Niels Albert: no switch to the road, for now

In part 2 of Jason Sumner's interview with world cyclocross champion Niels Albert, the Belgian superstar talks about the burden of wearing the rainbow jersey and his future — on the road and the dirt.

World Champ Niels Albert Q&A, part 1
By Jason Sumner

If his own predictions hold true, then the end of January will also mark the end of Niels Albert’s rainbow jersey reign. The current world cyclocross champion cracked a rib at the Belgian national championships, and subsequently said the odds of a repeat at the Jan. 31 world’s in Tabor, Czech Republic, were long.

But while the immediate prospects of Belgium’s latest cyclocross super-savant seem bleak, his future is clearly bright. Only 23, Albert has already ascended the highest heights of his sport, winning the 2009 world title, plus a healthy handful of World Cup and Superprestige races.

So what’s next for someone so young who’s already achieved so much? A future in road racing seems the logical next step. But, unlike 2008 world ’cross champ Lars Boom, who made the jump to the ProTour immediately after his rainbow stripes season, Albert says he’s content to stay put — for now.

“I sometimes think about (switching disciplines) when things like my arm getting pulled happens,” said Albert, referencing the now infamous fan altercation at the Jan. 10 Belgian championships, when he was pulled off his bike and cracked a rib in the process. “But I like cyclocross and don’t want to leave right now. Sure, I know the road is bigger, but I can wait for now. Maybe when I am 26 or 27 that will change, but not yet.”

Indeed, Albert is content with his big-fish-small-pond status. Cyclocross is king in tiny Belgium, and he is one among a small cadre of riders (most of them Belgian) who stand at the start line with a legitimate chance at victory. In fact, winning has often come easy for Albert, who showed up at his one-on-one interview with VeloNews sporting an oversized belt buckle emblazoned with word “Superstar.”

“I first started racing BMX when I was 12 and three times was Belgian champion,” he said. “But people say to me that there is no big future in BMX and that I should try cyclocross. So three weeks before national championship that year, I train for three weeks and then I come third. So then the Belgian junior coach talks to me and then takes me for training. I liked it a lot.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Albert quickly became a force on the junior and then U23 circuits, winning four Belgian national titles, three European crowns, and two world championships, including top prize in the 2008 under-23 race. But his crowning achievement, which earned him the nickname Prince Albert, came at the 2009 world championship’s in Hoogerheide, Holland.

“I was standing on the start and thinking maybe I can win if I get a gap because other Belgian riders would have to sit back because I am a Belgian at the front,” explained Albert of the pre-determined national team strategy put in place to assure the rainbow stripes returned to the land of beer and frites.

“It was good timing for me,” Albert continued. “At the beginning of the second lap, (fellow Belgian) Sven (Nys) was leading and I was second. Then there were a few riders before Boom and (Czech superstar Zdenek) Stybar. I know they must come from the fifth or sixth position, so when I attack I have 10 seconds as a gift, and they don’t see me again.”

Actually they did see him again — standing on the top step of the podium, a winner’s medal swinging from his neck.

“It was a perfect day,” said Albert. “Maybe it was different if we ride differently, but the evening before there was a meeting. The coaches say all Belgians can do their thing but we don’t ride behind the others. So when I leave Sven don’t ride and when Sven leave I don’t ride. That was the agreement.”

A year later, don’t expect a repeat scenario. Belgium will send a seven-rider elite men’s team to Tabor. When the whistle blows it will be every man for himself. “We all want to win,” said Albert. “Sven will not leave a gap for me this year.”

But no matter how team strategy plays out, you get the feeling Albert won’t be completely crushed if he has to relinquish his crown.

“There is a lot of pressure being a Belgian in the world championship jersey,” said Albert, whose world’s win was No. 25 for Belgium in the 55 years the title has been contested, and 10th in the last 12 years. “When you are the champion you must go here and go there and do this. It is very busy, much more than when you are not champion. At the end of the season, now I feel it. All summer long there was interviews and stress and pressure. I know what it is now, and I’m happy that I know what it is. But if I don’t win again then at least my year is more normal and I can go to the championships (in 2011) with better preparation and maybe win again.”