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By Rob Jones, VeloNews.com
Belgians narrowly averted what could have been viewed as a national tragedy at this year’s Cyclo-cross World Championships as defending champion Erwin Vervecken came from behind to win the elite men’s race on Sunday.
In an event often swept by the Belgian squad, Vervecken was the only one of his countrymen who managed to step onto the podium in front of a huge home crowd in Hooglede-Gits, Belgium, as the efforts of pre-race favorites Sven Nys and Bart Wellens were hampered by crashes and a series of difficulties throughout.
Remarkably, one rider who encountered little trouble on Sunday was American Jonathan Page, who finished in second place, just behind the day’s winner and a few lengths ahead of Italian Enrico Franzoi. Page’s silver is the first medal ever won by an American rider in the elite men’s division at cyclo-cross world’s and the third silver medal of the weekend for the U.S.
Under the same overcast and windy conditions faced by the women in the morning, 66 men charged off the line at 2:30 p.m. in front of a crowd estimated by officials to be nearly 40,000, most of whom paid 20 euros or more to attend.
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Dutch rider Gerben de Knegt got the hole shot as riders charged off the asphalt onto the dirt track, closely followed by Vervecken and Wellens. Just behind was a group containing Richard Groenendaal (Netherlands) and Page. Nys, widely considered the favorite, got off to a slightly slower start, but quickly moved up, so that by lap two the three Belgians – Vervecken, Wellens and Nys – had opened a gap on the chasers.
Local joy didn’t last long, though, as all three Belgians crashed. Nys and Wellens went down when they hit a barricade that had been pushed out by the surging crowd. Wellens appeared to be favoring his right wrist afterward, and collapsed after the finish of the race, holding his arm.
Vervecken and Nys chased back up to the group trying to reel in Groenendaal, but then crashed yet again, with Vervecken taking down Nys. Both seemed to be more shaken after this spill, and found themselves back in 10th and 12th places when they got going. Nys didn’t recover from this second mishap, crashed again and eventually finished 11th.
Vervecken said Sunday turned out to be one of the most unusual of his career.
“Normally the world championship is a technical race, and most of the time the top riders are at the front after three or four laps, but here it was three unexpected riders,” he noted.
“Nys and Wellens were both fast for the first two laps, but then they fell. I fell also in the fourth lap, I think. I dropped to 10th and didn’t think that I could catch up.
“All the falls had nothing to do with equipment choice, it was just bad luck. Everyone expected two, maybe three Belgians on the podium; it was just bad luck. But this was not a tactical race; it was a very, very hard circuit, so it became a man-to-man battle.”
Vervecken set off in pursuit of the leaders with a deficit of 15 seconds, while Nys hovered further back at 25. Groenendaal attacked after the Belgian crash, and opened up a five-second gap on Page and Franzoi. The Italian and American worked steadily together, and passed Groenendaal on the fifth lap when he, too, crashed.
By the halfway mark, the Belgian crowd was witness to one of the most unusual developments in a top-level international ‘cross race: There were no Belgian or Dutch riders at the front. Even the race announcer seemed to be in shock.
“The race is being led by an American and an Italian!” he exclaimed.
And in Belgium of all places.
A lap later Page dropped Franzoi, opening a gap that stayed between seven and 10 seconds. He was riding smoothly and strongly, but Vervecken was gaining momentum, pushed along by the swelling fervor of the home crowd.
Vervecken caught and dropped Franzoi just as the Italian hit the deck on one of the toughest parts of the course, a sandy stretch that proved decisive all weekend. Soon the Belgian pulled up level with Page and Vervecken immediately put an effort in to drop the American. But Page fought to hold on.
Indeed, as the pair approached the first of two artificial run-ups, Page tried a strong attack, charging up the stairs. Vervecken responded quickly, however, and kept the American’s wheel.
With less than a lap to go, it appeared that the race would come down to a sprint finish, but Page then slipped out slightly on a corner. The American didn’t go down, but he lost a precious second or two and Vervecken sailed home to the finish, with Page rolling across less than three seconds later.
Recovered from his own crash, Franzoi fought valiantly to hold on to the third step of the podium, finishing 16 seconds behind the winner and nine seconds ahead of a hard-charging Wellens.
While Vervecken appeared relieved to have held on to the jersey, Page was overwhelmed by his own performance.
“I’m really happy coming back from my (shoulder) injury earlier in the season.” Page said. “What was left of this season was all building up to this one day, so to win this medal is a dream come true. It is great for our country (to win a three silver medals); great for cyclo-cross in America. I hope that it continues.”
