World champion Zdenek Stybar (Telenet-Fidea) kept his unbeaten streak intact on Sunday, winning the Superprestige Zonhoven in a three-way battle with teammate Kevin Pauwels and Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet).
Stybar is unbeaten in major races this season, although he did come in fourth at at a midweek event in Tabor, Czech Republic.
Stybar and Belgian champ Nys separated themselves from the pack early on the hilly, sandy circuit. Pauwels and Bart Aernouts (Rabobank-Giant) joined them up front with seven laps to go, pursued by Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus).
Pauwels went to the front with Nys on his wheel as Stybar pitted. The world champ quickly rejoined as the leaders hit the steep sand pit that was the primary obstacle of the circuit, with two precipitous, sandy descents and two long, brutal run-ups. The second was so steep that the riders used their free hands and the course fencing to pull themselves upward.
With six to go it was a four-man group up front, with Albert just short of making contact. Nys laid down an attack going into the sand pit, shedding Aernouts, but Stybar and Pauwels were able to answer, dangling a few bike lengths behind.
When the two Telenet riders closed on Nys, Stybar went straight to the front and drilled it, his skinsuit unzipped to the breastbone. Nys and Pauwels both hung tough, though.
Pauwels bobbled in a sandy rut and lost contact, nearly being overtaken by a three-man chase containing Albert, Telenet’s Bart Wellens and Aernouts. He was back on the leading trio with four laps to go, but the chase was closing in, to within four seconds.
Stybar attacked once again on the second pit run, but couldn’t shake Nys. Pauwels in turn stuck to the Belgian champ’s wheel. And then the chase finally connected, leaving a six-man lead group, heavy on Telenet riders, in contention for the win.
Pauwels took the front and set the pace, Nys on his wheel and Stybar right behind.
With three laps to go, 44 minutes into the race, it was still six men up front and apparently anyone’s race. Stybar took the front once more in the sand pit, and Nys seemed to be losing steam.
Once out of the pit Stybar punched it, quickly taking a four-second gap. Albert led the chase, trailed by Aernouts and Pauwels, with Nys and Wellens struggling off the back.
Nys rejoined the pursuit, but Stybar wasn’t waiting for him or anyone else. Two laps from the finish he held a gap of five seconds over Albert and Pauwels, with Nys yo-yoing on and off the chase.
Stybar padded his lead to 15 seconds once out of the pit, manhandling his bike through the sand. Nys had returned to the front of the chase, dogged by Pauls and Aernouts, and now it was Albert dangling off the back.
Stybar had 12 seconds over the three-man chase going into the bell lap, and Albert was clearly baked. The chase closed in the sand pit, but Stybar fired up the afterburners coming out of it, holding a six-second lead over his teammate Pauwels with Nys in third.
The three could see each other as they snaked through a sandy lane on the backside of the course, and Pauwels seemed within striking range, though Nys looked as though he’d be content with the bottom step on the podium.
Good thing, too, because that’s the way it shook out — Stybar once again triumphant, Pauwels second and Nys third.