ZONHOVEN, Belgium (VN) — Sven Nys (Landbouwkrediet) won a phenomenal battle with world champion Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) on Sunday in the sand pits of Zonhoven.
The two men were alone for the last two laps of the Superprestige stop, far and away the strongest of the bunch, neither able to shake the other on what proved to be a very fast course after a chilly rain. The deep sand put paid to many a man’s race on Sunday, among them Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Revor) and Tom Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea), both of whom crashed spectacularly on the deep drop into the pit.
Going into the bell lap Nys let Albert take the front, then attacked him going into a narrow, technical sandy section as Bart Aernouts (AA Drink) closed in on the leaders.
Then Albert repaid Nys by countering into a tough U-turn full of deep sand, taking the inside line and briefly setting the Belgian champ afoot, and from there the two battled hammer and tongs, banging bars, running and riding, through a final narrow sandy strip where there was only one rideable line that Albert couldn’t navigate as the two fought for position.
Albert emerged with the advantage, but Nys clung grimly to his wheel, then launched one last powerful attack that saw him shoot past the rainbow jersey on the last few meters of dirt to lead onto the finishing straight and take the win.
Albert hung on for second with Aernouts third.
“This was exciting. With the Koppenberg and Zonhoven I have won two beautiful races in one week,” said Nys. “I had a good feeling today, maybe a little less than Thursday, but I still felt like I could control the race.
“I was totally surprised when Niels passed me in the loose sand [near the end of the race], but I was able to respond quickly; I wanted to just drop him. That didn’t quite work, but fortunately Niels got a little bit stuck and lost his balance, so in the final hundred meters I had just enough to spare to make it decisive.”
For his part, Albert was sanguine in defeat.
“I’m not frustrated. It’s not for nothing that Sven has been on top for so long. On the Koppenberg he was clearly accelerating better, but here we were closer together. It’s unfortunate that the scales tilted his way, but [it’s just luck].
“I knew it would be important to have the lead on the last slope, but Sven showed his resilience by hitting back. There was a bit of contact in the last lap, but everything was legal. If that much wasn’t allowed we should just play badminton.”
Vantornout takes charge early
Klaas Vantornout (Sunweb) took the early lead on Sunday, dogged by Albert, Meeusen (Telenet-Fidea) and Lars Van der Haar (Rabobank-Giant). Pauwels and Nys were biding their time in the top 10 as they dove into and ran out of the sand pit for the first time.
Vantornout opened the throttle and Van der Haar gave chase. The two led across the start-finish pursued by Meeusen and Albert, followed by a second group containing Nys and Pauwekls.
Going into lap two Vantornout had three seconds on Van der Haar and a few more over the Albert chase. But Van der Haar was on him and the two struggled up the steep, sandy run out of the pit with seven seconds over a four-man chase — Albert, Meeusen, Radomir Simunek (BKCP) and Pauwels.
Nys was behind that chase, riding solo. The Belgian champ then began moving forward, with Peeters and Aernouts in tow.
Ahead, Van der Haar bobbled in the deep-sand U-turn, losing Vantornout’s wheel, and the Sunweb rider wasn’t waiting. He accelerated and Albert took over the pursuit with Van der Haar on his wheel.
Going into lap three Vantornout was still off the front, but Albert was reeling him in, forging a lead group that included Van der Haar, Pauwels and Meeusen.
Nys pitted, then launched a pursuit that paid off in the sand pit. Aernouts was with him, and a seven-man group emerged from the gully. Shortly afterward Peeters hooked up, too.
Albert assumes the lead
Finally Albert took charge of what had become a 10-man group, and on the narrow stretch with only the one rideable line Vantornout got away. Behind them, Meeusen lost the line and came off the bike, moving aside in the sand to give those behind him a chance to chase.
As the lap ended there were three twosomes in contention — Albert led Vantornout, Pauwels led Van der Haar, and Nys led Peeters.
Albert railed it going into lap four, distancing Vantornout., who seemed to be paying the price for his early efforts and was already five seconds back going into the pit. His teammate Pauwels was closing on him, followed by Nys, Van der Haar and Aernouts. Meeusen, meanwhile, crashed heavily in the pit and was slow to get back up.
