OVERIJSE, Belgium (VN) — Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) won the Vlaamse Druivencross on Sunday as European cyclocrossers traded a flat, muddy course in northern Belgium for a hilly one in the heart of the country, just south of Brussels.
There was a change in the cast of characters, too — 2008 world champion Lars Boom (Rabobank) made his return to the sport’s highest level after spending the past two years focusing on his blossoming road career on the road. Boom got off to a strong start, but faded in the final laps thanks to an untimely puncture.
First Kevin Pauwels (Telenet-Fidea) got past him, and then Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb-Revor). And as the race wore on, the former world champ slipped further and further back until he finally slotted into seventh on the day, some 90 seconds down.
American Jonathan Page (Planet Bike) finished 13th.
Nys’ win, his second in two days, brings his career total in Overijse to three, far short of the 15 wins Roland Liboton amassed here in the 1970s and ’80s. Nonetheless, the Belgian champion told VeloNews that he was happy to be a part of one of the most storied races still running.
“It’s a special race because it’s a classic since the times of Liboton,” Nys explained. “So it’s really nice to win here, and it’s not so easy to win; it’s only my third time. I won Ruddervoorde 10 times, so you see that Overijse is for me really difficult to win. But it happened today and I’m really happy with it.”
Mild but muddy
Despite slightly more mild conditions than those that have met racers in Belgium in recent weeks, on-and-off showers added an extra dimension of slippery mud to an already technical course.
The race in Overijse, although not part of any of the major series — the GVA Trofee, Superprestige, or UCI World Cup — is nonetheless one of Belgium’s most storied events, with a 50-year history, the majority of which was dominated by Belgian superstars Roland Liboton and Roger and Eric de Vlaeminck, a trio who hold a combined twelve world cyclocross titles.
American fans may remember the race’s more recent history better: the 2006 edition featured disqualification of Belgian star Bart Wellens following a mid-race karate-style kick to a particularly annoying fan.
Wellens was here once again, as was the beneficiary of his martial-arts prowess, Boom. The former world champ will appear at only a handful of races this winter, but his presence added a layer of intrigue to the day’s events, especially in the absence of world champion Zdenek Stybar (Telenet-Fidea), who opted to continue to rest an ailing knee this weekend.
Boom begins with a bang
Boom got the hole shot only to slide out in a slick left-hand descent and nearly got centerpunched by Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea). The two soon led the field with Rabobank teammates Bart Aernouts, Gerben De Knegt, Vantornout and Pauwels chasing.
Pauwels fought to bridge to the leaders on a cobbled stretch and caught on just past the pits. Dieter Vanthourenhout (BKCP-Powerplus) likewise was trying to make contact while Nys led the chase some seven seconds down as the leaders hit six laps to go.
Boom was out front and bobbled as the leaders transitioned from pavement to mud, giving Vanthourenhout the chance to connect. And then, suddenly so did everyone else — it was a 10-man group in the lead with Meeusen in front and defending champ Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) bringing up the rear.
With five laps to go Boom was on the front of a slightly reduced lead group. This time Vantornout took the lead going from pavement to mud, with Meeusen, Pauwels, Nys, Rob Peeters, Aernouts and Vanthourenout all in the hunt.
Nys gets to work
Meeusen took a slight advantage, but botched a sketchy descent and lost it. Vantornout and Nys were on him like a shot, and then the Belgian champion slipped past and into the lead.
Nys kept the pedal to the metal and opened a little daylight between himself and Vantornout just past the pit. With four laps remaining the Belgian champ had just a couple seconds’ advantage over the Sunweb rider, who was about to be reeled in by a chase containing Pauwels, Aernouts, Vanthourenhout, Albert and Meeusen.
Then Pauwels shot out of the chase and closed to within nine seconds of Nys, with Aernouts just behind. Vantornout and Boom were in the hunt, too, as were the two BKCP riders.
Nys had five seconds on Pauwels as he hit three to go. Boom was driving the chase at 15 seconds back, then left it behind, hooked up with Pauwels and the two set out after Nys.
With two laps remaining the chase had Nys in sight, and the Landboukrediet man was looking over his shoulder. But then Boom botched the transition from pavement to mud once again and slowed the pursuit, springing Nys free for good.
