January 8th and 9th made wild weekend in Europe, with virtually every nation awarding their highly coveted national championship jersey. Obviously, all eyes were on Belgium, where what many consider the world’s best crossers went head-to-head in an all-out brawl for the black, yellow and red. But first, let’s take a look at the other races we picked to watch.
The Dutch national title went to Lars Boom, who was the heavy favorite despite crashing out of a race just a week before. As predicted, Gerben de Knegt was Boom’s closest competition coming in a scant 12 seconds behind. Eddy Van Ijzendoorn rounded out the podium in third, just ahead of our rider to watch, Thijs Van Amerongen.
Zdenek Stybar captured his fifth title on a muddy and snowy course in the heart of the Czech Republic. At this point in the season, it comes as no surprise that Stybar decimated the competition and rode virtually the entire race solo. Martin Zlamalik earned the second spot, coming in almost a minute down on the world champion. Jaroslav Kulhavy, the European marathon mountain bike champion, rounded out the podium in third.
As predicted, Christian Heule picked up another Swiss national title. While the Swiss field wasn’t as star-studded as some other nations, Heule was kept honest by Pirmin Lang and Julien Taramarcaz, each of whom finished within 30 seconds of the leader.
In Italy, pre-race favorite Enrico Franzoi failed to finish, allowing last year’s champion, Marco Aurelio Fontana, to claim another national title. The race was very exciting, as Fontana won a three up sprint ahead of Marco Bianco and Fabio Ursi.
Personally, I would like to congratulate Valentin Scherz on his second place finish in the Swiss U23 race. His teammate Anthony Grand, finished tenth. Look for these two emerging talents in the years to come.
Before we get to the granddaddy of them all, I would like the moment and congratulate all of the national champions. Peter Presslauer soloed to victory in Austria, as did Francis Mourey, who put over a minute into second place on his way to a six French title. Joachim Parbo was de-throned by Kenneth Hansen in Denmark. The tiniest nation, Luxembourg, provided us with the biggest margin of victory as Jean-Pierre Drucker won by over two minutes. 27-year-old Mariusz Gil took another Polish national title as did Spain’s Javier Ruiz De Larrinaga Ibañez, who took his third straight. In Britain, it was Paul Oldham who took top honors. Finally, Philipp Walsleben picked up another German national title, giving him the honor of donning his nation’s colors in St. Wentzel at the end of this month.
By now, I’m sure you know that Niels Albert took home top honors in Belgium. After a strong start by Kevin Pauwels, Albert made his way to the front and rode away from everybody. The biggest surprise of the day came from defending champion Sven Nys, who had an “off day”, and dropped out of the race with a handful laps to go. As a result of Albert’s dominance, the primary action occurred during the battle for second place. Bart Wellens, who was battling back from a crash last week, took second spot ahead of his teammate Pauwels. While it is hard to count any of these riders out, Albert definitely made a strong statement with just a few weeks remaining until Worlds.
Let’s take a look at this week’s power rankings.
- Niels Albert (2) – Albert always seems to win when it counts. After a disastrous end to last year’s season, I am not surprised to see Albert looking like the world champion he once was. Although I had previously stated that the winner of the Belgian national title would also be the winner of the world championship, I’m not so sure. The fan in me hopes that Nys wins, while at the same time wanting underdog Stybar to repeat. Regardless, Albert will go in to Worlds as a national and World Cup champion.
- Zdenek Stybar (3) – Perhaps the biggest news of the week was Stybar’s announcement that he will not be racing this weekend’s World Cup. He’ll spend a weekend training and preparing for Worlds. However, he continues to make headlines after spending some time with ProTour team Omega Pharma-Lotto. I hope he’s in all this for the training rather than a potential job opportunity. If he loses focus now, he’ll never have a shot at the rainbow stripes.
- Sven Nys (1) - When Albert made his move, we were all left wondering when Nys would make his. As we watched Albert ride away, it became clear that it was not in Nys’ day. That said, Nys will most likely end this season with yet another GVA Trophy and Superprestige title. Obviously a world title would trump all that and I’m not ready to count him out. Nys has only won one world title and I’ll let you guess where he did that.
- Bart Wellens (5) – To say that Wellens’ second-place is a surprise would be an understatement. After last week’s crash, I didn’t even expect him to start. It’s obvious the four-time world champion is showing excellent form. I’m not ready to say that he truly has a shot at a fifth title, but after his performance this past weekend, I wouldn’t be surprised if he podiums at Worlds or makes a big splash this weekend.
- Kevin Pauwels (6) – Pauwels jumped off the front early on in the race in an attempt to claim victory. It reminded me of Rob Peeters’ move a few weeks ago. Peeters took off early only to be caught and passed by Albert. I’m sure part of the motivation was to impress the fans and more importantly the Belgian national coach. However, I’m starting to think that riders are attempting to go off the front early in hopes that they’ll have time to recover before the big boys make their move. It’s an interesting tactic, and one that I think could pay off.
- Francis Mourey (7) – By the time the Belgian title race was over, Mourey had already made his move and was on his way to victory in a very sloppy race in France. Mourey looked very dominant and, despite his tendency to race against significant a weaker competition, I still have high hopes for the Frenchman. He has shown us that he can perform on the bigger stage and he is a matter of time before it all comes together.
- Klaas Vantornout (4) – Rolling across the line in fifth place, Vantornout clearly just didn’t have it. At the beginning of this season, I thought Vantornout could hang with the big boys and perhaps even win a top-tier race. As the season has gone on, his consistency has faltered, but he still remains a very strong rider. If he can put everything together over the next couple weeks, he may surprise a lot of people.
- Lars Boom (9) – One of my biggest frustrations is when a national champion doesn’t go to Worlds. The honor and privilege of wearing your nation’s colors on the biggest stage of them all is something that I think some riders take too lightly. Now, I understand that Boom is a roadie, but if I were Dutch, I would be a little upset that he is not going to honor his country by racing at Worlds. Even worse, I think he is capable of winning another World title, especially this year.
- Gerben de Knegt (10) – De Knegt once again cemented his place as the Netherlands biggest hope for a World Championship medal. De Knegt neither gets a lot of press, nor says much, and as a result I think he’s an overlooked rider. I’m not going to say that he’ll finish on the podium the Worlds, but I feel like whenever he takes to the start line he’s capable of doing something special.
- Tom Meeusen (8) – Meeusen has played the role of teammate almost perfectly over the last couple weeks. I try to keep my wild and outlandish theories to myself, but I think Meeusen may be using an interesting tactic to get on the World’s team. With all the firepower in Belgium, it’s hard to believe that these guys would be willing to work together for one rider. Based on his actions, I think Meeusen is basically saying “if you give me a spot in Worlds, I’ll do everything in my power to ensure that a Belgian wins.”
Pont-Chateau, France will play host to the seventh round of the World Cup on Sunday, where Albert will have a chance to cement his overall title. As far as the race itself is concerned, the absence of Stybar suggests it will come down to Albert and Nys. I’m sure Albert would love to continue his winning streak, while Nys looks to rebound after this past weekend’s disappointment. Also in the mix will be Mourey, wearing his nation’s colors in their only World Cup round. Finally, as we head even closer to Worlds, you’ll notice that the start list has grown as everyone tries to make and/or prepare for their shot at the rainbow stripes.