The rainbow jersey continued to set a furious pace, chased now by Pauwels, with Nys third and closing. Van der Haar led a four-man chase with Aernouts. As Nys and Pauwels moved up on Albert Pauwels bobbled on the same bit that claimed Meeusen earlier and put both men afoot in the sand, giving Albert a few valuable seconds.
Six laps to go: Albert led by eight seconds over a Nys-Pauwels pursuit. The Belgian champ faked a detour into the pit, then punched it, but Pauwels hung onto his wheel.
Pauwels goes head over heels
But not for long. The Sunweb rider crashed in the sand pit, flying headlong over the bars and leaving Nys alone in second place, seven seconds behind Albert. A dazed Pauwels wrenched his bars back into place and slowly resumed the race.
Alone off the front, Albert seemed to sit up for a moment to catch his breath. Then he realized that it was Nys closing in on him and quickly got back to business.
The Belgian champ was just three seconds back as the two hit the pavement, and with five laps to go it was a two-man race.
Nys gave it the gas and led down into the sand pit, but Albert stuck with him, both going in and coming out. Behind, Van der Haar and Peeters were fighting to get back into contention.
Nys opened a little gap, perhaps three seconds, but couldn’t hold it. After leading through the narrow stretch, he let Albert take the front and the world champ led onto the pavement.
With four laps to go Van der Haar was showing his strength, chasing solo at 18 seconds. Peeters and Aernouts followed with Pauwels a half-minute down.
Albert continued to lead early in the lap, diving into the pit ahead of a slightly wobbly Nys. But the two were together again coming out.
Going past the pits Van der Haar was perhaps seven seconds behind, closing on the leaders and looking strong.
And then he caught the leaders — and Nys took the front after 43 minutes of racing with three laps remaining.
Nys busts a move
Nys tried a slick move on the first climb out of the sand pit, nearly riding a stretch that the others had to run (he had to plant one foot at the top). But Albert latched back on during the long sandy run-up, and Van der Haar did likewise.
But Nys wasn’t done. He gassed it again and opened some daylight. Albert in turn got some advantage over Van der Haar, and a resurgent Pauwels was challenging for third with Aernouts for company
With two laps to go Albert was chasing in earnest as Nys just plugged along in front. Behind, Pauwels led Van der Haar and Aernouts.
Albert finally latched back onto Nys’ wheel coming off the long, sandy run. But Nys took advantage once more in the sandy U-turn, forcing the world champ to claw his way back up once again.
Then Nys glanced around, sat up, and once again gave first position back to Albert.
Bell lap. Aernouts rode alone in third at 16 seconds, with Pauwels fourth at 20 and Van der Haar fifth at 24 seconds down.
Albert led past the first pit, and on their final plummet into the gully he stayed out front in case Nys had any plans about repeating his attempt to ride out. Down they went again and the two stayed locked together on the long, sandy run-up.
Quarter was neither asked nor given as the two men battled their way to the line until Nys launched that final powerful assault over the grass and onto the tarmac. Then Albert finally surrendered, looking over one shoulder to see whether anyone would challenge him for second.
Nys now leads the Superprestige series with 30 points. Albert sits second overall with 28 while Pauwels — who battled back from his crash to finish fourth on Sunday — is third overall with 25.
The next round of the series will be November 11 at Hamme-Zogge.
American Jonathan Page, who finished 24th, found the race “a little ridiculous.”
“If you’re not in the first or second row, you need some serious luck to get close to the front. The accordion effect of the sand is tough; if you’re in the back you’re 300 meters behind before the race even starts,” he told VeloNews.
“I got hung up on every corner at the start. Fortunately I didn’t crash, but there were a few occasions when people were across my line and I just had to get around them. So I was walking through corners. On the other hand, I switched mentally, and switched to thinking about training and going consistently hard. I just tried to ride steady and powerful in the sections where I could.
“But I’m really looking forward to when I have a chance to ride from the gun to the finish. Today, even though I was way behind, I was actually feeling fairly good, so I hope the good races are coming soon.
Editor’s note: Dan Seaton contributed to this report.