Sunday saw the seventh and penultimate round of the UCI Cyclocross World Cup in Pont-Chateau, with Neils Albert – having won the Belgian Championship last week, and wearing the white jersey of the World Cup leader – looking to cement his lead. With reigning World Champion Zdenek Stybar sitting out to focus on training and rest leading up to the World Championships, eyes were on Albert and Nys, but the wide, non-technical course (which promted American Cyclocross guru Adam Myerson to ask, “Could Pontchateau be any more of a New England-style ‘cross course?”) promised a tight group and fast racing – a recipe for some stunning crashes or an upset – in short, unpredictable racing. Those on the East Coast who woke up to watch the race at their computers, clutching cups of coffee, lit up Twitter upon seeing New England stud Jeremy Powers take the holeshot.
After two laps of tight racing, Albert made a move that put many in his company in trouble. As Albert distanced himself, Kevin Pauwels instigated a select chase group, but after they made contact with Albert, only Pauwels was able to hold Albert’s pace. The two of them built a comfortable lead.
The fireworks came in the last two laps, as there were many big guns in the chase group fighting for 3rd place. The fast course inflicted some damage, as Italian campion Marco Aurelio Fontana overcooked a last-lap lefthand turn while leading the chase group, snagging his wheel in the course barrier and taking down a number of riders, including French champ and scrappy underdog Francis Mourey. Nys, perhaps grasping at rhythm after a series of disruptions this past month, was able to maneuver around it. Meanwhile, up the course, Pauwels and Albert looked relaxed approaching the finish, looking like a pair engaged in a match sprint on the track – a battle of wills to see who would sprint first. ALbert gave it a dig, but Pauwels reigned him in. Though Albert reached the final corner first, Pauwels had control of the inside track, and was able to sprint out of the corner first, beating Albert well before the finish line.
The win was Pauwels’ second World Cup win. Albert, finishing second, all-but-clinched his World Cup victory. If Pauwels wins next week in Hoogerheide, Albert needs only to finish in the top 15 to maintain his lead.
There were a few other interesting things to note in the race results. Tim Johnson finished 12th – an impressive result for an American in a World Cup race, but perhaps not surprising considering the similarities between the course at Pont-Chateau and races in Johnson’s backyard, New England. Meanwhile, Bart Wellens, who surprised people with 2nd place in the Belgian National Championships last weekend despite injured knees from a crash the week before, abandoned the race with rumors of a groin injury. Lastly, check out Fontana’s sweet move over a roller. Can he be forgiven for taking down Mourey, Walsleben, and Vantornout if he races with flair?
More recently, Belgium named its team for the World Championships in St-Wendel, Germany, in two weeks: Neils Albert, Kevin Pauwels, Sven Nys, Bart Aernouts, Klaas Vantournout, Bart Wellens, and Tom Meeusen. Nys said that it’s unlikely that they’ll work together, but some speculate that Meeusen may be willing to work for his teammates to ensure a Belgian victory. Two out of the past three cyclocross World Champions haven’t been Belgian, which in recent history, is an unusual state of affairs: since 1998, when Mario de Clerq took over the stripes from previous champion Daniele Pontoni, Belgium has claimed 10 of the subsequent 13 World Championships. Considering the firepower they’re bringing to St-Wendel, going 11-for-14 seems like a very real possibility.
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