KOKSIJDE, Belgium (VN) — Here’s the punchline: Niels Albert is now a two-time world champion. His Belgian countryman, Rob Peeters, with a silver medal, is about to become a superstar.
But if you really want to appreciate what happened in the dunes here today, perhaps it is helpful to highlight a few key statistics:
- *61,000 spectators turned out to watch a cyclocross race, crowding the course so deep that race officials completely closed the course and all course crossings one lap after the start of the men’s race. The number of spectators here quintupled the regular population of Koksijde.
- *The host country did the unprecedented by sweeping not just the podium, but the first seven places in the race. Only Czech Radomir Simunek, more than a minute behind Belgium’s last finisher, Sven Nys, managed to come anywhere close to breaking the Belgian block.
- *Winner Niels Albert screamed through the course so fast that all but 24 men, including US national champion Jeremy Powers, former worlds podium finishers Enrico Franzoi and Petr Dlask and a host of other national champions — were pulled from the race.
Almost from the first moment of the race it was clear that the day would belong to the Belgians, and, in particular, to Niels Albert. Though perennial speedster Steve Chainel had the lead at the end of the long, straight paved starting section, Albert immediately came to the front and, by the end of the lap was riding away from defending champion Zdenek Stybar, the only rider who even briefly managed to hold his wheel.
For the rest of the race, the battle, if there was one at all, was for second place as Albert coolly and methodically pulled away from the chase. Only for a few moments, near the end of the second lap, did anyone threaten to unravel Albert’s perfect day: fellow Belgian Kevin Pauwels surged out of the chase and made his way to within perhaps five seconds of Albert’s wheel. But Albert was simply faster in the sand, and Pauwels, though he remained always in contention for the podium, faded back into the chase group.
After that point, Albert was unstoppable.
“For me Sven was the big favorite,” he told VeloNews.com later, “because he can usually ride really well in the sand. But I had a really good start and went out first in the sand, so I knew the legs were good. Then I had a gap of five, six, seven seconds and I knew it was going to be hard for everybody else. Every lap I would come to the finish line and see on the board 6:20, and every tour it was the same — 6:20, 6:23, 6:20 — and I knew when I was riding those laps at that speed, nobody could close the gap.”
Indeed, the gap only opened. By the end of the race, Albert had plenty of time to relax, bask in the moment, and still roll across the line nearly 30 seconds ahead of his nearest pursuer.
With Albert’s win looking more and more secure each lap, and Pauwels fading into a chase group that was more or less the entire Belgian team, the race for silver was suddenly wide open. And it was Rob Peeters, hardly considered a heavy hitter by prognosticators in the days before the race, who took advantage. Peeters surged just before the first big bridge crossing of the final lap. By the second bridge crossing, he knew he was headed to the podium.
“When I came to the last bridge I started to feel like I might cry,” he said later. “By the time I got to the last corner, I really couldn’t hold it in anymore. For me this silver medal is as good as gold.”