Olympic mountain bike silver medalist Jose Hermida (Spain) finished 17th in his first world-level cyclo-cross race, and said that he would be doing more cyclo-cross in the future.”It was good; these guys are very fast. I have a lot to learn, but it will be good winter training and I hope to race more in the future.” Vervecken was asked about the Belgian team riding against one another, and not in support of their compatriots.”It is true that we don’t ride as a group,” he conceded. “That is because my biggest opponent is (Sven) Nys. But, I must say that we did not ride against each other, just for ourselves.”
2007 World Cyclo-cross Championships – elite men
1. Erwin Vervecken (Belgium) 1:05.35.5
2. Jonathan Page (USA), at 0:02.7
3. Enrico Franzoi (I), at 0:16.7
4. Bart Wellens (B), at 0:25.4
5. Kevin Pauwels (B), at 0:31.2
6. Richard Groenendaal (Ned), at 0:34.3
7. Gerben De Knegt (Ned), at 1:12.4
8 .John Gadret (F), at 1:26.2
9 .Christian Heule (Swi), at 1:35.4
10. Thijs Al (Ned), at 1:40.7
2007 World Cyclo-cross Championships – Elite men
1. Erwin Vervecken (Belgium) 1:05.35.5
2. Jonathan Page (USA), at 0:02.7
3. Enrico Franzoi (Italy), at 0:16.7
4. Bart Wellens (Belgium), at 0:25.4
5. Kevin Pauwels (Belgium), at 0:31.2
6. Richard Groenendaal (Netherlands), at 0:34.3
7. Gerben De Knegt (Netherlands), at 1:12.4
8 .John Gadret (France), at 1:26.2
9 .Christian Heule (Switzerland), at 1:35.4
10. Thijs Al (Netherlands), at 1:40.7
11. Sven Nys (Belgium), at 2:04.0
12. Sven Vanthourenhout (Belgium), at 2:22.5
13. Marco Aurel Fontana (Italy), at 2:46.8
14. Maarten Nijland (Netherlands), at 2:57.7
15. Klaas Vantornout (Belgium), at 2:57.8
16. David Derepas (France), at 3:02.6
17. José Antoni Hermida Ramos (Spain), at 3:04.7
18. Lukas Flückiger (Switzerland), at 3:25.4
19. Arnaud Labbe (France), at 3:27.0
20. Marek Cichosz (Poland), at 3:31.9
21. Simon Zahner (Switzerland), at 3:43.6
22. Maros Kovac (Slovakia), at 3:54.9
23. Ryan Trebon (USA), at 3:59.2
24. Petr Dlask (Czech Republic), at 4:05.8
25. Bart Aernouts (Belgium), at 4:22.0
26. Alessandro Fontana (Italy), at 4:34.7
27. Robert Glajza (Slovakia), at 4:46.6
28. René Birkenfeld (Germany), at 4:56.3
29. Steve Chainel (France), at 5:42.3
30. Milan Barenyi (Slovakia), at 5:49.7
31. Davide Frattini (Italy), at 6:01.9
32. Joachim Parbo (Denmark), at 6:16.2
33. Unai Yus Kerejeta (Spain), at 6:33.2
34. Phillip Dixon (Great Britan), at 6:39.8
35. Keiichi Tsujiura (Japan), at 6:47.2
36. Marco Bianco (Italy), at 6:51.8
37. Robert Jebb (Great Britan), at 7:17.7
38. Gusty Bausch (Luxembourg), at 7:29.0
39. Kashi Leuchs (New Zeland), at 7:34.0
40. Wilant Van Gils (Netherlands), at 7:41.7
41. Fernande Suarez (Spain), at 7:58.3
42. Fredrik Ericsson (Sweden), at 8:16.2
43. Eric Tonkin (USA), at 8:25.0
44. Vaclav Metlicka (Slovakia), at 8:36.9
45. Mariusz Gil (Poland), at 9:06.7
46. Dariusz Gil (Poland), at 1 lap
47. Andrzej Kaiser (Poland), at 1 lap
48. Greg Reain (Canada), at 1 lap
49. Oscar Vazquez Crespo (Spain), at 1 lap
50. Peter Presslauer (Austria), at 1 lap
51. Masanori Kosaka (Japan), at 1 lap
52. Mike Garrigan (Canada), at 1 lap
53. Atsushi Maruyama (Japan), at 1 lap
54. Barry Wicks (USA), at 1 lap
55. Jan Chrobak (Czech Republic), at 1 lap
56. Thorsten Struch (Germany), at 1 lap
57. Tristan Schouten (USA), at 1 lap
DNF Davy Commeyne (Belgium)
DNF Kamil Ausbuher (Czech Republic)
DNF Radomir Simunek (Czech Republic)
DNF Camiel Van Den Bergh (Netherlands)
DNF Malte Urban (Germany)
DNF Masahiko Mifune (Japan)
DNF Mohamed Conway (Zimbabwe)
DNF Tshabalala Nqobizitha (Zimbabwe)
DNS Francis Mourey (France)