virtually locks up the over all.
After Sundayâ€™s race, the cross peloton headed to Diegem for a night cross race. The race marked round six of the Superprestige. It was Sundayâ€™s runner up, Niels Albert, who was able to conquer the frozen, icy conditions, to pick up the win ahead of Sven Nys. The duo broke clear of the field on the second lap, but couldnâ€™t shed each other. On the final lap, Nys dropped his chain, giving Albert the room he needed for victory.
World Champion Zdenek Stybar, who marked his return to cross with a first lap crash, was able to ride a solid race and finish on the podium. Rob Peeters had a very respectable showing with a fourth place finish, just ahead of Bart Wellens. Kevin Pauwels poor technical skills cost him greatly as he dropped back to seventh place. Pauwels is now 15 points behind Nys, putting the Belgian National Champion on track for his tenth Superprestige title.
Wednesdayâ€™s midweek race in Loenhout, Belgium saw familiar faces at the front once again, as Sven Nys and Niels Albert distanced themselves from a five-man lead group. Things became eerily familiar, as Nysâ€™ string of bad luck continued when he fell while pitting on the last lap. Albert was able to open up a gap, and rode to a solo finish, Nys held on for second.
Behind the duo,World Champion Zdenek Stybar rolled across the line in third. Kevin Pauwels and and German Champion Philipp Walsleben ended up fourth and fifth, respectively. Despite missing out on the win, Nys was able to close the gap to Pauwelsfor the GVA Trophy overall. Pauwles now leads by just six points. Nys can become the new overall leader in his hometown of Ball on New Yearâ€™s Day.
This past week of racing provided us with plenty of surprises and disappointments. Sven Nys looked superior, but mishaps prevented him from winning. Meanwhile, Zdenek Stybar returned to action with two impressive podium finishes. Ultimately, it was Niels Albert who was able to do the most damage, picking up two victories in three races. Where does that leave these three riders? Time to find out, hereâ€™s this weekâ€™s rankings.
International Power Rankings – Week 13
- Niels Albert (3) – There is no question that boom was the man to beat in Heusden-Zolder. Had Albert not crashed, we could be looking at a man who won three straight races this past week. However, some may question his two victories in the fact that they came on the heels of two Nys mechanicals. Regardless, Albert is flying right now, making him the number one rider in Europe.
- Sven Nys (1) – Take away his anonymous race in Heusden-Zolder, and one cannot feel helpless to watch the Belgian National Champion ride so well and come up with so little. However, not all was lost, as Nys now finds himself in a position to capture both the Superprestige and GVA Trophy. Add another national championship and a potential World Championship and Nys may be having one of his best seasons ever.
- Zdenek Stybar (10) – The last time we saw Stybar, he was dropping down the rankings rather quickly due to multiple poor finishes. After taking some time off to rehab an ailing knee, it appears that Stybar may be ready to take back the top step of the podium. However, he has pretty much lost everything, except a shot at a world title. Which, if he won, Iâ€™m sure no one would argue the success of his season.
- Bart Wellens (5) – Wellens, moves up a spot this week after posting three straight top-ten finishes. His third-place in Heusden-Zolder made him the second Belgian on the day. He followed that up with a fifth and sixth place finish behind the best riders in Europe. While a fifth world title is never out of the question, at this point in the season I would settle for a big-time win, especially during Christmas week.
- Kevin Pauwels (2) – Although Pauwels drops three spots this week, he did posted three straight top-ten finishes including one top-five finish. Unfortunately, his outside chances of winning a World Cup overall, Superprestige or GVA Trophy have all seemingly faded. Pauwels poor handling skills became very evident this past weekend, but heâ€™s still young and with time, I think he can be a major player in cross.
- Francis Mourey (4) – The French National Champion has opted to skip much of this weekâ€™s racing including the sixth round of the World Cup. I dropped hm back a couple of places, but Iâ€™m still convinced that he has what it takes to win a big race. Hopefully, spending another couple weeks at home and picking up another National Championship will set him on course for a podium finish at worlds.
- Lars Boom (na) – Without going off on a tangent, or providing some sort of deep philosophical reasoning, let me just say that it was wrong of me to leave Boom out of the power rankings last week. In the four races he has done this year, he has never finished outside the top ten and has posted two impressive victories. In fact, he most likely wouldâ€™ve won a third race if it werenâ€™t for an ill fated flat tire. His time in cross is limited, but he is clearly left the mark and must be considered one of Europeâ€™s finest.
- Gerben de Knegt (8) – I have always felt like de Knegt is capable of winning a top-tier race. His fourth place in Heusden-Zolder shows that he is still capable of such a victory. He finished tenth in Diegem, but failed to produce in Loenhout, which makes me question his ability to race consistently. However, as one of the oldest riders in the peloton, I am still stunned of what he is capable of.
- Philip Walsleben (na) – The German national championâ€™s 24th place finish in Heusden-Zolder is nothing to write home about. However, his seventh in Diegem and fifth in Loenhout have caught the eye of Belgiumâ€™s best. With worlds being held in his homeland, heâ€™s the obvious favorite for any sort of home country (menâ€™s) medal. With that said, it will be interesting to see if he continues to improve, or fades from the front of the race.
- Bart Aernouts (6) – After a few weeks of looking like he may be back, the Belgian posted some sub-par results. He managed two top-ten finishes, but failed to finish anywhere near the front in Diegem. However, his sixth place in Heusden-Zolder should keep him on the World Cup team, and more importantly, give him a shot at worlds.
Dropped this week: Tom Meeusen (7) and Klass Vantornout (8).
Finally, an update on the American assault on Europe. It should come as no surprise that Jonathan Page is still the best American in Europe. In fact, he posted a top-ten finish in Loenhout and his results have been steadily improving. As far as the rest of the contingent is concerned,it has been a mixed bag of results, but everyone seems to be improving. Obviously, most Americans go for the experience and not the results, but it would be nice to see one of them pull off something special. Thereâ€™s still plenty of time for them to shine.
Christmas week will wind down with three more races in Belgium. Obviously, Nys has to be a heavy favorite if his string of bad luck goes away. However, no one can argue with the strength and form of Albert. Perhaps the biggest unknown is World Champion, Zdenek Stybar. I expect all three riders to share the top step of the podium as we head towards worlds. But, I must give the edge to Nys for the remainder of the week.