Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) won a thriller on Sunday at the Vlaamse Druivencross, claiming his fourth victory in Overijse — and doing it with drama befitting one of Belgium’s hardest and longest running events.
And recent rains that turned the steep hills of Overijse, a suburban town just south of the Belgian capital of Brussels, into twisted, muddy slip-and-slides meant that the crowds packing the slopes were treated to what many described as the first true ‘cross race of the Belgian season.
Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor) and Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea) were the early aggressors on the 2.7km rollercoaster of a course. But defending champion Nys bridged to them, making the lead group a threesome with five laps to go.
Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb) and Bart Aernouts (Rabobank-Giant) got on, too, but it would do them no good. Nys applied relentless pressure, and with the help of a couple mechanicals that afflicted Pauwels shed the two Sunwebs. Then Meeusen slid out on the pavement entering the start-finish with two laps to go, leaving Nys only Aernouts for company.
And the Rabobank rider just couldn’t stick — Nys unleashed a final crushing attack on the steep climb to the pits, then stayed steady and focused throughout his final lap on the greasy circuit, riding alone to the victory.
Aernouts hung on for second, waving glumly to the crowd. A clearly spent Vantornout took the final spot on the podium. Meeusen finished fourth and Pauwels fifth at 1:21.
Vantornout, Silvestri show early power
Vantornout led the men’s field off the start line and Elia Silvestri (Selle Italia-Guerciotti) took over, charging up the cobbled climb and onto the grass. The bunch was content to let him go for the first short lap.
Then Meeusen took over with Pauwels on his wheel. The two got some daylight as first Meeusen, then Pauwels pushed the pace. The chase, led by Aernouts, was a handful of seconds behind, while Nys sat about seven wheels back, working his way through traffic.
Next time through the start-finish Pauwels and Meeusen had eight seconds on the Aernouts chase, with Nys a further five seconds down.
Pauwels was forced off the bike on a steep pitch and lost Meeusen’s wheel, but got back up to him on a second hilly stretch.
Radomir Simunek (BKCP-Powerplus), Vantornout, Aernouts and Nys were in pursuit until Simunek crashed out of the chase, hitting the deck on a fast descent and sliding straight off the course into the crowd.
Ahead, Pauwels was setting a tremendous pace. The two had 12 seconds over the Nys-led chase next time through the start-finish.
Both men had trouble with a long, steep climb next time up and Meeusen used the opportunity to leg it past Pauwels. But the Nys chase was cutting into their advantage, and by the next trip down the descent that took out Simunek, Nys was just four seconds down, while Vantornout and Aernouts were off the back.
Nys joins the party
A few minutes later Nys had joined the leaders, and it was a threesome through the start-finish with five laps to go.
Pauwels gave it the gas on the pavement and popped Meeusen off the back, leading Nys onto the climb. Adding insult to injury, Meeusen flatted his rear wheel on the cobbles before starting the climb, leaving Aernouts in third.
The two leaders slowed a bit, and Aernouts ground up a long climb to within striking distance.
Nys took the lead on the Simunek descent and led the others along a cobbled stretch and onto the steep climb to the pits. Pauwels took a quick bike change and slipped to third.
Meeusen and Vantornout were chasing and with four laps to go, 31 minutes into the race, it seemed they would make contact with the leaders.
Once again Nys set a ferocious pace up the climb to the pits. Aernouts took a bike but stayed in contact, and soon the two chasers hooked up.
Nys stayed on the front of the now-five-man group until Aernouts took over on the next climb. Everyone seemed to take a moment to catch his breath and assess the situation, and then Nys took charge once more.
Meeusen splits the group
With three to go Meeusen took a dig, shooting past Nys on the pavement and grabbing the lead going onto the pit climb. He stretched the group out, but didn’t shell anyone.
Then he made a huge move on the next climb, which had been setting everyone afoot, riding it cleanly and getting some daylight. Nys ran it and stayed with him, but the others were distanced.
On the next climb Aernouts tried to get back on, but fell just short, and the two Sunwebs were off the back — Vantornout was att five seconds and Pauwels was even further back., apparently with a softening front tire. He took a bike and got back to business.
Nys kept the pressure on. Meeusen was with him but Aernouts was dangling.
Then Meeusen slid out going into the start-finish — that set Nys and Aernouts free with two to go and let Vantornout catch on. Pauwels was 23 seconds behind and riding for pride.
Again Nys punched it on the climb to the pits and left Aernouts behind. The Rabobank rider took the opportunity to change bikes and didn’t lose much ground to Nys on the subsequent greasy descent.
