To call it a sweep is something of an understatement. The Belgians were much more dominant than that.
Mario De Clercq led an all-Belgian field sprint to the finish line Sunday, scoring his third rainbow jersey in five years in front of wild and very partisan crowd in Zolder Belgium. The 35-year-old De Clercq cruised across the line ahead of fellow Belgians Tom Vannoppen and World Cup winner Sven Nijs. The trio managed to put aside the usual Belgian infighting to cooperate nearly all the way to the finish, crossing just ahead of a hard-charging Richard Groenendaal of the Netherlands.
Meanwhile, Tim Johnson equaled the best American finish in an elite men’s world championship, by taking 13th, heading up a U.S. performance that gave the squad fifth place in the final team standings. But individually and as a team, the day belonged to Belgium.
There were no echoes of past infighting – De Clercq’s attack of a teammate in 1999 or Nijs’s refusal to work in 2000 – as the entire six-man squad worked like magic from the gun on Sunday, leading from start, often keeping all six among the top-ten and repeatedly frustrating Groenendaal’s efforts to become anything but first loser.
The course itself even added to the Belgian effort, seemingly narrowing at just the right moment as Groenendaal struggled to work his way through heavy traffic after a bad start on the opening 200 meters on Zolder’s local motor speedway.
The Belgian ‘cross machine took full control from the start, with defending world champion Erwin Vervecken, Vannoppen, Nijs, De Clercq and Ben Berden even forming into what looked like a five-man team time trial effort at one point.
The symmetry of the Belgian effort cracked only once during the hour-long race after the squad manhandled Groenendaal out of the main group and sent Vanoppen off the front for a solo win. Visions of Belgian battles past flashed back as Vervecken charged off in pursuit of his teammate. De Clercq and Nijs chased down their errant partner as he reeled in Vannoppen. The four were back together in the lead and Vervecken eventually dropped out of the race due to mechanical problems.
“It was wrong for him to chase even when we all had such an advantage,” said De Clercq, seemingly forgetting his second world’s win when he committed the same sin against Vervecken in the final lap of world’s race in Poprad, Slovakia in 1999.
But the tension was a minor blemish in an otherwise perfect Belgian performance. With Groenendaal often bottled up behind Belgians Ben Berden and Bart Wellens, Vannoppen, De Clercq and Nijs cooperated almost seamlessly for the last half of the elite event. The performance sent the home crowd in frenzied celebration. Preliminary ticket-sale figures show there were nearly 50,000 in attendance Sunday.
It was only on the last lap that the three leaders seemed confident enough to start eyeing each other for the final sprint. Their confidence was a little misplaced. Just as the three slowly made their way into the nearly empty grounds of the Sacramentskirche (a fenced-off religious monument closed to spectators), Groenendaal charged in behind them.
The gap was around five seconds. The Dutchman had finally rid himself of all company and charged off in pursuit. The Belgians looked back, stepped up their pace and charged through the final sections of dirt before heading on to the paved section leading to the finish line. Nijs was the first to attack, but De Clercq quickly countered, gritted his teeth and held on through the final 200 meters to add to his world titles from 1998 and 1999.
Groenendaal crossed ten seconds later, just four seconds behind the third-placed Nijs, and the Dutchman, too, raised his arms in a victory salute.
“Oh, I did it for the cameras,” he later said. “I have been racing against the Belgians all season. I knew this race would come down to another fight between me and the whole Belgian team.”
And it did. Score three for the Belgians.
1. DE CLERCQ Mario (B), 27.432km in 1:1:11 (26.901kph)
2. VANNOPPEN Tom (B), 1:01:14 at 0:03
3. NIJS Sven (B), 1:01:17 at 0:06
4. GROENENDAAL Richard (NL), 1:01:21 at 0:10
5. DE KNEGT Gerben (NL), 1:01:25 at 0:14
6. ARNOULD Dominique (F), 1:01:32 at 0:21
7. DE VOS Wim (NL), 1:01:33 at 0:22
8. WELLENS Bart (B), 1:01:37 at 0:26
9. BERDEN Ben (B), 1:02:30 at 1:19
10. FRISCHKNECHT Thomas (SWI), 1:02:49 at 1:38
11. AUSBUHER Kamil (CZ), 1:03:08 at 1:57
12. HAMMOND Roger (GB), 1:03:14 at 2:03
13. JOHNSON Timothy (USA), 1:03:22 at 2:11
14. WABEL Beat (SWI), 1:03:45 at 2:34
15. BRAMATI Luca (I), 1:03:49 at 2:38
16. LABBE Arnaud (F), 1:03:52 at 2:41
17. NIJLAND Maarten (NL), 1:04:36 at 3:25
18. GLAJZA Robert (SVK), 1:04:36 at 3:25
19. GADRET John (F), 1:04:36 at 3:25
20. SCHWEDLER Jens (G), 1:04:36 at 3:25
21. PAGNIER David (F), 1:04:36 at 3:25
22. GULLICKSON Marc (USA), 1:04:36 at 3:25
23. WELLS Todd (USA), 1:04:36 at 3:25
24. JEZEK Vaclav (CZ), 1:04:49 at 3:38
25. HEULE Christian (SWI), 1:04:51 at 3:40
26. VANDELLI Valeriano (I), 1:05:10 at 3:59
27. DEREPAS David (F), 1:05:18 at 4:07
28. KORZENIEWSKI Tadeusz (P), 1:05:18 at 4:07
29. PRESSLAUER Peter (A), 1:05:18 at 4:07
30. RAMSAUER Jan (SWI), 1:05:26 at 4:15
31. SECO David (SP), 1:05:26 at 4:15
32. TICHY Radek (CZ), 1:05:28 at 4:17
33. TAVELLA Igor (I), 1:05:29 at 4:18
34. PAGE Jonathan (USA), 1:05:35 at 4:24
35. CZAPLA Radoslaw (P), 1:05:52 at 4:41
36. COLLINS David (GB), 1:05:55 at 4:44
37. PEROTTI Lorenzo (I), 1:06:17 at 5:06
38. PALUDETTI Marco (I), 1:06:17 at 5:06
39. MATTHEW Ellis (GB), 1:06:20 at 5:09
40. POSPISIL Jiri (CZ), 1:06:21 at 5:10
41. SAUREZ Isaac (SP), 1:06:27 at 5:16
42. NUÑEZ Israel (SP), 1:06:35 at 5:24
43. KNIGHT Stephen (GB), 1:06:40 at 5:29
44. TRIEBEL Pascal LUX 1:06:52 at 5:41
45. RUSCH David (SWI), 1:07:19 at 6:08
46. METLICKA Vaclav (SVK), 1:07:19 at 6:08
47. MIFUNE Masahiko (JPN), 1:08:25 at 7:14
48. WEARMOUTH Stuart (GB), -1 Lap
49. MEDVED Pavel (SVK), -1 Lap
50. FERNANDEZ Fernando (SP), -1 Lap
51. MULLER Maik (G), -1 Lap.
VERVECKEN Erwin (B),
VAN DEN BERGH Camiel (NL),
AYUSO Zugaitz (SP),
YUKIHIKO Fukaya (JPN),
YUKINAGA Kodaira (JPN),
OTTO Jozsef (H),
VINCZEFFY Zsolt (H),
DECORE Matthew (CAN)
PRIPA Ion (MDA),
LEGG Mark Robert (NZ),
KRASOV Kyrylo (UKR),
REUKER Jens (G),
WASMER Christian (G),