As our two-part Weekend Preview (Part 1 and Part 2) indicated, it was a major race weekend for European cyclocrossers. With 8 C2 races scheduled, there were copious opportunities to chase results for those riders who couldn’t match the level of competition at the two C1 races for the weekend – the 2nd race in the Superprestige series, at the sand mines in Zonhoven, and the 1st installment of the Gazet van Antwerpen Trofee competition, the Koppenbergcross at Oudenaarde.
Superprestige Round 2 – Zanhoven (C1)
Conditions in Zonhoven were a clear challenge to the riders. Two features were immediately noticeable: a pair of precipitously steep descents through deeply-rutted sand, and the corresponding run-up. The descents caused many people problems – Tom Meeusen wasn’t the only rider to crash, going over his bars after losing his front wheel, but he managed to do so right in front of Bart Aernouts, who in his attempt to avoid Meeusen, launched himself over his bars and landed squarely on Meeusen’s bike. The run-up, meanwhile, was a steep, loose, long grind – by the end of the race, even the leading riders had difficulty running, and dragged themselves to the top with the aid of a few tugs on the course barriers. Conditions were so challenging that the top ten finishers were spread over 3 minutes, 29 seconds; only 23 riders finished on the first lap, and extremely capable riders like Steve Chainel and Jon Page were among those to get lapped.
A third feature of the course – and one that proved crucial – was a subtle uphill grind, difficult to perceive due to camera placement, that called for both power and technique. Many of the riders chose a firm line toward the right but it was far from easy. In fact, World Champion Zdenek Stybar bobbled there early, and had difficulty recovering from his lost momentum. Niels Albert took that opportunity to ride away; Stybar never saw him again and had to concern himself with a Kevin Pauwels and Sven Nys – both of whom wound up besting him.
Ahead, Albert rode an apparently flawless race in conditions that challenged riders’ technical abilities and saw early gaps stretch further and further open as the course presented more and more opportunities for easy mistakes to make. His performance begs the question – why has he been so inconsistent lately? We can’t help but wonder if he’s only fast when there’s nobody in front of him. He’s seemed to have difficult winning under duress, instead gaining his wins by going to the front early and staying there. Perhaps some additional mental toughness is required. It’s likely that we’ll see Albert focus on the Superprestige series, as his World Cup performances were a wash.
GVA Trophy Round 1 – Oudenaarde (C1)
Tuesday offered a rare major midweek cyclocross race – the first installment of the GVA Trofee series, held on one of the Ronde van Vlaanderen’s major climbs, the Koppenberg. The race began in fine condition and started off with extremely hot laps as a large group stuck together up the cobbled slopes of the Koppenberg and wove its way down the twisting off-camber descent. A group of five formed, containing Sven Nys (who won the race 8 times in the past 10 years), Stybar, Pauwels, Vantornout, and Meeusen. A gut-wrenching bridge move saw Albert and Aernouts join them, despite Meeusen’s dig to keep them apart. Despite the speed of the course, the repeats of the Koppenberg proved selective, and Pauwels, Nys, and Stybar separated themselves from the others.
Then it started to rain, prompting Nys and Stybar to switch bikes to one with a mud tread – the better to handle the slick switchbacks on the descent. This, however, was all that Pauwels needed to open a small gap. Stybar, corning aggressively on the mud-tread, hit a building at the base of the climb, and Nys’s fresh bike had a flat rear tire. When it was over, Pauwels finished well in front of Nys, who beat out Stybar for 2nd. Behind, Bart Aernouts put in an inspired performance to break loose from Tom Meeusen and Klaas Vantornout, who crashed in to each other on the descent, to finish 4th. Niels Albert finished a quiet 7th place, while Radomir Simunek and Vincent Baestaens rode together to top-ten results – in front of Bart Wellens, who had apparently shot his bullets at Zonhoven and could only manage 11th.
With the win, Pauwels interrupted Nys’s streak of 7 consecutive victories at Koppenbergcross. Pauwels’ win might be a sign of shifting reigns of Belgian Cross. If Nys was the king of the 2000s, then Pauwels may take the reigns for the 2010s.