Niels Albert wins epic battle with Zdenek Stybar at Azencross
LOENHOUT, Belgium (VN) — Niels Albert (BKCP-Powerplus) won the Bpost Bank Trofee round in Loenhout after a thriller of a battle with Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
The Azencross boiled down to the final meters of the final lap. Albert and Stybar were off the front with a comfortable advantage over Sunweb-Revor teammates Kevin Pauwels and Klaas Vantornout, neither man able to claim a clear edge over the other.
Stybar laid down a surge with two laps to go that distanced the world champion, but Albert bounced back to attack the fading Czech as they rode across the flyover, building a five-second lead going into the finishing stretch — and that was enough to give him his third consecutive victory here, which he celebrated with a roar and a punch at the air.
Stybar coasted in for second at 16 seconds, while Pauwels rounded out the podium in third at 56 seconds.
“It feels good,” Albert said. “That’s why the victory yell on the finish line was necessary. I’m glad to win again. In Namur Kevin [Pauwels] was the strongest, in Zolder Sven [Nys] was the strongest, and I’m always second, second, second. And in a big race like Loenhout it’s really nice.”
Nys, meanwhile, had a terrible day in Loenhout. The Landbouwkrediet-Euphony rider crashed at least twice on the heavy course and at one point left it entirely to confront a spectator who threw a beer at him.
A muddy mess
The tough, muddy course began claiming victims early. A first-lap crash by Julien Taramarcaz (BMC Racing) left Pauwels caught in traffic. Shortly thereafter Nys spun out and hit the deck hard, and at the end of the first go-round Stybar was at the head of a huge lead group while Nys followed in a chase already nearly 30 seconds down.
Next time across the line Albert was on point, followed by Vantornout and Stybar. Nys was still a half-minute down, and shortly he would be even further behind after tumbling over the course fencing and face-planting in the muck.
With three laps remaining the lead group remained intact, but Pauwels was closing in, just 10 seconds down. Vantornout was first to crack, dropping back to his teammate.
Stybar surges, Albert answers
Then, with two laps remaining, Stybar punched it, taking first a few bike lengths, then a handful of seconds. Leaving the pit he had a seven-second advantage over Albert and that looked as though it might be the end for the world champ — another in a long string of runner-up finishes.
But Albert fought his way back up to the Czech on bell lap, then powered past him on the flyover and sailed home to his third straight win at the Azencross.
Stybar was content with his performance, saying that he was enjoying his return to ‘cross and hoped it would prove good training for the classics.
“Today you can see that I don’t have the acceleration in the last lap — I can’t just ride away or keep a really high pace for five minutes. I can keep going another half hour like we did the whole race, but I can’t just speed up,” Stybar said.
“It’s really good for the road preparation, too. I’m not doing it just for training here, I’m really going for it, but I have had three or four weeks of long-distance training and now this is like some intervals.”
Nys berates a beer-tosser
Behind, Nys — already done for, both on the day and the overall — took a moment to face off with a spectator who had thrown a beer at him.
“I had planned that,” said Nys, who explained that he had been doused with beer each lap, likely by the same person.
“I asked him, ‘Why? Does this make sense?’ He apologized. After the seventh time I was tired of it.”
With three races remaining Albert leads the Bpost Bank Trofee series in 4:49:31, with Pauwels second at 5:18 and Vantornout third at 6:06.
Editor’s note: Dan Seaton contributed to this report.