Analysis: Belgians point to themselves, three others for worlds podium
LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (VN) — The seven elite men of the Belgian National Team found their preparation upended Friday morning when race organizers in Louisville made the remarkable announcement that the UCI Elite Cyclocross World Championships would be consolidated into a single day of racing in anticipation of heavy flooding on Sunday.
Though the schedule change affects each race delegation’s training and medal hopes equally, the Belgians, heavy favorites in the race now scheduled for Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET, may have felt the effects as acutely as any of the 19 delegations on the start list — save, perhaps, for the host country’s American contingent.
“(Racing on Saturday) is not so easy, because I trained really hard yesterday,” said Sven Nys, perhaps the rider feeling the most pressure to produce a big result tomorrow. “We have one day less recovery now, so we’ll see what happens. We’ll see what happens with the weather tomorrow, but it’s one day that we don’t have to be nervous anymore, so there’s also something positive.”
Nys’ Belgian teammates echoed his sentiments, saying the change of schedule was an annoyance, but not really a source of concern.
“It’s no problem; I raced last week on Saturday, and with a week between two races, it’s no problem,” said the defending world champion, Niels Albert. “It’s a little bit different, because normally two days before the race I would usually not do very much, maybe an hour or an hour and a half. But I did yesterday some training — not very hard, but a little bit — and normally it would have been my rest day.”
Albert, in fact, said despite the hiccups in his training plan caused by the last minute change, he felt good about his chances in Saturday’s marquee event.
“I’m very relaxed at the moment. It’s a nice course, a little bit muddy, a little bit heavy and has some sand. I think the best rider in the best shape will win this race, so hopefully that’s me. But maybe it could be Sven or Kevin, so we will see.”
And, indeed, those three — Nys, Albert, and Kevin Pauwels — all are top favorites for spots on the podium. For Pauwels, who has never worn a major championship jersey at the elite level, a win in the United States would be a major boost. For Albert, it would be a feather in a cap that already sports two world championships and a Belgian title.
For Nys, however, a perennial Belgian champion who has won at worlds only once, the quest for a second rainbow jersey has taken on almost Melvillean proportions. After years of near misses, Nys declared his worlds aspirations finished after a hugely disappointing seventh place finish in Koksijde, Belgium, last year. But, recognizing his role as elder statesman for the sport, he reconsidered and will be among those in the first row on the starting line tomorrow. Nonetheless, he deflected the suggestion that the expectations of his massive Belgian fan base had become burdensome.
“I don’t feel any extra pressure,” Nys told VeloNews. “For me, my career is complete; I’m really happy with everything I have won. Of course, one jersey more is really nice to have, but it’s not making me nervous.”
And, he was quick to add, he was pleased to have made the trip to the United States, regardless of the outcome of the race, acknowledging that the event was an important step in building the global appeal of what has long been considered a fringe sport outside of Belgium.
“I’m glad,” he said, “because I had a fantastic week over here. All the people are really excited. I went to the basketball, and I saw how they live here, that they know who I am. It’s really nice to be here. The first guy who wins the world championships in the U.S., that’s also really special. And to be able to promote my sport over here is good.”
But while Nys and Albert, alongside Pauwels, are the clear favorites, it is another man, Klaas Vantornout, who comes to the race as Belgian national champion. While the trio of favorites basked in media attention at a team press conference Friday morning, the tall, lanky Vantornout sat quietly at a table by himself, checking messages on his phone. But Vantornout told VeloNews that he was happy to come into the race a bit under the radar — and removed from the pressure of media scrutiny.
“The season was already very good for me,” he said. “I have a nice jersey with three colors [the Belgian champion’s jersey is referred to as the driekleur, or three color, for it’s iconic red, yellow, and black color scheme]. I’m very relaxed for tomorrow, and maybe that’s my advantage. I feel good. It’s a course that I like, with a little bit of mud. I like it more than the Belgian championships course, I can place high.”
His Belgian teammate, Bart Wellens, back at a championship race after a major health scare nearly ended his career a year ago, meanwhile, said he was just happy to be a part of the race at all.
“I’ve been dreaming about winning, but dreams and the truth are a big difference,” Wellens said on Friday morning. “We will see in the first few laps, and if it is ok, then I go first for a good result. And if I have a good result and I am in the front of the race and I can help someone — Sven, Kevin, Niels, or Klaas — then we will see in the race. If I can say after the race that I helped someone be a world champion and my result is good, then that’s fine.”
Wellens was among a handful of Europeans who scouted the race venue ahead of the championships, making a stop in Louisville during a visit to the United States in 2011. Wellens, who had cautioned then that the race promoters had their work cut out for them in putting on a world-class event, said all of his expectations had been met.
“The track is beautiful for sure,” he said. “You just have two minus points: first, the stairs are so steep, so I think the girls like [Telenet-Fidea trade teammates] Pavla [Havlikova] and Amy [Dombroski] can barely go up them, and second, the pits aren’t in the middle of the track. But the field is nice, the section in the woods is technical and hard, you have a running part, the sand is hard. It’s a real Belgian cycling track, for sure.”
So, who does such a Belgian track favor?
Most of the Belgians named each other as the biggest threats. Nys, picked Albert. Vantornout pointed to Albert, Pauwels, and Nys. Albert pointed back at Nys, Vantornout, and Pauwels.
But Albert had three other wildcards, all non-Belgian: French champion Francis Mourey, Dutch champion Lars van der Haar, and American Jeremy Powers. But the defending champion added he didn’t worry much about the threats for podium places or top five finishes.
“When I stand on the highest level,” he joked, “it doesn’t matter who is on the other two steps.”