Aernouts rejoined on the run and stayed in contact through a nasty off-camber second. Vantornout was leading Meeusen a few seconds behind, and Pauwels was battling back up to them.
Pauwels perplexed, Nys flies
The Sunweb rider caught and passed Meeusen and went after his teammate, who was a dozen seconds behind the leaders. Then Pauwels seemed to have another issue with his bike, briefly soft-pedaling and looking down at his drivetrain before continuing on.
Ahead, Nys put a few seconds on Aernouts, who seemed to be losing some steam. The defending champ shot through the start-finish and into the bell lap with Aernouts about three seconds back. Vantornout was 23 seconds down in third.
Again Nys gassed it on the pit climb, padding his advantage by a few seconds going into the sinuous descent, then powering out of the saddle on the climbs and out of corners.
Aernouts finally popped, and Nys was gone, 10 seconds up the track. The Rabobank rider was clinging to second with Vantornout a solid third.
Nys stayed steady and focused, occasionally glancing around to see if anyone was pulling him back. Nobody was, and with one final peek in the rear-view mirror he hit the finishing straight alone and punched his left fist skyward, index finger extended. No. 1, indeed.
Aernouts took the runner-up spot a dozen seconds down, while a clearly spent Vantornout took the final spot on the podium. Meeusen took fourth and Pauwels rolled in for fifth at 1:21.
Nys: It wasn’t easy
After the race, Nys told VeloNews that the victory was as hard-earned as it looked.
“Yesterday’s win (in Antwerp) was easy, I felt even in the beginning of the race that I could win,” he said. “But today it was different because it was Kevin Pauwels and Tom Meeusen off the front and it is difficult to beat them. And I knew that it is difficult to come back and close a gap here.
“But when you can close a gap, then you have a mental advantage, and then it’s just full gas, a little technique, and feeling that you can do something in the last half lap.”
Nys, who is more than a decade older than many of his competitors, has at times this season looked outmatched by the ferocity of rising stars like Pauwels, Meeusen, and Aernouts.
But his performance at Overijse reminded fans that he’s still the best bike handler in the business. While others fell away, victims of mistakes on a very technical course, Nys rode flawlessly — and knew it.
“Everybody made some mistakes, had flat tires, did different things. And I felt really confident on the bike, and so then I knew that I could win,” he said. “There was a lot of mud, we needed to run a little bit for only the second or third time this season, you need to have the right pressure in your tires and a good feeling on the bike. It’s maybe one of the first times this year and I waited a long time for races like this.
“And now that we have it, you see that I’m good in a race like this. This is real cyclocross and I like this the most.”
Aernouts pleased with progress
And while Nys may retain the title of the world’s best all-around racer, he has been challenged by the rise of more than one new star. Pauwels, who faltered today, may be the most prominent, but Aernouts is one of several riders who are clearly the midst of their best ever seasons.
The 29-year-old Belgian said he feels like he is entering the prime of his career.
“I’m getting stronger and stronger,” said Aernouts, “and I’m nearly 30 now, and they say you’re at your strongest then. For me this season has been really good, good results on the podium, I hope to get one step higher one day in a big race. But I’m still enjoying every podium I can make.”
While Aernouts was making strides near the front, Jonathan Page (Planet Bike), who has been mired in perhaps the worst slump of his career, was finally showing signs of life as well. The American finished 19th, and said he was starting to feel good for the first time in months.
“That was a very difficult race,” he said. “Maybe you can recover for two pedal strokes, but then you’re full gas again, and you’re holding on for dear life on the descents, just hoping you don’t make a mistake. It wasn’t my best day, but I’m definitely moving forward. The legs are coming around, I’ve put together two hard days in a row now, so I’m happy.”
Page, whose season has been marred by a combination of bad luck at critical moments and disruptive illness, said he’s hopeful that solid races this weekend will mark the beginning of a turnaround.
“My only hope is that I can make a transition now, because I haven’t been doing well at all now,” said Page. “My hope is that I’ll put in one more good week of training (before the busy holiday racing season) and that I didn’t screw up the rest of my season already. Unfortunately I don’t have that much confidence, but I know that I’ve done it in the past and I think I can continue.”
Page will have his chance next weekend, with the fourth round of the GVA Trofee series in Essen on Saturday and a World Cup race on the steep hills below the Citadel of Namur on Sunday.
Online editor at large Patrick O’Grady contributed to this report.
- 1. Sven Nys (Bel), 59:49
- 2. Bart Aernouts (Bel), 0:11
- 3. Klaas Vantornout (Bel), 0:38
- 4. Tom Meeusen (Bel), 0:55
- 5. Kevin Pauwels (Bel), 1:22