As Boom fought his bike, making little errors here and there, Pauwels took the front of the chase and opened a gap. The former world champ had punctured, and soon both Pauwels and Vantournout were past him and gone. He pitted for a fresh bike, but by that time the race had gone up the road without him.
As Nys got the bell signaling the final lap he had a solid 18-second margin over Pauwels with Vantornout third at 37 seconds. All three would ride the last lap conservatively, and that was the podium.
Nys: I win ‘real’ cyclocrosses
Nys, who had a relatively poor start to his season, found his footing recently, winning a series of races in November and December that featured especially difficult, technical, and sloppy conditions. He said after today that races like today’s have become his specialty.
“I won all the races (this season) that are real cyclocrosses — the Koppenberg, Asper-Gavere, and this is also a technical course with a lot of downhills and a lot of steep climbs,” he said. “Of course it’s the second day (of racing for me), so you have to be alert for all the technical problems that can happen. And good condition and recuperation are really important. You have to do everything after the race to be good again (the next day).”
Third-place finisher Vantornout has also seen his form turn around recently. Though he started the season well, both injury and bad luck hampered him in the past months. But, with a second-place finish on Saturday, the tall, lanky Belgian seems to be returning to top results just in time for the busy holiday racing season.
“Yesterday was hard. With the mud, it was a very hard race,” he told VeloNews. “And today I feel it from yesterday in Essen. That was a pity, but today is very, very difficult hilly race. I think it’s the hardest race of the season with all the hills. There’s no flat, it’s always up and down, I like it very much, but my legs are not recovered from yesterday.”
Vantornout said that he started to feel better at last week’s World Cup, but a long drive to Spain the day before the race — the result of a strike by Spanish air traffic controllers — hurt him during the race.
“In Igorre I felt good, but I had a very long travel to the race because my plane was canceled,” he said. “It was 16 hours in the car, so it was not easy, the race in Igorre. But I felt good there, and yesterday and today I had the good feeling back.”
In fact, returns to form seemed to be the theme of the day, as Boom showed he could still match the best in the sport, going head to head with runner-up Pauwels before a flat with two laps to go knocked him back in to seventh place.
Page inching back into form
And Page, who opted to focus on European racing and skip the long trip to the West Coast for Sunday’s U.S. national championship race, also looked to be coming back to top form after struggling with injuries and other problems for much of the past two months.
Page spent much of the day battling for 10th before a fall and two encounters with a poorly placed course barrier — one that caused problems for several racers during the day — knocked him back into 13th. The Planet Bike rider said the race in Overijse was one of the hardest he had ever done.
“It was very difficult, and a bit dangerous also,” he said. “It’s one of the hardest races of the whole season, up and down and up and down the whole day. The only place you could rest was one stretch around a football field.”
Though the race has been run for 50 years, it was Page’s first appearance in Overijse, owing to its overlap with the U.S. championship. He said he was happy with the first-time effort.
“In all, I think I rode a pretty good race. I gave it my all,” said Page. Reflecting on the decision to stay in Europe this December, he added: “It’s a shame not to even give yourself a chance to win the national title again, but for me right now it’s the best choice. I need to get myself back in order and not have to travel again. I’m hoping I can be consistently good from now on, and by not traveling to the national championship I think I put myself in the best position to do that.”
- 1. Sven Nys, Landbouwkrediet
- 2. Kevin Pauwels, Telenet-Fidea
- 3. Klaas Vantornout, Sunweb-Revor
- 4. Bart Aernouts, Rabobank-Giant
- 5. Tom Meeusen, Telenet-Fidea
Editor’s note: Dan Seaton started writing about cyclocross when he moved from New Hampshire to Belgium in 2008. He started covering European cyclocross for VeloNews in October 2010. Dan has a Ph.D. in physics and spends most of his time working as mission scientist for a spaceborne solar telescope at the Royal Observatory of Belgium. He somehow finds time to race as an amateur ‘crosser in Belgium during the fall and winter. Dan and his wife, Mindi, live in Brussels.
—Online editor at large Patrick O’Grady contributed to this report.