This weekend saw two excellent races – Saturday’s Krawatencross Lille, the penultimate race of the Gazet van Antwerpen Trofee, and Sunday’s Superprestige Hoogstraten, also the second-to-last race in that series. Sven Nys went into the weekend leading both series, but threatened by Kevin Pauwels and Zdenek Stybar in both. Leading two of cyclocross’s grand slam series sounds like a good place to be, but Stybar and Pauwels have both been incredibly strong in 2011. Nys couldn’t rest on his considerable laurels – it would be a weekend of fighting for him.
First, at Krawatencross, a fast course sent a rather prestigious group of five into the final laps together: Nys, Stybar, Pauwels, Niels Albert, and Bart Wellens. Stybar rode as though posessed, controlling the front and constantly trying to break apart the group. He succeeded in putting Albert and Wellens in difficulty and small gaps opened up here and there, but nothing stuck – all rode well through the course (check out the body english they used to navigate a twisting sandpit).
The five entered the final straight together for a sprint, which offered much tactical intrigue on its own. Stybar had been racing as though he didn’t want the race to come down to a sprint; Nys on the other hand seemed either reluctant to contribute to Stybar’s effort to shatter the group, or was just desperately keeping Stybar on a short leash. If Nys felt that his chances were best in a sprint finish, he hasn’t been paying attention lately, since Kevin Pauwels has showed more than once that he’s got quite a spurtje in his legs in the closing meters.
Stybar opened up the sprint and almost held it all the way to the line; a sprinting Nys was unable to come around (suggesting that rather than playing his odds on a sprint, he had just been keeping Stybar close out of desperation), but Pauwels enrolled the current and former World Champions into Sprinting 101, accelerating in the generous draft of both Stybar and Nys, only putting himself into the wind in the final 50 meters, closing the door every so slightly on Nys as an insurance policy, and sealing the deal with a textbook bike throw that likely made the difference between first and second.
After the race, Stybar said that once he knew that Nys wasn’t coming around, he eased with about 20m to go and Pauwels surprised him, but the video replay suggest that he was soundly beaten in a sprint all the way to the line. The lesson to take is the put your money on Pauwels if he enters the asphalt among the leaders. Nys will have to watch out for Pauwels on the final GvA Trofee race on the 20th in Oostmalle – they’re separated by only two points. Whoever bests the other will win the overall.
On Sunday, Hoogstraten’s mud-rutted up-and-down affair offered Nys another chance to seal the deal on a series victory before its final race. It was a course that offered racers plenty of difficult moments and many crashes throughout the race. Reminiscent of the saying about Paris-Roubaix that a winner doesn’t need good luck but rather, needs absolutely no bad luck whatsoever, Nys rode a perfect race when others bobbled here and there or slid out on the loose, uneven descents (prompting CyclingNews to quip that “the ground was like a magnet for Zdenek Stybar”). In the final lap and a half, Nys was able to put enough insurance time into his nearest chaser, Niels Albert, that Nys was able to take a clean bike for the final few hundred meters between the last pit and the finish line. As he crossed the line, he licked his thumb and placed to his chest, the internationally understood gesture for I’m sizzlin’, and held up all ten fingers: with the win he clinched his tenth victory in the Superprestige series. His run extends back to 98-99, only interrupted by Richard Groenendaal (00-01), Bart Wellens (03-04), and Stybar (09-10).