For the second time in as many weeks the sun shone on world champion Zdenek Stybar (Telenet Fidea), who stormed to an impressive victory in the season opener of the Nissan Superprestige Topsport Vlaanderen Trofee in Ruddervoorde, Belgium, on Sunday. The 24-year-old Czech attacked almost straight from the gun, thrilling the enormous crowds, who came out to this village of 5,000 in West Flanders in huge numbers thanks to a stretch of spectacular early autumn weather.
Though Stybar, with his early attack, may have set the stage in much the same way as last week, when he rode to a solo victory on the hills of Namur, the similarities ended there. Ruddervoorde featured a flat, fast, intricately wound course — the only climbs were short, steep, manmade hills and bridges. But the reigning world champion, with wins in the sands of Koksijde, the snows of Tabor, and the mud of Roubaix, is nothing if not versatile, and he easily distanced all but Belgium’s Bart Aernouts (Rabobank), with whom he quickly built a 10-second lead that looked insurmountable even in the race’s first laps.
While Stybar and Aernouts, frequent training partners and neighbors in Essen in northern Belgium, cooperated to stretch their lead early in the race, the real drama of the day was unfolding behind them. 2009 world champion Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus), in his first start of the season after struggling with both illness and injury, found himself gapped after failing to cleanly negotiate the first turn of the race. Albert methodically worked his way into a chase group featuring Belgian champion Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet), who was himself looking to return to form after abandoning last weekend in Namur.
The two were joined by an ever-changing cast of characters that, at times, included former world champion Bart Wellens (Stybar’s teammate on Telenet Fidea), Belgain Sven Vanthourenhout (Sunweb-Revor), 2006 Dutch national champion Gerben De Knegt and Frenchman Steve Chainel (Bbox-Bouygues).
A second bobble in a corner by Albert cost the Belgian any chance at a place on the podium, while a broken derailleur forced De Knegt from the race. Nys managed, at one point, to whittle the gap to the leaders down to less than 15 seconds before a broken spoke left him fighting for third with Chainel, ultimately finishing some 45 seconds back.
In front, the decisive moment of the race came with two laps to go, when Aernouts accelerated just before he and Stybar hit a short but tricky stretch of sand that had dogged riders all day. Aernouts powered his way through the sand and emerged with a gap over a surprised Stybar, who lost five seconds when he was forced to run while the Belgian pedaled away. Aernouts made a valiant effort to hold off the Czech rider, but simply couldn’t match Stybar’s power on the final lap. A slight bobble by Aernouts on the race’s penultimate set of stairs gave Stybar all the distance he needed to seal his second straight major victory of the season.
After the race, Stybar told reporters he was a little bit surprised by his form on the day. “This week I trained really very hard,” he said. “This week we did some really good training and I was surprised that after this training week I could do such a good race.”
Aernouts, for his part, told VeloNews that he realized his best efforts towards the win had fallen short. “I was thinking during the race, ‘What do I have to do to beat Stybar?’ I was thinking that the only chance for me was to do a surprise, and the last lap he’s so strong, so I was thinking I had to do it before. I tried on the second to last lap, and it was a good effort. I put some pressure on him, but he came back, so it was not enough.”
But he added that he was very happy with his early season success, “It’s been a great start,” he said. “I just hope I can make it to the end of the season.”
Stybar, who has duly earned a reputation as the most magnanimous rider in the European ranks, said he, too, was happy for Aernouts. “Last year he was always fourth, fifth, sixth and never on the podium and now he did it and he almost won the race,” said the Czech. “I didn’t want to try (to attack) like three laps from the end, because I was happy that Bart was riding for the win and I was thinking he is my friend and I didn’t want to ride away from him and take his big chance to be on the podium.”
American Jonathan Page (Planet Bike), made a return to form with a race that was considerably stronger than his 15th place finish might suggest. Page, who narrowly avoided a large crash in the wake of Albert’s first turn bobble, worked his way steadily through the field, riding for ninth place during the second half of the race.
“Results count,” Page told VeloNews, “but how I rode today was better than that … I don’t want to talk about luck, but a little luck at the start and I’m already there. I’m happy, I’m not going to go away disappointed.”